November 27, 1989 12:00 PM

Kris Kristofferson, Jobeth Williams

To everyone inclined toward tearjerkers: Here’s a movie that is guaranteed to yank your chain 19 or 20 times, minimum.

Screenwriting newcomer Maggie Kleinman and director Franklin Schaffner could hardly have plotted or staged the film about the return of a long-lost Vietnam veteran more clunkily, with separations and reunions happening at such a furious pace the cast must have gotten arm-weary from all the beckoning, hugging and back-patting.

All things considered, Kristofferson and the rest of the cast are to be commended for wringing some real emotion out of the stilted situations and keeping scoffs to a minimum.

Kristofferson is the vet, a pilot who was shot down in 1970 and pronounced killed in action in 1973. He was actually captured, eventually escaped and has been living in an isolated area of Cambodia with a group of Cambodians, hiding from the Khmer Rouge. When he comes down with a terrible illness, his Cambodian wife smuggles him into Thailand, where she is interned while he is shipped back to the U.S.

There he is eventually reunited with Williams, his ex-wife, who has since remarried, his father, Brian Keith, and the son he never even knew he had, Thomas Wilson (Honey, I Shrunk the Kids) Brown. He also has to try to get his Cambodian family brought to the U.S. and deal with Williams’s compassionate but understandably jealous new husband, Sam Waterston. (For the record, Waterston doesn’t get to hug Kristofferson but makes up for it with vigorous hugging of Williams and Brown.)

Bogging the whole business down is a confused political subplot involving an apparent Air Force attempt to suppress the news of Kristofferson’s return. Ignoring the fact that suppressing a story like this would take either a quick murder or a megaconspiracy, Kleinman and Schaffner never clarify exactly what the officer in charge of suppression, Trey (Great Balls of Fire) Wilson, is supposed to be doing.

They also force lots of dumb dialogue on the cast, such as Waterston trying to console Brown in the midst of all the emotional upheaval by saying, “We’ve got our health and we’ve got each other,” or Kristofferson describing his life in Cambodia as “swell.” The best of the reunion scenes, in fact, is the one between Keith and Kristofferson, because neither of them says anything.

Kristofferson, especially good at brooding, Sisyphean roles, almost makes the whole business plausible at times. Keith, Williams and Brown are effectively low-key too. The locations, in Ontario, Bennington and Woodstock, Vt., lend some needed serenity to the proceedings.

Earlier this year Wilson died at age 40 from a cerebral hemorrhage and Schaffner succumbed to cancer at 69. This isn’t the movie either of them should be remembered for. Try Patton or The Boys from Brazil for Schaffner, Bull Durham or Twins for Wilson. For a presumed-dead-husband-comes-home-from-war movie that really works, try 1947’s Desire Me, with Robert Mitchum and Greer Garson. (R)

You May Like