Walking Dead, The

Paying tribute to the black combat soldier, The Walking Dead is an earnest, socially conscious pic that is not terribly effective as an actioner or personal drama. If it were not for its foul language and sexual humor, film would have suited nicely the size of the small screen, though without recognizable cast and the genre's more conventional pleasures, it's doubtful that the movie will leave stronger impact on video, its natural destination after a short theatrical life.

Made 20 years after the U.S. pulled its forces out of Vietnam, and almost a decade after the Vietnam movie genre reached its peak, The Walking Dead deserves some credit for its audacity in being so out of touch with current filmmaking trends. Yet, after numerous Vietnam war features, docus, and popular TV series, a film about Vietnam needs a stronger story and fresher point of view to justify its existence–and entice audiences to see it.

Alas, the only new thing about Whitmore's movie is that its chief protagonists are black, though it doesn't really explore their ethnic backgrounds or racial and class tensions, two issues that were more effectively handled in a film like Hamburger Hill.

Set in l972, tale centers on Sgt. Barkley (Joe Morton) and his fellow Marines as they are assigned their last mission, which involves evacuating all remaining survivors from a P.O.W. camp abandoned by the Viet Cong. Though it appears simple, the seasoned fighter knows there are no routine missions in a war like Vietnam.

Barkley has good reasons to be anxious, for only two Marines have combat experience: Pvt. Hoover Branche (Eddie Griffin), a 22 year old cynic who has survived two tours of duty, and Cpl. Pippins (Roger Floyd), a former criminal whose toughness and "ease" with killing borders dementia.

However, for the other soldiers, it's the first bloody journey: Pfc. Cole Evans (Allen Payne) is a devoted father, who enlisted to provide base housing for his wife and daughter, and Pfc. Joe Brooks (Vonte Sweet) is a naive youngster who joined the Marines to achieve manhood and secure a better future.

As soon as the chopper lands in the firing zone, the group realizes the perils of their mission, that surviving the jungles and getting home safely for Christmas calls for rugged individual skills as well as collective unity.

Writer-director Whitmore can't decide whether The Walking Dead is a suspenseful actioner, a la Platoon or Hamburger Hill, or a psychodrama, though he opts for the latter. Each of the five characters gets to disclose a "secret" and reflect on their lives before joining the Marines. Result is a muddled film with a structure punctuated by tedious flashbacks, interconnected by some not very authentic or thrilling shootouts. This narrative device–constant cutting between military and civilian life–is meant to build tension, but it accomplishes the opposite, dissipating whatever momentum developed.

Helmer lacks the technical savvy and visual style which are required for an exciting action movie–the combat sequences are poorly staged and roughly integrated into the story. But Whitmore coaxes decent performances from his talented cast, headed by Morton, as a former pastor, whose troubled past has made him a kind of surrogate father. Stand-out work comes from Griffin, as a foul-mouthed soldier, who initially resists any emotional attachment to his fellows, but at the end learns a lesson about the value of camaraderie.

Shot in Orlando and Chuluota, Florida, pic's physical locale is not particularly convincing and other tech credits are just average.