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Criterion Gives Dogfight Its Long-Deserved Due

Photo: The Criterion Collection.

In the early 1990s, a “war movie” directed by a woman was simply unheard of. It was long before Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker would surprise at the Oscars. Nancy Savoca’s 1991 gem Dogfight, a story of a Marine recruit’s last night stateside before shipping out to Vietnam in 1963—and the young aspiring folkie with whom he strikes up an unlikely romance—isn’t a typical war movie, featuring as it does just a few seconds of combat. But it’s a film as profound as any in critiquing the machismo of military enculturation in the service of war, and it’s as sweet and savvy as a teen romance can be, anchored by an endearing performance from leads Lili Taylor and River Phoenix. Largely ignored by its studio, released in only a few theaters, and never before available on Blu-Ray, Dogfight is finally given its due in a handsome director-approved special edition restoration on Criterion Blu-ray.

Rose (LIli Taylor) prepares for her date.
Rose (LIli Taylor) prepares for her date date with Birdlace. Photo: The Criterion Collection.

It may have taken more than three decades for Nancy Savoca to feel a little vindicated. But in 2024, her 1993 film Household Saints—another quirky delight starring Taylor—was remastered and re-released by Kino Lorber after never receiving a home media release, and now her delightful coming-of-age film Dogfight gets a Criterion release. If one is given to wonder how female directors scuffle in Hollywood, for decades making only between four and ten percent of all films released (and it’s only 12 percent in 2023), Savoca is sadly the perfect example, having made these two excellent films following 1989’s True Love and really never getting another shot at directing a full-length feature for theatrical release.

Savoca’s films did not fit any existing mold, and Dogfight proves that point. It takes place in the backdrop of war and features a brief onscreen skirmish, but it has more in common with a homefront lament like The Best Years of Our Lives than any combat film. It features a young female protagonist and has more than a few moments of gentle comedy, but is a serious drama at heart. And that young protagonist, though she is presented at first as a shy, unassuming, even talentless homebody, has a fierce pride and sharp critique in store for the young military recruit she meets.

The opening conceit of Dogfight is one made clear in its promotional materials and trailers: a group of young Marines, led by River Phoenix’s Eddie Birdlace, organize a contest. On their last night stateside they and their fellow enlistees all kick in $50 to the communal pot. Each has to bring the ugliest girl they can find. And the winner—the Marine with the ugliest date—wins the “dogfight” and the pool. Savoca plays this opening act for laughs, and the whole endeavor is cringe-level discomforting. It’s a credit to her and her cast and crew’s expert timing that the Marines’ behavior, though cruel, is also comic, and that viewers can register that the tables will soon enough turn.

Four young Marine recruits sit in the back two rows of a bus.
River Phoenix (upper left) as Birdlace with the “B-Boys” (Richard Panebianco, Anthony Clark, and Mitchell Whitfield) as they plan the “Dogfight.” Photo: The Criterion Collection.

Birdlace’s date is Rose Feeney (Taylor), a young waitress who works in her mom’s (folksinger Holly Near) cafe and who spends her nights listening attentively to folk and protest singers like Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan, and Odetta, hoping to learn a few chords herself. She’s by no means conventionally unattractive, just a bit shy and dowdy, but she’s the only date Birdlace can find. (Savoca had Taylor try to gain weight for the role, with no success, and then put her in padded clothing—a gambit that the film just, just barely pulls off, yet might not today.) Rose is the last to learn that she’s on her date as a dare, and when she learns the ugly truth she gives Birdlace and his beloved “B-Boys” a piece of her mind they’ve all well earned.

Rose (Lili Taylor) and Marcie (E. G. Daily) on the floor of the bathroom.
Rose (Lili Taylor) learns the truth from Marcie (E. G. Daily) in Dogfight. Photo: The Criterion Collection.

While that opening act establishes the cruel misogyny of military machismo Rose and the film generally serve to critique, it also opens the door to a deeper connection between Rose and Birdlace. After a sincere apology and an awkward date, the two find, on his last night stateside, a romance that feels as true and genuine as any cinema has to offer. Dogfight is a film I’ve discussed at length a few years back for its unusual narrative structure, its savvy and pointed anti-war stance, and its generous characterizations and performances. For anyone not yet familiar with the film, I’ll add only that it’s a must see: Phoenix is excellent in one of his last roles before his tragic death two years later; Taylor is a marvel in a difficult role; and the film is constantly full of surprise, affection, and insight.

What a pleasure it is to see Dogfight (spine #1216) finally available in a restoration that does it justice and on a label with significant distribution. It’s a film that deserves to be seen and loved, especially given its having been so so rarely upon its original release or in the decades since. Savoca herself supervised the new digital transfer (in its 1.85:1 original aspect ratio), created from a 35mm interpositive and scanned in 29, with the original 2.0 surround audio also remastered with a 2.0 surround DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack. The film is shot in a rough grain reminiscent of the 1970s films of Hal Ashby (The Last Detail) and looks absolutely immaculate here, with a pleasant, naturalistic color balance, and the soundtrack does justice to the film’s excellent sound design and musical choices.

Cover of The Criterion Collection edition of Dogfight on Blu-ray with an image of River Phoenix and Lili Taylr's characters facing each other.

Special Features

Criterion’s presentation here extends beyond the film’s restoration to a handful of special features that focus on the film’s production and reception, all of them directly involving Dogfight’s cast and crew. These provide a through look back at the film, even if the perspective is almost entirely self-reflexive. Given that Dogfight is a film that has long engaged the attention of anti-war and feminist film scholars, some external commentary would be additionally welcome.

Audio commentary. Nancy Savoca and her partner-producer Richard Guay recorded this commentary for a Warner Bros DVD in 2003 (the film’s only prior physical media release), and it’s excellent, covering thoroughly the film’s script, its casting, pre-production, shooting, and, in no small detail, the conflicts with the studio over its final version and theatrical release. Misled by a teen audience’s overly enthusiastic reactions to the film’s opening act (focusing on the “dogfight”), Warner Bros executives wanted to market the film as a comedy and for the film to conclude with a happy ending—including a reshoot without Savoca that Phoenix had to nix. Criterion often re-uses commentary tracks from prior physical media releases (as they did with The Roaring Twenties to much lesser success), and here, Savoca and Guay are welcome guides. Wouldn’t it be nice if theirs were complemented by a more critical/academic commentary track alongside it?

Nancy Savoca, Lili Taylor, and Mary Harron. This new 30-minute segment, shot in 2024 with filmmaker Mary Harron (of American Psycho and Daliland and who directed Taylor in both I Shot Andy Warhol and The Notorious Bettie Page) interviewing Taylor and Savoca, covers much of the same ground as Savoca and Guay’s commentary track regarding the film’s production and release, focusing considerable attention on the revisions to the central characters from Bob Comfort’s autobiographical script. It’s a pleasure to see Criterion producing new content, professionally set and shot, for their special editions, and the three women—clearly all good friends—offer up an affable, sincere, and introspective conversation.

The Craft of Dogfight. The second segment newly commissioned for this special edition integrates 29 minutes of Zoom interviews with the primary members of its crew on the film’s production: cinematographer Bobby Bukowski, production designer Lester W. Cohen, script supervisor Mary Cybulski, music supervisor Jeffrey Kimball, supervising sound editor Tim Squyres, and editor John Tintori. That the film was shot primarily in Seattle in 1990 but representing a San Francisco of the 1960s proved a considerable challenge, as did securing the rights to the music used (especially Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right,” an expensive but perfectly-used selection).  The remote interviews are presented in small windows (and on often tinny-audio) complemented by clips from the film (in its remastered version) and still photos from the production. For those already conversant with the film and who own the Warner Bros DVD with Savoca and Guay’s commentary, this featurette is the one that will provide the most new insight into the film’s production.

Birdlace (River Phoenix) and Rose (Lili Taylor) embrace.
Birdlace (River Phoenix) and Rose (Lili Taylor) embrace in Dogfight. Photo: The Criterion Collection.

The disc also includes the film’s original release trailer. English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing are provided for the film but not for the commentary or for any of its special features. (Criterion really ought be providing SDH for all the content it releases, not just the feature films.) The disc is packaged in a clear jewel case with a ten-page, two-color foldout insert, its cover inspired by the film’s original theatrical poster and featuring an essay, “In Love and War,” by critic Christina Newland.

All told, Criterion’s director-approved special edition release of Dogfight is long overdue and more than welcome. Dogfight is one of the most arresting dramas of its decade, a film that perfectly balances comedy and tragedy in critiquing the machismo of military culture while presenting a memorable character study and a sweet romance. This special edition focuses its supplemental content primarily on Savoca’s direction and the crew’s collaborations, which is entirely deserving of merit if at the same time less slightly less attentive to Dogfight‘s cultural critique or the performance of its late co-star River Phoenix. Anyone new to the film will find this special edition a fulsome presentation, and even those who own the prior physical media release will find this Criterion Blu-ray a worthwhile and long-overdue upgrade.

The Criterion Collection director-approved special edition Blu-ray of Dogfight is available for pre-order with a release date of April 30, 2024.

Written by J Paul Johnson

J Paul Johnson is Publisher of Film Obsessive. A professor emeritus of film studies and an avid cinephile, collector, and curator, his interests range from classical Hollywood melodrama and genre films to world and independent cinemas and documentary.

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