Off Limits doesn’t pop up often in survey’s of Hollywood’s string of Vietnam War films from the mid-to-late 1980’s. However, a survey of the film might reveal why: despite a few scenes on battlefields, this is not a film about the Vietnam War per se. Instead, it’s really a noir-ish cop story with serial killer movie and political thriller angles that uses its wartime setting as a novel backdrop. It merits mention on Schlockmania because it is also one of the sleaziest entries to emerge from this particular genre cycle.
The protagonists are McGriff (Willem Dafoe) and Albaby (Gregory Hines), a couple of U.S. military cops who work the plainclothes detail on the streets of wartime Saigon. Their work is a blur of seedy bars and punchups with soldiers and hostile locals until a murder case lands on their doorstep. It seems a local prostitute was shot by one of her johns and a shell casing on the scene identifies the killer as a military man.
The duo starts doing the appropriate detective work but the case isn’t an easy one for several reasons. The first is Lime Green (Kay Tong Lim), a Vietnamese army officer who works with U.S. military but doesn’t hesitate to make things difficult for the heroes. The second is the fact that the locals are reluctant to talk, with only French nun Nicole (Amanda Pays) willing to help the officers find leads. The final problem is the revelation that the killer is most likely a high-ranking officer, which makes the case both literally and politcally dangerous for the cops as well as their superior officer Dix (Fred Ward).
The end result is watchable but has some noticeable problems that jump out at the viewer pretty quickly. The first is that the evidence that kicks off the case requires the killer — who is revealed to have killed several prostitutes — being incredibly sloppy in covering his tracks. The second is that it’s pretty easy to guess who the killer is after the halfway mark as the script only tosses out a few red herrings to block this obvious revelation. It doesn’t help that a film that flirts so heavily with the dark side ends on a weirdly upbeat note, with all the plot threads quickly and neatly resolving themselves.
Another problem is uneven casting. Hines gives a spirited performance as Albaby, showing an impressive willingness to dig into the character’s non-P.C. attitudes, but Dafoe is a bit too eccentric in looks and acting style to play the somewhat generic leading man role he gets here. However, Pays is the most miscast here, looking way too model-pretty to be convincing as a nun and also using a totally unconvincing French accent. Ward fares better as the heroes’ boss and Scott Glenn also turns in a memorable role as a crazy, violent officer that the detectives have to investigate (his big scene, which happens aboard a helicopter, is one of the film’s highlights).
That said, Off Limits remains watchable despite these flaws. T.V. vet Christopher Crowe’s direction is slick and fast-paced: his television roots show when the all-too-neat ending arrives but the film is atmospheric overall and has a handful of effective setpieces: the best might be a tense moment where the heroes have to deal with an angry crowd when a sniper kills a suspect they are trying to arrest. The finished film may be inconsistent but it’s never dull.
However, the most fascinating aspect of Off Limits may be its all-pervasive atmosphere of sleaze. While it never leans too heavily on the sex or violence, it’s steeped in an overheated, sordid moodiness that suits its exploration of the dark side. Both heroes express ridiculously un-p.c. attitudes in their work — an introductory sequence has Hines threatening to rip the gonads off a suspect — and the film is full of eccentric touches like Glenn’s character being addicted to S&M with hookers and a scene where the heroes interrogate a group of soldiers with V.D. to weed out an unwilling witness. Even the nun heroine gets in on the act, insisting on accompanying the cops to a strip show so she can introduce them to a stripper/witness.
In short, Off Limits is middling as a film but remains a intriguing view for the schlock brigade because of its odd blend of genres and atmosphere of sleaze. It’s not quite a lost treasure but its compelling enough for at least one viewing.