Cold War drama about two gung-ho border commanders (Roy Scheider, Jurgen Prochnow) who carry out their own private war against each other on the German - Czechoslovakia border.
Back in the 1980s, action movies loved to feature the Soviets as the bad guys. In the heart of the Reagan era, nothing got American moviegoers hearts pumping more than taking on the Ruskies in titles like Red Dawn, Rambo III, or Firefox. But when the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, movies had to start thinking of a new enemy to face off against…and some others already in production, like 'The Fourth War', had to scramble to find a way to make its 'America vs. the Russians' plot still marketable.
So, given the new global and political situation in 1990, when 'The Fourth War' was released, the filmmakers nicely side-stepped the problems that the impending end of the Soviet Union would cause the film by adding a simple title card at the beginning to clearly indicate that the events of the movie happen in 1988. The film is set on the Czechoslovakian-West Germany border (ironically, neither country exists under those names anymore), where – as the movie begins – Col. Jack Knowles (Roy Scheider) has arrived on the scene to take command. He's not there a day before he nearly causes an international incident at the border by having his tank commander point weapons at Soviet troops who have shot and killed a Czech citizen trying to make a run across the border and safely into West Germany.
Viewers quickly learn that Knowles is a hard-nosed soldier who sees the Russians as the personification of evil. He served in Vietnam and has spent all this life viewing the Soviets as an 'Evil Empire' (as Ronald Reagan once called them). When the second-in-command Lt. Col Clark (Tim Reid) helps cool down the border situation at the opening of the movie before someone fires a shot at the Russians, Knowles still can't resist at hurling a snowball at the Soviet commander, Col. Valachev (Jürgen Prochnow), who promptly throws one right back at Knowles.
Knowles is a tough character to like, as virtually everything that happens in 'The Fourth War' is a result of his own foolish bravado. Surprisingly, he's not immediately suspended or removed from command after the first border incident, allowing him to sneak out on another night (his birthday, no less), cross the border, and take a trio of young Soviet officers hostage – forcing them to don party hats and sing happy birthday to him. Even this event doesn't get Knowles court martialed…it's only after he burns a Soviet watchtower to the ground that one is even threatened – by his commanding officer, General Hackworth, played with relish (if not believability) by Harry Dean Stanton.
By the time the third act gets underway and it's Col. Valachev who is the one egging Knowles on instead of vice versa, one almost can't blame the Russian for acting the way he does. Knowles is a man who burned down his outpost, held his troops at gunpoint, and hurled a snowball at him…why shouldn't he be ticked off? That said, I don't think 'The Fourth War' – which is directed by the legendary John Frankenheimer – intends to have the audience necessarily on Knowles' side of things. Because there's no real hero here to latch on to, the movie is never quite able to obtain the sense of suspense I imagine the filmmakers intended. If Valachev manages to take out Knowles, will that be a bad thing?
What the film does seem to want to show is that the world was changing to the point where these old 'Cold Warriors' had become obsolete. Of course, what we've learned since 1990 is that such warriors are still very much needed, it's just the face of the enemy that changes. Still, despite its rather silly premise, the actors who embody these roles – particularly Scheider, whose career I've always admired – do solid enough work here to make 'The Fourth War' a battle worth entering. It's not something you're likely going to want to add to your collection, but it provides enough entertainment for an evening of 80's action enjoyment.
The Blu-Ray: Vital Disc Stats
'The Fourth War' battles its way onto Blu-ray in a standard Elite keepcase, which houses the 25GB single-layer disc. As is par for the course with Kino Lorber releases, there are no front-loaded trailers on the disc, whose main menu is a still shot of some of the military weaponry and troops in the movie (a wide angle that is taken from the final act of the film), with menu selections at the bottom center of the screen.
The Blu-ray in this release is Region A locked.
'The Fourth War' was shot on film and is presented on Blu-ray in its original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.85:1. For a Kino release of a somewhat older film (although the transfer was most likely done by 20th Century Fox, who provided the movie to Kino for distribution), the picture quality here looks pretty good, if not quite razor-sharp.
The opening credits have a lot of issues with dirt and debris on the print, but it's less of a problem after the first few minutes of the movie. However, since 'The Fourth War' spends so much of its plot with a white, snowy background, instances of dirt that still do pop up from time to time are fairly obvious. The movie's picture also suffers from some slight jitter, which – once again – is most noticeable during the opening credits or at other points in the movie where text appears on the screen (such as when Russian dialogue is subtitled).
In terms of detail though, the transfer is pretty solid. It doesn't have the sharpness of a more recently filmed movie, but there is some depth to be found here and there and the outdoor daylight scenes seem to benefit the most. Black levels are solid, if not inky deep, during the nighttime footage, and the transfer doesn't have too many issues with shadow delineation. Grain has been pushed to the background here, but it's still evident, allowing the movie to retain its film-like look throughout. So, the bottom line here is that this is a good transfer, without too many glaring issues.
The only audio option here is a 2.0 English DTS-HD Master Audio lossless track that serves its purpose, although it is limited in the amount of punch it can actually deliver. Dialogue is clear enough and the audio mix between the spoken word, the soundtrack, and other ambient noises is just fine, but there's also not much to get excited about with this otherwise serviceable track.
With the above in mind, the 2.0 lossless audio probably provides a pretty good representation of what the movie sounded like during its theatrical run. While the action sequences don't provide a whole lot of 'oomph', and I failed to detect a whole lot of separation between sounds, there's also nothing in terms of dropouts or glitches that I picked up on. So what we get here is a good enough mix for a release of this sort, but certainly nothing outstanding or noteworthy.
Although it was released in 1990, 'The Fourth War' still has the look and feel of all those anti-Soviet Union movies audiences were treated to in the 1980s. Roy Scheider is solid here, despite playing a less-than-likable character. What John Frankenheimer's film lacks in credibility, it makes up for with quick pacing and some decent – if sometimes over-the-top – acting. Scheider fans may want to pick this one up, but for the majority out there, this Blu-ray is at least worth a look.