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.

Gordon's War / Off Limits [Double Feature]

Gordon’s War / Off Limits [Double Feature]

Gordon’s War: Gordon (Paul Winfield, The Terminator) spent four years in Vietnam as a Green Beret fight­ing some­one else’s bat­tle … now he’s come back home to fight his own. He returns to a Harlem that has changed — drugs and pros­ti­tu­tion have tak­en over his neigh­bor­hood, and his wife even over­dosed from drugs. Along with his for­mer army bud­dies, he takes on the Mob to wipe out the cor­rup­tion that has tak­en over the city. Also star­ring Carl Lee (Superfly), Tony King (Bucktown) and singer Grace Jones (A View To A Kill). Directed by Ossie Davis (Cotton Comes To Harlem).Off Limits: Being a cop is tough. But in war-torn Saigon in 1968, being a cop is crazy. Someone is bru­tal­ly mur­der­ing Vietnamese pros­ti­tutes with chil­dren by American fathers, and plain­clothes mil­i­tary cops Sgt. Buck McGriff (Willem Dafoe, Spider-Man) and Sgt. Albaby Perkins (Gregory Hines, The Cotton Club) are put on the case that no one wants solved. But things are nev­er what they seem in ’Nam, includ­ing a novice nun (Amanda Pays), a deranged colonel (Scott Glenn) and a twist­ed trail of clues that takes McGriff and Perkins from back alleys to bat­tle­fields in search of a seri­al killer who’s ready to make them the next vic­tims. Fred Ward, Keith David and David Alan Grier costar in this explo­sive action thriller.