Dir. by Stanley Kubrick - 1 hr. 56 min.
by Clayton Hollifield
Yes, I watched "Full Metal Jacket" on Christmas. It's okay - they sing "Happy Birthday" to Jesus himself at one point in the film, so it loosely counts as a holiday film. Also, even though I'm not particularly knowledgeable or even into war films very much, FMJ is a doozy of a movie.
The plot of "Full Metal Jacket" follows a couple of recruits in the Marines (well. a whole platoon of them, but the focus is on two), Private Joker (Matthew Modine) and Private Gomer Pyle (Vincent d'Onofrio) through their basic training, which involves a lot of how-you-say tough love from their drill instructor, Gunner Sergeant Hartman (R. Lee Ermey). Only one makes it out of basic, and is sent to Vietnam to report on the war, and ends up fighting alongside the unit he's supposed to be covering.
Okay, for a film that's twenty-five years old, I suppose I don't need to tap-dance around spoilers. Consider that a warning. As is usually the case, it's not so much the germ of the idea that matters as much as the execution. And the execution here is absolutely brilliant. This is something in between two and three films packed into one. A director could easily make an entire film about basic training, and the first forty-five minutes of FMJ stand on their own as a stunning unbroken barrage. There's not so much dialogue as there is forty minutes of Gny Sgt. Hartman railing on these recruits endlessly, and five minutes of aftermath. R. Lee Ermey's performance is iconic, and provides enough verbal material for anyone who would want to provoke bar-fights for an entire lifetime. And honestly, this entire first part of the film could be carried by Ermey's performance, but it doesn't have to. Both Pvt. Joker and Pvt. Gomer Pyle have very minimal dialogue; this is appropriate because these Marines are being trained to act and not to talk. Vincent d'Onofrio does more with reactions and projecting his deteriorating mental state (and virtually no dialogue) than I've ever seen. He's so excellent in this role (and Kubrick so good at picking out scenes to show how badly Pyle is being broken down over the course of these eight weeks) that as horrific and shocking as Pyle's eventual response is to his situation, you know and feel that it's coming the whole time.
Over the course of these forty-five minutes, it's not so much of an emotional roller-coaster ride as it's the part of the roller-coaster ride where you've crested and start free-falling for a few seconds groundward looped and with no end in sight. While Pvt. Joker excels, Pvt. Pyle is not only going to Hell, he's arrived there before his death and is taking people with him. Before we even get to the war itself in Vietnam, the audience is taken through the ringer.
Once in Vietnam, the pressure of basic training is replaced by a different pressure for the two main characters we follow from here - Joker (who has gotten a military newspaper correspondent gig) and his cameraman, Rafterman. It's not the pressure of having to please a superior, it's the pressure of being somewhere they aren't wanted, and of getting shot at unexpectedly. There are more iconic scenes here; the "me so horny" bit that kicks off the second major part of the movie and the climax of the movie involving the unit being waylaid by a sniper, and the unit having to take out the sniper. It almost goes without saying that "Full Metal Jacket" is an intense movie, but it also needs to be said. Unlike Kubrick's other anti-war film, "Dr. Strangelove...," this is not a comedy. It's a horror film that is set in a war zone; a battle between two sides that have no correct moves to make. Everything either side does just makes things worse, but they have no choice but to act.
The climax with the sniper, which turns out to be a young Vietnamese girl, is as brutal and predictable as Pvt. Pyle's end. And I don't mean predictable as a pejorative, it's the kind of predictable where you can see the mistakes coming and can't get out of the way of them. This is part of the horror of "Full Metal Jacket," that you know what's coming and there's not a damned thing you can do about it. Kubrick does recycle one trick from "Strangelove," following up the harrowing scene with the girl begging someone to shoot her and put her out of her misery, with a bunch of troops marching in the middle of the night in front of burning buildings, while singing the "Mickey Mouse Show" theme song. That juxtaposition of light-hearted music with the horrors of war is a grand anti-war statement: when you have no choice but to behave in an awful manner, the only solace left is subversion and irony.
"Full Metal Jacket" is one of the best war films I've seen. It holds up, the humor just as dark and awful as ever, the horrors just as bad as any nightmare. "Strangelove" is still my favorite Kubrick film, but this is right on its heels on that list.
4.5 / 5 - Blu-Ray