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Critics and film historians have often noted how the film is divided into three equal thirds or acts. Likewise the plot synopsis is also divided into three acts, spanning the years of 1968–1975.[a 2]
Act I - In Clairton, a small working class town in western Pennsylvania, in late 1968, Russian American steel workers Michael (De Niro), Steven (Savage), and Nick (Walken), with the support of their friends Stanley (Cazale), John (Dzundza) and Axel (Chuck Aspegren, his only movie role; he was a steel worker from Gary, Indiana), prepare for two rites of passage: marriage and military service. The opening scenes set the character traits of the three main characters. Michael is the no-nonsense, serious but unassuming leader, Steven the loving, near-groom, pecked at by his mother for not wearing a scarf with his tuxedo and Nick is the quiet, introspective man who loves hunting because, "I like the trees ... you know ... the way the trees are ..." The recurring theme of "one shot", which is how Michael prefers to take down a deer, is introduced. Before the trio ships out, Steven and his girlfriend Angela (who is pregnant by another man but loved by Steven nonetheless) marry in an Orthodox wedding. In the meantime, Michael contains his feelings for Nick's girlfriend Linda (Streep). At the wedding reception held at the local VFW bar, the guys get drunk, dance, sing and have a good time, but then notice a soldier in a US Army's Special Forces uniform. Michael buys him a drink and tries to start a conversation with him to find out what Vietnam is like, but he ignores Michael. After Michael explains that he, Steven and Nick are going to Vietnam, the Green Beret raises his glass and says "fuck it" to everyone's shock and amazement. Obviously disturbed and under mental anguish, the soldier again toasts them with "fuck it". After being restrained by the others from starting a fight, Michael goes back to the bar and in a mocking jest to the soldier, raises his glass and toasts him with "fuck it". The soldier then glances over at Michael and grins smugly. Later, during the Russian Orthodox traditional wedding toast to Steven and Angela, which is believed to be good luck for a couple who drink from conjoined goblets without spilling a drop, a drop of blood-red wine unknowingly spills on her wedding gown, foreshadowing the coming events. Near the end of the reception, Nick asks Linda to marry him, and she agrees. Later that night, after a drunk and naked Michael runs through the streets of town, Nick chases him down and begs Michael not to leave him "over there" if anything happens. The next day, Michael and the remaining friends go deer hunting one last time, and Michael again scores a deer with "one shot".
Act II - The film then jumps abruptly to a war-torn village, where U.S. helicopters attack a communist occupied Vietnamese village with napalm. A North Vietnamese soldier throws a stick grenade into a hiding place full of civilians. An unconscious Mike (now a staff sergeant in the Army Special Forces) wakes up to see the NVA soldier shoot a woman carrying a baby. In revenge Mike kills him. Meanwhile a unit of UH-1 "Huey" helicopters drops off several US infantrymen, Nick and Steven among them. Michael, Steven, and Nick unexpectedly find each other just before they are captured and held together in a riverside prisoner of war camp with other US Army and ARVN prisoners. For entertainment, the sadistic guards force their prisoners to play Russian roulette and gamble on the outcome. All three friends are forced to play. Steven aims the gun above his head, grazing himself with the bullet, and is punished by incarceration to an underwater cage, full of rats and the bodies of others who earlier faced the same fate. Michael and Nick end up playing against each other, and Michael convinces the guards to let them play with three bullets in the gun. After a tense match, they kill their captors and escape. Mike had earlier argued with Nick about whether Steven could be saved, but after killing their captors he rescues Steven. The three float downriver on a tree branch. An American helicopter accidentally finds them, but only Nick is able to climb aboard. The weakened Steven falls back into water and Mike plunges in the water to rescue him. Unluckily, Steven breaks both legs in the fall. Mike helps him to reach the river bank, and then carries him through the jungle to friendly lines. Approaching a caravan of locals escaping the war zone, he stops a South Vietnamese military truck and places the wounded Steven on it, asking the soldiers to take care of him. Nick, who is psychologically damaged apparently suffering amnesia, recuperates in a military hospital in Saigon with no knowledge on the status of his friends. At night, he aimlessly stumbles through the red-light district. At one point, he encounters Julien Grinda (Pierre Segui), a champagne-drinking friendly Frenchman outside a gambling den where men play Russian roulette for money. Grinda entices the reluctant Nick to participate, and leads him into the den. Mike is present in the den, watching the game, but the two friends do not notice each other at first. When Mike does see Nick, he is unable to get his attention. When Nick is introduced into the game he instead grabs the gun, fires it at the current contestant and then again at his own temple, causing the audience to riot in protest. Grinda hustles Nick outside to his car to escape the angry mob. Mike cannot catch up with Nick and Grinda as they speed away.
Act III - Back in the U.S., Mike returns home but maintains a low profile. He tells the cab driver to pass by the house where all his friends are assembled, as he is embarrassed by the fuss made over him by Linda and the others. Mike goes to a hotel and struggles with his feelings, as he thinks both Nick and Steven are dead or missing. He eventually visits Linda and grows close to her, but only because of the friend they both think they have lost. Mike is eventually told about Angela, whom he goes to visit at the home of Steven's mother. She is lethargic and barely responsive. She writes a phone number on a scrap of paper, which leads Mike to the local veterans' hospital where Steven has been for several months. Mike goes hunting with Axel, John and Stanley one more time, and after tracking a beautiful deer across the woods, takes his "one shot" but pulls the rifle up and fires into the air, unable to take another life. He then sits on a rock escarpment and yells out, "OK?", which echoes back at him from the opposing rock faces leading down to the river, signifying his fight with his mental demons over losing Steven and Nick. He also berates Stanley for carrying around a small revolver and waving it around, not realizing it is still loaded. He knows the horror of war and wants no part of it anymore. Steven has lost both his legs and is partially paralyzed. Mike visits Steven, who reveals that someone in Saigon has been mailing large amounts of cash to him, and Mike is convinced that it is Nick. Mike brings Steven home to Angela and then travels to Saigon just before its fall in 1975. He tracks down the Frenchman Grinda, who has made a lot of money from the Russian-roulette-playing American. He finds Nick in a crowded roulette club, but Nick appears to have no recollection of his friends or his home in Pennsylvania. Mike sees the needle tracks on his arm, a sign of drug abuse. He realizes that Nick thinks he (Michael) and Steven are dead, since he is the only one who made it back on the helicopter. Mike enters himself in a game of Russian roulette against Nick, hoping to jar Nick's memory and persuade him to come home, but Nick's mind is gone. In the last moment, after Mike's attempts to remind him of their trips hunting together, he finally breaks through, and Nick recognizes Mike and smiles. Nick then tells Mike, "one shot", raises the gun to his temple, and pulls the trigger. The bullet is in the gun's top chamber, and Nick kills himself. Horrified, Michael tries to revive him, but to no avail.
Epilogue - Back home in 1975, there is a funeral for Nick, whom Michael brings home, good to his promise. The film ends with the whole cast at their friend's bar, singing "God Bless America" and toasting in Nick's honor.