Our story begins in a Saigon hotel room, where Captain Willard, a trained army assassin, is waiting for his mission. You're thinking, "Hotel room? Sweet. There'll be Kit Kats in the minibar." But Willard goes for the booze, freaks out, smashes a mirror, and then cries and bleeds all over the place.
He's in a troubled state of mind, traumatized by war.
Guess what the doctor ordered? More killing. The army assigns Willard to track down a rogue Colonel named Kurtz who's been running his own private army across the border in Cambodia, executing suspected traitors without a trial and generally doing whatever he wants with the help of some indigenous mountain tribes. They order Willard to terminate Kurtz "with extreme prejudice."
Willard journeys along the coast on a boat crewed by a ragtag bunch of Americans: a former chef from New Orleans (nicknamed, creatively, "Chef"), a surfer named Lance, a guy nicknamed Mr. Clean, and the pilot of the boat, "Chief." Not to be confused with "Chef." If we've done it in this Learning Guide, text us ASAP.
They meet up with the crazy, happily belligerent Lt. Colonel Kilgore, who takes them by helicopter further down the coast to the mouth of the Nung River. In the process, Kilgore attacks a Vietnamese outpost while blasting Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyries," just so his men can surf on the nearby beach.
As they journey up the river, Willard and crew have lots of weird encounters: a tiger leaps at Chef and Willard; soldiers get out of control at a USO show featuring Playboy Playmates; chaos reins at the river's last outpost, where leaderless U.S. soldiers are mired in combat. They also accidentally kill a group of Vietnamese civilians after they think a woman on the boat is running to grab a weapon out of a bin. Turns out she was just running to protect her puppy.
Yeah, not great.
Finally, entering Cambodia, they're attacked by Kurtz's private army. Mr. Clean and Chief are both killed. Willard takes a drugged-out Lance to go to the compound and try to see Kurtz, while Chef's left in the boat to call in an airstrike on Kurtz's compound if Willard doesn't return on time.
At the compound, Willard's imprisoned by Kurtz, who enjoys subjecting him to his rambling thoughts about war and morality. Willard also has to deal with an overly talkative photojournalist, who's gone mad from being in the war so long and has become Kurtz's #1 fan. (He's like a Belieber, if Justin Bieber liked to decapitate people just to make a point.)
Back on the boat, a strung-out Chef can't take it anymore. He decides to call in the airstrike. Next time we see Chef, Kurtz is casually tossing his decapitated head into Willard's lap.
Turns out that this beheading was pretty unnecessary: Kurtz wants to die.
He releases Willard and basically allows the man to sneak into his room at night and hack him to death. This goes down while Kurtz's followers are sacrificing a water buffalo, and it all syncs up with The Doors' "The End."
After Kurtz murmurs his famous last words—"The horror, the horror"—Kurtz's followers put down their weapons and kneel worshipfully in front of Willard, who grabs Lance and hightails it back to the boat, totally not interested in a new job as a jungle god. As the disembodied voice from the command center crackles over the radio, Willard shuts it off and everything goes black.