Jan. 12, 2012

Full Metal Jacket (1987)
Grade: 86/100

Director: Stanley Kubrick
Stars: Matthew Modine, Vincent D'Onofrio, R. Lee Ermey

What it's about. It's basically two different movies, loosely connected by the lead's appearance in both. It is circa 1968 and the Vietnam War is rampant. The first part of the film consists of Marines basic training in the U.S. R. Lee Ermey is an indefatiguable drill sergeant transforming raw recruits into hardened killing machines.

Chief among the latter are overweight dufus Vincent D'Onofrio and cynical but exuberant Matthew Modine. D'Onofrio's incompetence compels his fellow privates to assault him one night. This makes D'Onofrio mentally disturbed, and he takes out Ermey to end part one.

The film's second half has Modine in Vietnam as a war correspondent. He needles his supervisor until he is sent to the front lines with his buddy Kevyn Major Howard. There, he experiences male bonding and outrageous Vietnamese prostitutes before seeing action that results in the death of several soldiers in his unit.

How others will see it. Full Metal Jacket had the bad luck to follow Platoon, a somewhat similar Vietnam War movie that had won the Oscar for Best Picture the year before. This undoubtedly dampened box office business and critical acclaim for our present movie, which eked out only a single Oscar nomination, for the adapted screenplay.

It did not take long, though, for Full Metal Jacket to win fans, and today it has surpassed Platoon in popularity, and now only trails Apocalypse Now among Vietnam movies. Full Metal Jacket has over 200K user ratings at imdb.com and at the time of writing is ranked #80 in the imdb Top 250. The user ratings are thus extremely high, but do decline slightly with age, and women over 45 give it "only" a 7.4. Most viewers readily accept the familiar "war is hell" theme, but there may be a minority who are offended for various reasons, such as the mass murder committed by the helicopter gunner, or the deaths of Modine's peers.

How I felt about it. This is a war movie. There are many like it, but this one is Kubrick's. He does it better than contemporaries such as Oliver Stone and Francis Ford Coppola. He does not do it as well as All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), but that film is decades out of cultural memory.

It is true, though, that the first half of the movie is better than the second half. This is partly because the story is tighter, and partly due to the charisma of Ermey. Again, films about young men trying to make the Marines is old cinematic fodder, dating back at least to Tell It to the Marins (1926), but there is no denying that Kubrick does it better, with fewer cliches and greater fear.

But the movie is sometimes overripe. I suspect that in the entire history of the Marines, which dates back to the 18th century, no private has ever murdered his drill sergeant, no matter how often he may have fantasized of doing so. The undue excess continues with the random mass murder perpetuated by the helicopter gunner and the insubordination constantly expressed by soldiers to superior officers. We have not one, but two, different negotiations of sex with Vietnamese prostitutes, enough to inform us that $5 is a good deal, but $10 is a beaucoup price.

Still, despite occasional consternation over what Kubrick emphasizes, there is no denying his skill in dialogue, casting, and eliciting performances. We only wish he wasn't quite such a perfectionist (it had been seven years since The Shining) so that he could have made more films.