Newest Review: ... Gunnery Sergeant Hartman (R Lee Ermey). The recruits we follow the most are Matthew Modine as James "Joker" Davis, Arliss Ho... more
The Red Badge of Courage
Full Metal Jacket (DVD)
Member Name: Jake Speed
Full Metal Jacket (DVD)
Advantages: Good first half
Disadvantages: Not so good second half
Legendary director Stanley Kubrick had intended to follow his horror chiller The Shining with a film about the holocaust but eventually went off the idea and decided he wanted to make a picture about the Vietnam war instead. He became deeply interested in the 1979 novel "The Short-Timers" (by author Gustav Hasford about his experiences as a combat correspondent in Vietnam) and decided to use it as the basis for his film. Michael Herr (author of the Vietnam War book "Dispatches") had worked with Kubrick on his aborted holocaust screenplay and reluctantly (for Herr wasn't too keen to rehash his Vietnam memories again) agreed to collaberate. Hasford met Kubrick but the pair did not get on and Hasford was eventually shut out of the project - probably to the relief of both. In typical Kubrick fashion, he took so long to prepare and make 1987's Full Metal Jacket that Oliver Stone beat him to the punch with his 1986 Oscar festooned Vietnam epic Platoon. The success of Platoon diluted the impact of Full Metal Jacket and stole his thunder somewhat. The emergence of other Vietnam War films like Hamburger Hill in 1987 also gave the unfortunate impression that Kubrick had latched onto a post-Platoon movement but in reality he had been preparing what became Full Metal Jacket long before Platoon surfaced. Strangely, considering that Stone was actually a combat soldier in Vietnam, Full Metal Jacket feels like a more realistic and serious film about the war than Platoon. Less overblown and Hollywood. It does have some narrative problems though and probably misses out on the chance to be a truly great film. Full Metal Jacket is essentially split into two acts. The first half takes place entirely at Parris Island in 1967. Young recruits arrive for basic training and to be turned into Marines by the fearsome and foul mouthed drill instructor Gunnery Sergeant Hartman (R Lee Ermey). The recruits we follow the most are Matthew Modine as James "Joker" Davis, Arliss Howard as Robert "Cowboy" Evans and Vincent D'Onofrio as Leonard "Gomer Pyle" Lawrence.
The overweight and clumsy Pyle finds life at the hellish camp more difficult than the others and frequently attracts the wrath of Sergeant Hartman - who uses a method of collective punishment for Pyle's misdeeds and mistakes. The second act moves to Vietnam. It's 1968 and Joker is now a Corporal and a Marine War correspondent with Stars and Stripes. We follow him around Da Nang and the North Vietnamese Army begins the Tet Offensive. A series of vignettes occur and he eventually meets up with an old friend from Parris Island as the rubble strewn carnage and confusion of war surrounds them. Full Metal Jacket is definitely a game of two halves then and it has to be said that the first section of the film as the raw recruits undergo basic training at the hands of their terrifying instructor is more compelling and focussed than the later Vietnam sections. This is in no small part down to R Lee Ermey who is both funny and frightening as salty Sergeant Hartman. Emery was a real Marine drill instructor in Vietnam and a jobbing actor who originally joined Full Metal Jacket as a technical consultant to ensure there would be military accuracy in the Marine training scenes. He decided to make a video of himself spewing insults to camera in full on Sergeant mode and Kubrick decided to cast him in the film instead. A great move. "If you ladies leave my island, if you survive recruit training... you will be a weapon, you will be a minister of death, praying for war. But until that day you are pukes! You're the lowest form of life on Earth. You are not even human-f*****-beings! You are nothing but unorganized grabasstic pieces of amphibian s**t! Because I am hard, you will not like me. But the more you hate me, the more you will learn: I am hard, but I am fair! There is no racial bigotry here! Here you are all equally worthless! And my orders are to weed out all non-hackers who do not pack the gear to serve in my beloved Corps! Do you maggots understand that?" Ermey became something of a caricature in the end doing nutty turns in horror films but this remains his best performance.
Emery improvised about 50% of his own dialogue and has a constant stream of inventive insults (most of them even more unrepeatable here) to hurl forth at his bewildered and bruised recruits. The film is about colonisation and individuality. In order to colonise other parts of the world the army first has to colonise minds. Wipe out the individual. Matthew Modine's Joker struggles to maintain his individuality at the camp but later regains it in Vietnam (he has a Born to Kill message on his protective hat and wears a CND/peace sign around his neck to highlight Kubrick's reccurring motif of duality) where he must learn to control his fear. The message of the film seems to be that the army prefers intelligent - even sensitive - recruits like Joker to more unstable or unthinking material. They need people who are smart but able to rationalise the terrible acts they may have to do. Vincent D'Onofrio is excellent as the bullied and tubby Gomer, the frequent victim of both Hartman and the other recruits. The most sensitive and moving scenes in the film come when the despairing Joker does his best to help Gomer survive this terrible place and get through training. As ever, the hermetic Kubrick made the film in England near his home rather than go anywhere. He used the British Army base Bassingbourn Barracks to double for Parris Island and the derelict Beckton Gas Works on the Isle of Dogs became the wrecked city of Huế! He imported hundreds of palm trees and tropical plants and made Cliffe marshes on the Thames Vietnam. It works relatively well for the most part.
The US Marine boot camp seems authentic despite not being shot in America and while Vietnam unavoidably seems rather concrete at times Kubrick is not really making an epic war film with huge jungle conflagurations, explosions and fifty seven helicopters napalming rivers. He's not interested in that. I do think though that the film becomes surprisingly aimless and rambling when it moves to Vietnam. It suffers from Emery and D'Onofrio no longer being onscreen and becomes fragmentary. When soldiers are shown adressing the camera directly to speak to back home via a television news crew the film becomes like an mawkish episode of MASH. I suppose the point is that Kubrick is not interested in a traditional narrative structure here. The Vietnam portion film only attains the intensity of the first section when Joker and a platoon find themselves having to deal with a persistant and deadly sniper in the deadly rubble of war. Full Metal Jacket is almost like a film without a hero in a way. There are no Hollywood stars littering the cast. Matthew Modine is not the most exciting actor in the world but he's effective here. Interestingly, the part of Joker had been intended for comic brat pack actor Anthony Michael Hall (of The Breakfast Club and Weird Science fame) but he bailed out after contract talks were not completed to his satisfaction. Aside from Modine, Emery and D'Onofrio, the person everyone remembers the most is Papillon Soo Soo as the young prostitute who propositions an amused Joker in Da Nang. "Me love you long time!" I think South Park once got a whole episode out of the phrases she utters here.
Full Metal Jacket has a brilliant first half and a not so good second half. It's a very good film but not a great one. At the time of writing you can buy a basic copy of this with no extras for under a fiver. I'd consider one of the (extras heavy) Kubrick box sets if you do feel like owning it.
Summary: Good but not great