Grade: A-

At its original release in 1979, “Apocalypse Now” was a masterful film with problems, a surrealistic updating of Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” to the Vietnam War that was, by turns, messy, visionary, bombastic, enthralling, and–especially in its final, “revelatory” segment–both mesmerizing and exasperating. Then, ten years ago, Fax Bahr and George Hickenlooper chronicled the incredibly difficult Philippines shoot of the picture in their documentary, “Hearts of Darkness.” Now writer-director Francis Ford Coppola has prepared a beautifully restored and substantially elongated version of the original, adding some complete scenes jettisoned from the old cut and gently altering a few key elements, especially at the close. The result is a marvelous expansion of a highly uneven classic–incapable of duplicating the topical impact of the 1979 release (which came, after all, when all the bitterness concerning the conflict was still raw), but still visually amazing, dramatically wrenching, self-consciously portentous and, in the final analysis, just a bit silly. It remains a wonderfully imperfect explosion of genius and immaturity, in approximately equal measure.

One needn’t revisit the film’s script except in the most perfunctory way: it remains an episodic account of the journey of Captain Willard (Martin Sheen) up river into Cambodia to terminate the renegade Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando). Along the way we meet the crazed Colonel Kilgore (Robert Duvall) and get to know the members of Willard’s navy crew: the Chief (Albert Hall), Louisianan Chef (Frederic Forrest), California beach dude Lance (Sam Bottoms) and wild- man Clean (“Larry” Fishburne, as the youngster was then billed). After a series of Dantesque adventures–some of them new to this version–and some losses, the expedition finds its way to the flamboyantly odd colonel’s bizarre encampment, where a hyper counter-culture reporter (Dennis Hopper) acts as a sort of demented Greek chorus commenting on Kurtz’s weird attempts to convert the conflicted captain to his unorthodox views about the war.

In this revision, the film is much as viewers will remember until the Kilgore sequence, which is extended in various ways, turning the colonel into more of a crazed surfing aficionado and adding a bit in which Willard steals the officer’s prized board. The trip up river exhibits only minor, though telling, alterations (mostly fleshing out the crew’s characters) until an extended sequence is added depicting the sailors’ brief, rather pathetic linkup with the Playboy models who are stranded at a leaderless, chaotic army camp. After more familiar material, Coppola inserts a long rumored-about, nearly half-hour episode in which the surviving members of the expedition are entertained at a plantation presided over by an French family that refuses to leave its abode, using a private army for security. This sequence is more than a little heavy-handedly polemical–the clan’s leader (Christian Marquand) brusquely says that the Americans are fighting “for nothing”–and turns self-consciously moody when Willard spends time with one of its lovely female members (Aurore Clement), but it’s stylistically still fascinating to watch. The picture then moves into the final act, which is much the same apart from an added scene in which Kurtz reads some fatuously optimistic reports on the war from the American press to the captured Willard, and a denouement changed to increase the ambiguity of the captain’s actions.

Coppola’s additions make “Apocalypse Now Redux” a consistently engrossing experience for those who know the original, but they don’t really alter the fact that’s it’s a film with both strengths and failings. On the positive side, it exhibits enormous ambition, energy and technical dexterity: it’s instructive to remember that before he made “Citizen Kane,” Orson Welles had been preparing a version of “Heart of Darkness,” and Coppola’s picture exhibits that same combination of youthful exuberance and rather puerile intellectual underpinnings one suspects Welles’ film would have demonstrated, if it had been made. It has moments of rare, almost transcendent brilliance, interspersed with others that are forced, obvious and shrill. Its main flaw, of course, remains the final act, which fails to deliver on the implicit promise of something truly revelatory at the end of the long, nightmarish journey. The visual flourishes in the Kurtz episode, and the studied performances of Brando and Hopper, can’t overcome the fact that the entire sequence remains fundamentally a muddle, a valley where a climactic peak is needed. But even that can’t detract fatally from the film’s astonishingly vibrant and masterful moments. The result may not be flawless, but in this day of brainlessly well-crafted Hollywood junk, it stands out for its commitment, its inventiveness, and its inexhaustible drive.

The appearance of “Apocalypse Now Redux,” with all its problems, makes one despondent about the current state of affairs in Hollywood. It’s impossible to imagine a picture this huge, yet so personal and challenging, being funded by a studio nowadays. It’s true that only a year after it was released, the catastrophe of Michael Cimino’s “Heaven’s Gate” soured executives on the idea of handing over too many resources to visionary but profligate wunderkinder. Nor did Coppola’s post-“Apocalypse” projects approach the ambition of his seventies features. Still, it’s dispiriting indeed to think that the man who wrote “Patton” and gave us “The Conversation” and the first two “Godfather” installments in the 1970s has been reduced to directing maudlin drek like “Jack” (1996) in more recent years. If this revision of one of his early masterworks did nothing but remind us of what American films were once capable of–and could be again, with a bit of imagination and studio support–its appearance would be welcome. But it accomplishes much more: “Apocalypse Now,” whether “Primus” or “Redux,” is a great, somewhat mad endeavor, well worth revisiting in the theatre, especially in the beautiful-looking and sounding refurbishment Miramax has provided. Skip one of this summer’s phony blockbusters and see it instead.