Peter Bogdanovich's Targets is a strange beast in of itself and contains a strange beast within itself. The plot and running time are evenly split into two halves. One is an intimate look into the life and feelings of an 'over the hill' actor (ironically played by Boris Karlof) who, unsatisfied with the last few films he has starred in, decides to call it quits, despite pleas from the studio and an young gun-ho director (played, ironically, by Peter Bogdanovich). The second story involves young soldier, who has just returned to the States from the hell that was Vietnam (the war, not the country). He's polite, articulate, has a darling wife, but all this matter little in the end for he is mentally an emotionally scarred. Make that troubled. Having equipped himself with some fine riffles, he begins a killing spree like no other.
I won't go further, but you can probably tell that the two stories will collide sometime before the end of the film. What's fascinating is how Bogdanovich uses these two different stories so effectively. Karloff is superb in the role of the tired old character actor searching for the peace and quite of retirement. He's funny at times and often delivers his lines in such a way that I always felt a certain truth about the character. The mere fact that Boris Karloff is playing the character, and with such believability, adds a richness to the story arc. I had never seen Karloff actually act a part that asked for subtlety and smart comedic timing. Bogdanovich, as the young director, is quite fun as well, merely because he gets to play a young, slightly cocky director. Nancy Hsueh is adorable as Karloff's overly qualified but always supportive secretary. Bogdanovich and Hsueh don't get many scenes together but the ones they have are cute. Tim O'Kelly (who looks a lot like Matt Damon...) is more than just effective as young Bobby Thompson. In many of his early scenes he appears to be your typical 60s polite suburban Caucasian chap. But underneath lies a beast, one that he can't control (or that has taken over him I should say). The first few scenes that hint at O'Kelly's disturbed nature are exquisitely set up. There is something terrifying about him, make no mistake about it. His first murder scene is a jolt to the senses. It comes quickly and without remorse. The shock factor is at the top of the scale, but without ever resorting to cheap tricks however. The murders are as disturbing as they come because they are filmed in such a way that it always feels real. This can happen (and has unfortunately). Nothing is glorified here.
The only question that remains is why have these two seemingly opposite stories told in the same film? The reasons may be numerous. The most obvious one being a social commentary on the destructive Vietnam war and its affect on people who were probably once good. Another could be a juxtaposition of a story about an old man who's lived a full life and feels that he's done his time against another that showcases a much younger man who hasn't accomplished very much and is throwing his life away, thus making a strange but I suppose reasonable argument about youth, recklessness and maturity. Paranoia in all its forms perhaps? A more aesthetic theme could be that of fictional monsters (played by Karloff throughout his character's career) and real life monsters (war and its genuine consequences) who cause real damage.
The answer is decidedly murky, and that's how it should be. What's the fun in being spoon fed a specific message from a director after all? I like that fact that nothing is really explained, even though it's quite evident that the links, whatever they may be, are there.