Reviewed by Colin Jacobson
How things have changed! When Taps hit movie screens back in 1981, George C. Scott received top billing, but that occurred solely due to his star status. He actually played a supporting role in the film; he didnít even appear after the first act of the flick.
The movieís main character comes from its second-billed actor, Timothy Hutton. At the time, he was the only notable among the young performers. Hutton made a splash with 1980ís Best Picture winning Ordinary People. Hutton nabbed his own prize as Best Supporting Actor and seemed on his way to a bright career.
Hutton continues to work, but he never achieved great stardom. In fact, heís not appeared in a major release since 1999ís The Generalís Daughter, in which he played a small role. On the other hand, Taps boasted a couple of supporting actors who went on to a smidgen of success. As Huttonís second in command, we found Sean Penn, who earned fame a year later with Fast Times at Ridgemont High. In a smaller role, we got Tom Cruise, who hit the big time in 1983 with Risky Business.
No one knew the star game would work out as it has, though at least Hutton still has Oscar bragging rights over the other two. Both Cruise and Penn have earned a few nominations, but neither has been able to walk home with the trophy yet. I doubt either would trade their success for an award - especially considering Penn never bothers to show up for the ceremonies - but who knows?
Anyway, itís interesting to see this conglomeration of then-young talent all in one place. Taps examines the events at the Bunker Hill Military Academy, a prep school for middle and high school students. We encounter the crew at the end of a school year. Hutton plays Brian Moreland, a rising senior who gets the key position of Major and who will be the schoolís student leader. Brian will answer mainly to General Bache (Scott), the facilityís long-term chief.
All seems well in their world until they get some shocking news: real estate developers slate Bunker Hill for extinction. They want to use the property for condominiums and tell the folks theyíll need to split after the following term. This causes consternation but at least the students and leaders have a year to change this situation.
However, matters take a distinct turn for the worse during an end of the year ball. Some rude townies jeer the arriving cadets and matters turn violent when they start a fight. Bache tries to break up the conflict when one of the interlopers grabs at his pistol. Bache tries to regain control of it when it discharges and hits one of the townies. He dies soon thereafter. Bache goes into custody and quickly suffers from a heart attack, which puts him into the intensive care unit.
Because of this controversy, the powers that be decide to close Bunker Hill virtually immediately. This doesnít sit well with the students, and they decide to take matters into their own hands. Brian organizes an armed occupation, as the students use their skills to take over the campus and keep out external forces.
The rest of Taps follows these events. The film examines the way in which the students interact and react to the pressures put upon them, especially due to the outside actions that try to drive out the kids. Brian has some confrontations with his father (Wayne Tippet) and we also meet Colonel Kerby (Ronny Cox), the main person who comes to eliminate the students toward the end.
At its best, Taps provides a reasonably compelling character examination, and it offers some depth. The best aspect of the film relates to its lack of obvious sentiment. During the first act, the story seemed to fall strongly on the side of the military academy. Everything appeared hunky dory until non-military elements - the real estate folks, the townies - came in and ruined things. Had Bunker Hill been left well enough alone, no problems would have occurred.
However, matters became less clear as the movie progressed. Taps easily could have been a rah-rah David and Goliath story as we blindly cheer for the kids to overcome the odds. But that doesnít happen. Instead, nuances emerged to make us question the legitimacy of the occupation and their actions. Reflexively, we remained on the side of the students to a degree, but Taps didnít present a black and white tale. Ultimately, the movie can appeal to both hawks and doves, as it never comes down obviously on either side of the fence.
Across the board, Taps seemed a like a good but unspectacular, piece of work. The acting appeared solid though nothing special. Cruise and Penn stood out from the cast, but I thought that occurred mainly because of their subsequent prominence; I canít go back in time to when they were unknowns and view them in that light. Both seemed just fine in their roles, though. Penn got the more naturalistic and three-dimensional part, and he helped bring Brianís friend Alex to life. Cruiseís David Shawn is little more than a generic budding fascist, but he brought nice spark to the character.
Hutton seemed moderately disappointing as Brian. He didnít appear weak in the part, but I thought he was a bit drab and without much spark. Hutton didnít harm the movie, but he also didnít add much to it.
Ultimately, I thought Taps was a good movie but it lacked a tremendous amount to make it stand out in a positive way. It was well meaning and admirably deep, but I didnít think it came across as terrifically compelling or absorbing. Overall, it offered a good but unspectacular piece of work.