‘Dogfight’: River Phoenix/Lili Taylor classic reissued

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It was reported on the wire services this morning that the film River Phoenix was working on when he died 20 years ago — “Dark Blood” — has finally been finished by director George Sluzier and will be having its U.S. premiere at the Miami International Film Festival next week.

Phoenix did some phenomenal film work before his drug overdose on Oct. 31, 1993, but he hasn’t yet been enveloped in the legendary status of other young actors who had their careers tragically curtailed — James Dean, Heath Ledger, etc.

Perhaps the roles Phoenix chose were too quirky — or even off-putting — to get a cult started.

The actor’s best work — as a narcoleptic prostitute in Gus Van Sant’s “My Own Private Idaho” — was in a tough picture that most people could not warm up to at the time of its original release, and which now seems to be largely forgotten (thankfully, it is still available on DVD in a deluxe Criterion edition).

A more accessible performance in the 1991 Nancy Savoca film “Dogfight” has just been made available on DVD from the indispensable Warner Archive program.

The movie got good reviews but it was mishandled by Warner Bros. which never figured out if it was an art house film that needed special handling or a mainstream entertainment that could please multiplex audiences.

The studio’s indecision resulted in a botched release that caused “Dogfight” to fall between the cracks — it was not until the movie started being played on cable a year later that it was discovered and appreciated (eventually resulting in a well-received musical version of the material that played off-Broadway last season).

“Dogfight” pairs Phoenix with the fabulous — and perenially underrated — actress Lili Taylor in an early 1960s story about an act of cruelty that slowly evolves into love.

Phoenix is one of a group of Marines on shore leave in San Francisco who takes part in a mean contest known as a “dogfight” — the military man who comes up with the ugliest date wins a cash pool.

Phoenix finds Taylor and in the course of convincing her to go out with him, sees the ugliness in his fellow Marines, and begins to be attracted to the young woman.

Nancy Savoca directs the piece with unusual delicacy. She obviously puts us on the side of the movie’s smart and funny heroine but she does it without a heavy-handed view of the men. The director understands the differences between 1963 and the early 1990s (when she made the film) and presents us with a view of the war between the sexes a decade before the feminist revolution.

Taylor is wonderful in a very tricky role. The actress would go on to flourish in independent films for the subsequent decade — she was terrific as Andy Warhol’s would-be assassin Valerie Solanas in “I Shot Andy Warhol” — but she never really caught on in mainstream Hollywood fare.

It’s great to have “Dogfight” back, but it is a bittersweet experience watching Phoenix and Taylor doing such beautiful work 22 years ago.

Joe Meyers

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