Directed By Tom Jeffrey
Starring Graham Kennedy, John Jarratt, Bryan Brown, Graeme Blundell, John Hargreaves

“Welcome to Patrol Two Two. Specialists in arson, murder, and drinking.”
                        – Rogers (Bryan Brown)

Australia doesn’t make many war movies – hell, Australia doesn’t make many movies – but the ones we do make tend to leave a mark. Gallipoli and Breaker Morant are remembered as two of the best war films ever made, and even Kokoda, which took a fascinating piece of Australian martial history and reduced it to a fairly generic “lost patrol” scenario, made quite a splash upon its release. We don’t talk about Vietnam much, though; apart from television miniseries such as Sword Of Honour and Vietnam, it’s remained largely untouched as a film subject. There are films that use the war as character background or as a peripheral concern, but to this date the only noteworthy Australian feature that deals directly with the war is The Odd Angry Shot.
         
The film deals with the experiences of Australian SAS troopers in the late ’60s. It’s not an action movie by any stretch of the imagination; the title itself refers to the infrequency of guerrilla warfare. Sam Mendes’ Jarhead made a big hullaballoo about the tedium of modern warfare a few years ago, but The Odd Angry Shot makes the same point just as effectively, and without ramming it down the viewer’s throat. Much of the film is spent watching the characters kill time on base by drinking, gambling, brawling, and swapping stories. The scenes of actual combat are rare, jolting, and presented without undue histrionics. Tonally, the film has something in common with M.A.S.H., in that its chief concerns are texture and character rather than plot.
         
Tom  Jeffrey, who only directed two other features, is not a man whose name will last in the annals of film history, but he acquits himself well here, using a relaxed documentary style to capture the goings-on. He keeps the stylistic flourishes to a minimum, but when he does deploy them, it’s to excellent effect; the smash cut from a shot of a laughing Rogers (Bryan Brown) to a shot of the same character lying in the dirt with his face covered in blood is particularly effective.
         
Speaking of Brown, he’s certainly not the only familiar face to be found. It’s arguable whether it’s a strength or a weakness, but one of the traits of Australian cinema, particularly in the late ’70s and early ’80s, is that the same actors keep cropping up over and over again. The industry was – and is – too small, so the same talent pool gets dredged repeatedly. The Odd Angry Shot is a perfect example of this sort of thing; the film is packed with recognizable performers. John Jarratt is Bill, our nominal point of view character, and the rest of the core group is filled out by Brown, Graeme Blundell and Graham Kennedy, who received top billing. That’s an impressive enough ensemble right there, without even looking at the rest of the cast, which includes the likes of Ian Gilmour, Ray “Alf Stewart” Meagher, Frankie J. Holden and Max Cullen. Really, the only glaring omission is Bruce Spence.
         
Top acting honours go to Australian icon Kennedy as the philosophical former painter who is the only character cultured enough to comment on the political and social ramifications of the Australians’ presence in Vietnam. Kennedy is renowned as a light entertainer, but he brings a lot of subtlety and pathos to the role; his speech about his ex-wife is a standout.

The film is by no means perfect, and many of faults are a reflection of the period it was produced in. The bombastic score is distracting, and is reminiscent of Brian May’s work on Mad Max. The stereotyped portrayal of two black American G.I.s is  cringe-inducing, and some of the minor speaking roles are marred by stilted line deliveries – that small talent pool I  mentioned earlier often means that you have to take who you can get to fill the smaller parts. Despite these issues, it still works overall. It’s a funny, bawdy character comedy that captures the larrikinism and laconic humour that is such a big part of our national identity, without skimping on the tragedy and horror endemic to the war. The Australian experience in Vietnam is an ill-explored area of history and, if only for that reason, The Odd Angry Shot deserves a more elevated position in our film pantheon.

TRAVIS JOHNSON

First published 18/02/2011

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