April 01, 1991 12:00 PM

The Sheen/Estevez Family, Larry Fishburne

First, a warning. Some ads for this film depict a group of cavorting, grinning black men who seem to be in a comedy. The film itself is a comedy only to those who find racism, sadism and murder funny.

The men in the ad play prisoners in an Army stockade in Germany in 1965. They have all been charged with serious crimes and had turned the stockade into a blacks-only club when a white private, Charlie Sheen, joins them after punching an MP.

Sheen’s father. Martin, directing for the first time, also plays the bigoted sergeant who runs the stockade. Ramon Estevez, another Sheen son, is a stockade guard. That this resembles a Sheen family home movie, though, is the least of its shortcomings.

Sheen the Elder has said that he and writer Dennis (Run) Shyrack changed the character of the white private after Charlie accepted the role, to make him less disagreeable. That removed a potential source of evocative tension as Charlie gradually earns the other soldiers’ acceptance.

They also turned Charlie’s attempt to rebuild a windmill into a fourth-rate Bridge on the River Kwai-style obsession; it’s never believable that he convinces the black inmates to join him on his pointless project during work-detail breaks either.

The ending includes an artificially sketched dramatic incident and an even more unlikely regression in the relationship between Charlie and the black soldiers.

The plot, set against the backdrop of the Vietnam War, has real possibilities. The Sheens can act, and Fishburne, as the leader of the black stockade residents, has a sly, Jack Nicholson-like way of ingratiating himself. (James Marshall, as a stockade guard, and Blu Mankuma and Harry Stewart as inmates also distinguish themselves.)

As it is, the film lurches along, shooting itself in the credibility periodically. (PG-13)

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