Criterion Review: DOGFIGHT (1991)

River Phoenix plays a Marine about to ship out to Vietnam in Nancy Savoca’s romance

River Phoenix and Lili Taylor in DOGFIGHT. Courtesy of Criterion Collection.

Nancy Savoca’s classic wartime romance Dogfight was once a challenge to find on home video, but Criterion Collection now gives it the respect and appreciation it deserves in their new Blu-Ray package. Set within a 24-hour period – a break for new Marines before they ship out to Okinawa on the way to Vietnam – the drama takes the audience through early ‘60s San Francisco as young Birdlace (River Phoenix, Sneakers) gets to know Rose (Lili Taylor, Say Anything…). The title refers to the misogynist betting game between the Marines, an event wherein the men bring the ugliest dates they can find, and whoever the “judges” select wins a pot of money.

Birdlace is one of the 4Bs, along with three other guys with B last names he met in basic training. These young fellows don’t yet know themselves, so easily adopt the group machismo, this brute masculinity that doesn’t fit them comfortably. Phoenix as Birdlace is playing a character who is playing a role. We see Birdlace’s misplaced aggression at times, also his hesitancy to actually bring Rose into the club once he’s swayed her into going out with him. In an interview included on the Criterion disc, director Savoca and actress Taylor speak of Phoenix’s deep dive into the role and the vulnerability he allows to peek out.

(L to R) Anthony Clark, River Phoenix, Mitchell Whitfield and Richard Panebianco in DOGFIGHT. Courtesy of Criterion Collection.

Rose’s character in the original screenplay was underdeveloped, but Taylor, Savoca, and her crew added dimension during filming. She’s a gentle soul in contrast to Birdlace’s bluster. There’s an intelligence to her and yet an optimistic naivete, as well.

She tells her date, “I wanna have an effect on the world,” dreams of singing folk music on stage, and perhaps one day joining the new Peace Corps. Taylor skillfully portrays her with an eager awkwardness. The relationship that grows between Rose and Birdlace is sweet in its clumsiness.

The storytelling contrasts Birdlace and Rose’s quiet evening together with the raucous night shared among the other 4Bs (including a cameo from a young Brendan Fraser as an aggressive sailor). There’s a deceptive simplicity to Dogfight, even as it includes underlying themes of toxic masculinity and the brutality of war, and as the two main characters search for themselves within and without the gender norms of the day.

Savoca and her talented crew pull the audience into the period setting through the locations used and the songs from the era that pepper the film. This being one of Phoenix’s limited screen performances before his early death adds another layer of emotion to the work and makes it that more memorable and wondrous. How lucky we are to have Dogfight as part of his legacy.

Lili Taylor and River Phoenix in DOGFIGHT. Courtesy of Criterion Collection.

The recent Blu-Ray release from Criterion Collection includes:

  • director-supervised 2K digital restoration
  • an audio commentary track with Savoca and producer Richard Guay (recorded for a previous release)
  • a 2024 interview of Savoca and Taylor by director Mary Harron. The women talk about Bob Comfort’s original screenplay and the necessary changes it meant for Rose’s character, the trickiness of casting women for the central “dogfight,” the different ending the studio wanted and Phoenix and Savoca’s refusal to shoot it. Taylor talks about how she chooses and creates characters, and her charting of scripts is discussed. Harron comments that the reason the film remains so fresh is the painful, raw, realness at its core.
  • Various crew members from Dogfight participate in a 2024 interview called The Craft of Dogfight. Participants vary from the production designer to the DP to the music supervisor. They all speak with nothing but praise for Savoca, the actors, and that specific filmmaking experience.

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