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Nancy Savoca
River Phoenix, Lili Taylor, Richard Panebianco, Anthony Clark, Mitchell Whitfield
Writing Credits:
Bob Comfort

Rated R.

Widescreen 1.85:1/16x9
English Dolby Surround
French Dolby Surround
English, French, Spanish

Runtime: 94 min.
Price: $19.98
Release Date: 1/7/2003

• Audio Commentary from Director Nancy Savoca and Producer Richard Guay
• Cast/Director/Writer Film Highlights
• Theatrical Trailer


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Dogfight (1991)

Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (December 24, 2002)

Dogfight seems like the epitome of the indie movie model. A small tale of romance that takes place mostly in one night, it lacks grand scope or scale and keeps things basic. From that simplicity, however, emerges a lovely and moving tale.

Set in November 1963, Dogfight introduces us to the “Four B’s”, a crew of four Marine buddies set to ship to Okinawa the following day. As part of their last evening in the States, their leader, Berzin (Richard Panebianco), arranges for them to participate in a “dogfight”. Each soldier chips in some money and then tries to find the ugliest date. The one who brings the least attractive woman to the dance wins a cash prize.

We watch the comic efforts of the boys to obtain their dates and then start to focus on Cpl. Eddie Birdlace (River Phoenix). After a number of failed attempts, he meets a waitress named Rose Fenny (Lili Taylor) at a coffeeshop. A shy aspiring folksinger, he eventually sweet-talks her into accompanying him to the club, where they meet the other guys and their dates.

Rose doesn’t “win” the dogfight, though she earns honorable mention when she vomits in the bathroom. There she hears the whole sordid story of the dogfight when Berzin argues with his winning date Marcie (E.G. Daily) over the prize money; Marcie was a “ringer” who knew the set-up from the start. Understandably angry, Rose confronts Birdlace and whacks him a few times before she leaves in tears.

Apparently upset with her reaction, Birdlace heads to her home and convinces her to grab some eats with him so he can make it up to her. From there, most of the rest of the film follows their evening together, as they get to know each other better. It also alternates with shots of the other three “B’s” as they go through their own night of more typical Marine debauchery.

Much of Dogfight seems predictable and even somewhat farfetched. For example, we never really understand what makes Birdlace chase after Rose. The two didn’t connect all that strongly before she learned of the dogfight scheme, so what provoked him to care about her feelings? Granted, Birdlace shows some emotions beneath the surface that his pals seem to lack, but I still think that it seems unlikely a real-life Eddie run after Rose.

In addition, Dogfight occasionally tries a little too hard to place itself in a position of social crossroads. Its chronological setting seems somewhat precious, as it takes place only days before the assassination of President Kennedy. Many view that event as a major turning point for the Sixties. It can be argued that the way we perceive the Sixties – as a time of social upheaval and whatnot – really started on November 22, 1963. Though obviously a lot of the societal groundwork already existed before that tragedy, Kennedy’s death could represent the loss of innocence, and Dogfight latches onto the somewhat naïve tone with which we connect to the era. It also tosses out some “hindsight” sequences that put the viewer ahead of the characters, such as a light discussion of Vietnam.

Those elements come across as though the writer tried too hard to import social relevance to his tale. Dogfight doesn’t need it, as the movie works well enough on its own. The key to the film stems from the relationship between Rose and Birdlace. Although I just argued that parts of that pairing seem hard to believe, the actors make it totally realistic.

Both leads provide solid work, but Taylor really makes the movie run. She seems totally credible through the myriad of emotions she displays. From her innocence and naiveté to her stubborn streak to her anger, Taylor creates a winning and likable character who never devolves into the pathetic ugly girl. She adopts the quiet and shy tone of a woman who never feels attractive, but she never calls attention to herself in that way. Instead, Taylor allows Rose to become charming and lovely all on her own.

Phoenix’s performance as Birdlace lacks quite the same heft, but he actually gets the more challenging role of the two. From start to finish, Birdlace remains something of an enigma. I already noted that I never quite understood why he ran after Rose, and other moderately confusing actions occur elsewhere in the movie. The key is that I don’t think Eddie knows why he acts this way. Does he really care about Rose or does he just want to get laid before he heads overseas? Phoenix keeps the character at a nice distance from the audience, which means we continually guess about his motivations. At first his performance seemed a little stiff to me, but the more I thought about his work, the more I realized how much depth he brought to Eddie.

In the end, Dogfight provides one of the more compelling and least sentimental period love stories I’ve seen. It portrays some fairly realistic characters and benefits from outstanding performances. The movie suffers a few minor misfires along the way, but overall it feels like a sweet and quietly moving piece.

Trivia note: when the three “B’s” get into a fight at a bar, you’ll note a very young Brendan Fraser as one of the opposing sailors.

The DVD Grades: Picture B+ / Audio C+ / Bonus C+

Dogfight appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 1.85:1 on this single-sided, single-layered DVD; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. I expected little from the picture of this low-budget flick, so I felt very pleasantly surprised when I observed the generally high quality of its visuals.

Sharpness seemed excellent. The movie always remained nicely distinct and accurate. If it displayed any signs of softness, I didn’t notice them, as I felt the picture stayed quite crisp and detailed from start to finish. I discerned no issues related to jagged edges or moiré effects, but some light edge enhancement marred a few segments. This concern seemed most prominent during the scene in which Rose and Eddie got seated at the snooty restaurant. Print flaws stayed modest, but a few occurred. I saw a bit of grain at times as well as some speckles, but the movie generally stayed clean and fresh.

Colors provided a highlight of the transfer. The maintained a nicely warm and natural glow throughout the film, and they looked quite vivid and bright. Many indie flicks suffer from cheap-looking stock, but that didn’t affect Dogfight, which presented a vibrant set of colors. Black levels appeared slightly inky at times, but they generally were acceptably deep, while shadow detail seemed clean and accurate. Even the challenging sequences in the nightclub came through swimmingly. Due to the minor flaws I mentioned, I felt I couldn’t give Dogfight a grade above a “B+”, but this one looked so good that I nearly awarded it an “A-“.

Unfortunately, the Dolby Surround 2.0 soundtrack of Dogfight appeared much more ordinary. The mix manifested a very distinct emphasis on the forward channels. Vocals occasionally bled to the sides, and the imagery remained pretty lackluster in general. In addition to some reasonably effective stereo music, the front speakers offered light atmospheric elements. The surrounds slightly reinforce music and effects, but they play a very small role in the proceedings. The short segment in Vietnam offered a quick burst of activity, but otherwise the rear speakers stayed passive.

Audio quality appeared acceptable but unspectacular. Speech sounded a bit thick and dull at times, but the lines displayed no problems related to intelligibility or edginess. Effects played such a small role that they didn’t earn enough screentime to manifest actual problems. As such, they remained reasonably clean and accurate, though they provided no real life. Music seemed fairly clear and distinct, and the songs heard at the club even managed a little depth. Nonetheless, the soundtrack maintained a pretty bland experience.

Dogfight features a few extras, and an audio commentary from director Nancy Savoca and producer Richard Guay provides the most substantial one. The pair sit together for this chatty and reasonably informative track. Savoca strongly dominates the piece, as she provides a lot of notes about the production. She covers a myriad of topics from early rehearsals with the leads and the casting of the unattractive women to attempts to perfectly replicate the period setting. The commentary suffers from a few empty spots, and it occasionally features too much praise, but overall it goes through the production effectively and entertainingly.

Otherwise Dogfight offers nothing of much use. Cast and Crew includes short filmographies for actors River Phoenix and Lili Taylor, writer Bob Comfort and director Nancy Savoca. We also get the film’s trailer. Presented 1.85:1 with Dolby 2.0 audio, it includes a narrator who sounds suspiciously like Christian Slater.

A quiet and unassuming piece, Dogfight starts as a gimmicky comedy that feels like nothing more than one of a million rowdy buddy flicks. However, it soon develops a layer of depth that makes it winning and emotional. Above all, it usually seems real, largely due to the unsentimental performances by its leads. The DVD provides surprisingly positive picture quality along with average audio and a small package of extras highlighted by a generally interesting audio commentary. A vivid and winning love story, Dogfight comes with my recommendation.

Viewer Film Ratings: 4.6 Stars Number of Votes: 40
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