Vietnam, Saigon, 1968 and a couple of plain clothes American C.I.D. investigators are making their way through the seedy underworld of prostitutes and the soldiers who use them in search of various suspects, but soon there will be one case in particular to occupy their minds far more than any of the others. Buck McGriff (Willem Dafoe) and Albaby Perkins (Gregory Hines) have become inured to the tough life on the streets they patrol, as tonight when they visit a number of bars in search of yet another criminal, brushing off the unpopularity of their profession with the G.I.s and using violence if necessary. However, what will they do when they realise a serial killer is at work in the district?
The eighties was the era of Hollywood tackling the thorny subject of the Vietnam War which was recent enough to be within living memory but distant enough to be examined with some kind of levelheadedness. Probably ushered in by Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now, these films were either revenge fantasies or very serious works representing a national catharsis for the United States and a point of interest for those abroad as the bluff and macho self-image of the country's eighties persona, especially in movies, came under scrutiny. Off Limits, on the other hand, was not exactly what it seemed, coming in like a Vietnam War flick and revealing itself early on to be a genre effort.
That genre being the whodunnit, as our intrepid cops are embroiled with a plot to cover up one of the Army's officers carrying out murders without any danger of being prosecuted for it, that old "life is cheap" cliché pressed into service once again. Whoever this man is, he is shooting dead a selection of Saigon prostitutes who have had babies with American soldiers, which should tug at the heartstrings but in effect was less than convincing as a plea for humanity when you saw how much of the rest of it was determined to rub your nose in the grime of a war-torn country. One aspect of that was co-writer and director Christopher Crowe's insistence on spicing up the dialogue with as much strong language as he could pack into the script, and you had the impression the cast were adding their own swearing too.
Because if there's one thing that illustrates how uncompromising a movie is, it's is how far it believes it's clever to swear, and Dafoe and Hines especially went to town on turning the air blue, at times quite creatively. One character who did not curse was the noble nun Nicole (Amanda Pays with a French accent) who has identified the problem of the serial killer, and who Buck feels a connection he doesn't know what to do about, she being a Bride of Christ after all, another rather hackneyed element which went back to Ingrid Bergman in the nineteen-forties and possibly further. Naturally, she is placed in peril before the end credits roll, although it's the Vietnamese women who really have to watch out, as they are the victims on the lowest rung of this social ladder.
Of course, other people are bumped off too, sometimes spectacularly as the sequence where a suspect Colonel (Scott Glenn) takes our heroes up in his chopper then proceeds to throw suspects out of the vehicle a few hundred feet above the jungle. This had a pretty solid cast, highlighted by a scene-stealing Keith David performance (is there any other kind?) as a soldier taken in for questioning early on, but unfortunately not lasting too much longer than that. If there is a promising conspiracy angle in the cover-ups leaned towards, then it is thrown away by the big reveal at the end which chickens out of any condemnation of institutionalised prejudice and bad behaviour in preference for that old standby, the lone murderer who takes that bit too long in chatting about his motivation and so forth, giving the cavalry time to arrive. Still, there were compensations, mostly in the more offbeat moments where the cast could get their teeth into Crowe's eccentric plot twists and flourishes, marking this out as interestingly loopy if not classic. Music by James Newton Howard.