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Stanley Kubrick returned to the subject of war repeatedly in his career, from his first effort with Fear and Desire through movies about World War One, a Roman slave uprising, World War 3 and The Seven Years' War (in Barry Lyndon). He started planning his Vietnam War film in the late 1970s, at about the time that the subject was finally covered by Michael Cimino and Francis Coppola. Almost ten years later and seven years after his previous film, Full Metal Jacket finally hit the screens, preceded by a quixotic trailer that audiences couldn't make head or tail of. But it was clear that another Kubrick was on the way, which has always been exciting news.
Impressively produced, Full Metal Jacket is like most Kubrick films a challenge for the audience. It falls into distinct halves, the first taking place in a Marine Corps boot camp and the second during the Tet Offensive in Hue, one of the few times during the Vietnam War where U.S. ground troops found themselves fighting in urban situations. Viewers seem to prefer the first half of the film to the second. It certainly makes an indelible impression on the mind.
Private "Joker" Davis (Matthew Modine) undergoes basic training with other U.S.M.C. recruits at Parris Island, supervised, terrorized and brutalized by Gunnery Sgt. Hartman, their drill instructor (Lee Ermey, a.k.a. R. Lee Ermey). Hartman's constant verbal abuse and crudity, threats and persecution put the recruits through a psychological wringer that will toughen them into hardboiled soldiers. Most of the young men take it well but Pvt. Leonard Lawrence (Vincent D'Onofrio) is overweight, clumsy, slow on the uptake and in general ill suited for the Corps. Hartman gives it to him hard, re-naming him Gomer Pyle and pummeling him verbally. Leonard has no defense against Hartman but won't quit. When Joker coaches him in the Corps basics he still seems incapable of learning. Hartman breaks his boys down and rebuilds them into strong, aggressive soldiers ready to kill on command. But Leonard's personal psychological transformation leads to disaster.
In Vietnam Joker is assigned to write for the Army's Stars and Stripes, with his photographer 'Rafterman' Kevyn Major Howard. Their job is to transform meaningless or negative news into feel-good copy for the soldiers. Joker's sarcastic remarks do not make him a favorite of his editor, a cynic satisfied to be away from the fighting. Everything changes when the Tet Offensive comes around and the Viet Cong simultaneously attack every military target in the country. Joker and Rafterman are assigned to stick with a Platoon trying to re-secure the city of Hue. Joker is reunited with his old pal "Cowboy" (Arliss Howard) and the rest of the 'colorful' squad, including "Animal Mother" (Adam Baldwin), a hyper-aggressive killer perfectly adapted to a life that consists of little more than fighting and whoring. Penetrating Hue, the platoon strays from its mission. The C.O is killed and other Marines fall victim to a sniper. Joker is in a shooting war, and he cannot distance himself from it with mere irony.
Yet another superior Stanley Kubrick film, Full Metal Jacket shows the director finding the flexibility to deviate far from his precise plans. Not since his special effects in 2001 has Kubrick "winged it" as he does in this film; at the last minute he realized that his military technical adviser R. Lee Ermey's own improvised speeches as a drill sergeant (his previous career) were better than anything his writers had come up with. Ermey is riveting -- reasonable viewers will recoil at the aggression and hostility in his voice, while others will revel in the man's power and have a good laugh at his sick speeches and songs. Forget Jack Webb in the old standard The D.I.: 'Getting with the program' here means identifying body and soul with the brutal instinct that Hartman so well expresses. With this actor Kubrick barely needs a script. Ermey communicates the truth of the military much better than would a director-imposed message. The message of this section of the movie arrives only at the end, with the mental conversion of Leonard into a psychotic killer. Ah yes, we are meant to think, isn't that the whole purpose of this psychological training? Leonard's end is tragic because in his case Hartman and the U.S.M.C. create a monster whose aggression cannot be controlled.
The Vietnam section should not be slighted as 'just another combat film'. Kubrick and his writers adroitly impart the sense of absurdity felt by the soldiers. The aptly nicknamed Joker maintains his equilibrium through sarcasm, maintaining the illusion that he can stay above the moral morass. He survived Hartman's drill by being honest but strong; here he tells little truths to power daily. But his editor/C.O. considers him a nuisance and a general that catches him wearing his "Jungian-opposed" messages of "Born to Kill" and a Peace Sign is not at all amused. Then the Tet Offensive shakes up the command and even rear-line newspaper folk are put on alert. Kubrick revels in the absurdity: the editor hands out combat assignments, and Joker asks, "Does that mean that Ann-Margret's visit is cancelled, sir?"
Kubrick keeps things direct and clear, and improves mightily on the outright mythomania B.S. on bravery and combat pushed by Cimino in The Deer Hunter. With its (usually unrecognized) tone of psychedelic fantasy, Coppola's Apocalypse Now still delivers a poetic take on the combat experience. No lucky dates with Playboy Bunnies or gorgeous French planters' wives for Kubrick's Marines; when they negotiate with Saigon prostitutes and their pimps, we see very clearly how their training encourages them to treat women. The only situation these men respect is being in combat and under fire.
Joker does a bad imitation of John Wayne to mock the sacred mission, and other soldiers adjust by "playing war" even when they're not fighting. They invent nicknames, assume roles and think up gross-out dialogue to demonstrate that they're in control of the situation. They're young men suppressing their anxiety by talking tough and breaking the rules in acceptable ways. Animal Mother has adopted an entire new combat personality. It doesn't ring false - the bravado act is certainly how guys worked out the high school locker room pecking order where I came from. At the extreme are psychotic individuals that truly 'walk the walk', such as the helicopter gunner that Joker and Rafterman observe routinely shooting civilians.
Kubrick recreates Vietnam in a ruined gasworks in London, which had reportedly been idle for decades. The illusion of the foreign location is fairly amazing; we're told that the production flew in palm trees from Spain. The abundant military hardware on display, if one looks closely, is limited to three tanks, three helicopters and a lot of incidental vehicles. Another flawless illusion.
Other Vietnam pictures use pop tunes from the period to express the fact that most of our soldiers in Vietnam are young enough to be watching American Bandstand if they were back home. Kubrick's choice of needle-drops is as inspired as ever, with songs that either evoke aggression or suggest mindless furious action, like Surfin' Bird (The Bird is the word!). Yet we never feel like the movie has been built around the music, like Good Morning Vietnam! Kubrick's most sardonic touch, which says something about the generation of '50s kids that did most of the fighting, is the song chosen for the Marines sing as they march back to base, a good day's killing done. It's not a cheap joke, nor a flippant way to end the show. We think -- (1) yes, this is exactly what these '50s kid TV-raised killers might sing, and (2) what supreme trick did Kubrick or his co-producers pull to license the rights to that song?
Kubrick keeps things uncomplicated. The only image that seems too simple is Leonard's Jack Nicholson horror stare when he cracks up, the one that looks like a Japanese woodcut of a demon. The film's final scene involves the platoon finally catching up with a sniper who killed three of their number. Kubrick apparently filmed additional and alternate material, and ended up with an unused ending that's been talked about almost as much as the pie fight that didn't make the final cut of Dr. Strangelove. Fans of Soldier of Fortune-grade brutality fault Kubrick for not giving the movie the full horror finish; I think that simply seeing Joker forced to use his gun up close and personal is satisfying in itself. He's been in denial about his identity too long.
Warner Home Video's 2-Disc 25th Anniversary Edition Blu-ray of Full Metal Jacket is a fine quality rendering of Stanley Kubrick's film in its appropriate wide screen aspect ratio. Color is excellent throughout. Kubrick normally avoids dissolve transitions that require an optical dupe of his original negative, but here and there we see dissolves that show no apparent degradation of the image.
The 2-disc set contains good and informative extras made with the participation of Kubrick's collaborators. The feature commentary has input from Adam Baldwin, Vincent D'Onofrio, R. Lee Ermey and critic Jay Cocks. Between that and the featurette Between Good and Evil we learn quite a bit about Kubrick's style of working -- actors hired for a set number of weeks ended up attached to Full Metal Jacket for over a year. D'Onofrio talks about the eighty pounds he put on to play Leonard, and Baldwin discusses the controversial unused ending. 1 Everybody discusses the way that Ermey stole the part of the drill instructor simply by demonstrating in drills that not using him would be a ridiculous missed opportunity. D'Onofrio avers that Stanley Kubrick gave him a film career.
A second DVD disc carries the new-to-disc documentary Stanley Kubrick's Boxes, a look at the meticulously files and archives Kubrick kept on the movies he made and research for the ones he planned, like the un-filmed Napoleon. A gallery of still photos taken by Matthew Modine is also present.
Warners' fat book-style packaging contains a souvenir booklet with color photos and good short essays on the film, including actor Modine's personal notes.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Full Metal Jacket Blu-ray rates:
1. A similar mutilation occurs in King Vidor's strange early Technicolor epic of the French and Indian war, Northwest Passage... with a madman perpetrator 'going cannibal'. You don't expect to see that in a Hollywood movie from 1940.
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T'was Ever Thus.