'Ten-shun! Since Platoon has grossed more than $100 million and been decorated in Oscar glory, it was only a matter of time before a new army of Vietnam films began box-office and publicity maneuvers. The first high-visibility contender concerns Sgt. Clell Hazard, a combat vet of World War II, Korea and Vietnam. As Hazard, James Caan delivers an impressive comeback performance (he spent five years concentrating on raising his son). Given the minefield of clich├ęs he must circumvent, Caan's achievement is even more admirable. The sarge aches to train recruits to survive jungle fighting. Instead he is detailed to "toy soldier" duties with the Old Guard burial unit at Arlington National Cemetery. The graves, growing at the rate of 15 per day in 1968, are the stone gardens of the title. Based on a novel by Nicholas Proffitt, a former Newsweek bureau chief in Saigon (and a member of the Old Guard), the film means to salute the Vietnam dead by telling the story of one of them. Played by newcomer D.B. Sweeney, he is an idealistic enlisted man hankering to leave his Old Guard berth and leap into battle. Naturally Caan feels paternalistic, as does his profane buddy, acted with bluster to spare by James Earl Jones. The premise is suffocated, however, by director Francis Coppola's polemics. Ronald Bass, a Harvard lawyer-turned-screenwriter, sets up the film like a legal brief. These "toy soldiers" are the salt of the earth and you will believe it. No hostile witnesses admitted, excepting stereotypes. The bad guys are the hazy bureaucrats and the press who helped turn public respect for soldiering into contempt. When the propaganda stops, the audience is treated to a From Here to Eternity rehash about love and war that inhibits a first-rate cast, including Dean Stockwell, Mary Stuart Masterson and a wonderfully sexy Anjelica Huston as a peacenik reporter who falls for Caan. Moreover, by using Sweeney's funeral to begin and end the film (a ploy the book resisted), Coppola washes Gardens of Stone in sentiment. For a director whose finest work (The Godfathers, The Conversation, Apocalypse Now) shows a clear-eyed scrutiny, the reliance on melodrama is inappropriate even if it is understandable. During filming, Coppola's son Gian Carlo died at 23 in a boating accident. Cast members have spoken of how that loss permeated the production. When Caan eulogizes Sweeney as a boy known only to an honored few ("I knew him. I won't forget"), the honest emotion shows up everything that's missing in the rest of the film. (R)

If you're in the mood for a cartoonish shoot-'em-up, with touches of Mission Impossible and The Wild Bunch, you could do worse than this film. It's a variation on those '30s films with James Cagney and Pat O'Brien as boyhood friends now on opposite sides of the law. Nick Nolte, a Texas Ranger in a border town, has grown up so pure-hearted he wears his white hat even when sitting behind his desk. Powers Boothe, a drug dealer operating out of Mexico, is so mean he crushes scorpions in his bare hand for fun. A third side in this triangle of violence is provided by a high-tech government commando unit. They're going after Boothe by robbing a bank in Nolte's town where the drug money is laundered. When director Walter (48 HRS.) Hill sticks with gunplay, he keeps the momentum going. The dialogue is another matter. The ramrod-straight Nolte has to say such things as "He's polluting this town with drugs and turning it into a sewer." Maria Conchita (Moscow on the Hudson) Alonso, as a cantina singer in love with both Nolte and Boothe, actually mutters "crazy gringo" at Nolte. Boothe acts his way out of a lot of lost lines. He even generates a smile when, just before the big gun battle, he says to Nolte, "Let's get this over with. It's almost 4 o'clock." Hill draws blood only in the literal sense of gory violence. There is no issue here. But for a movie that isn't really about anything, Extreme Prejudice keeps the screen occupied reasonably well. (R)

Look in vain here for the humor and heart Diane Keaton brought to her role in Annie Hall. In her dilettantish debut as a director, Keaton is hell-bent on getting the poop on paradise from a randomly chosen group of Los Angeles citizens. She started her 100 or so video chat sessions in 1984, asking such questions as: "Are you afraid to die?" "What is heaven?" and "Is there sex in heaven?" Though many of the interviewees address her by name on camera, Keaton is never seen or heard. Her contribution was to splice these interviews with campy old movie and TV clips and music that sounds like a hereafter hit parade (My Blue Heaven, Over the Rainbow, etc.). For all the dazzle, the film emerges as pure prattle, alternately exploitative or patronizing. The wacko comments run the gamut. One person defines heaven as a place where there will be "wonderful bodies." Another compares reaching the pearly gates to winning an Oscar. A recent poll by USA Weekend re ported 67 percent of Americans believe in hell. If they sit through this maddening film, the other 33 percent are bound to come around. (PG-13)

  • Contributors:
  • Peter Travers,
  • Ralph Novak.