There's a scene early in director Sam Mendes' Jarhead where a gaggle of Marines go apeshit over the Wagner-fueled bombing sequence from Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now. It perfectly captures the feeling of war as a giddy, visceral contact high – which happens to be a particularly apt metaphor for Mendes' cinematic adaptation of Anthony Swofford's caustic, controversial memoir: a war film as a neatly referenced homage to prior genre entries that does little to distinguish itself but gives off the air of being About Something.
While Jarhead might seem on the surface to be scant more than stylish riffs on material found in Full Metal Jacket, Three Kings, Catch-22 and yes, Apocalypse Now, it's a tactic that results in a hollowed-out, emotionally dulled film. Jarhead is a narrative populated with characters that cry out for empathy but elicit only a passive shrug at film's end; war is hell but to view it through the perspective of reluctant grunt Swoff (Jake Gyllenhaal), war is ironic, maddening and so very boring.
Jarhead (military slang for that trademark high 'n' tight haircut) follows the smart, cocky Swoff through basic training in the early Nineties (a segment so clearly stolen from Kubrick that the filmmakers should drop a royalty check in the mail) and into operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm. Swoff, a Marine Sniper Scout, befriends the introspective Troy (Peter Sarsgaard) and his commanding officer, Staff Sgt. Sykes (Jamie Foxx), while staving off boredom, waiting for a chance to glimpse the "pink mist" (more slang for the gruesome aftermath of a fatal head-shot).
Perhaps even more so than its relative lack of emotion is the film's apolitical stance – given that, as referenced in the film's vague final line, the United States is still out in the desert, Jarhead would seem an entirely relevant film to make, thereby making a statement. While anti-war overtones do seep in during certain scenes, Mendes certainly doesn't let an overt sense of politics enter the picture; it's a curious choice that only reinforces the film's lack of ambition.
That the film doesn't set out to do much beyond sketch characters is tragic as Mendes has assembled a truly sterling cast and, intellectual/emotional emptiness be damned, a script from William Broyles Jr. that drips jet-black satire and moments of piercing humanity in equal measure. Roger Deakins' hand-held cinematography captures glimpses of grim beauty – the film's climactic march through flaming oil fields is indelible and haunting.
Gyllenhaal, in a career-making performance, runs the emotive gamut as Swoff; his total meltdown near the film's climax (involving an unfortunate comrade and a loaded gun) is chilling in its intensity. Sarsgaard is reliably superb (and his climactic collapse rivets you to the screen); Foxx doesn't have much to do beyond dispensing sage advice amid profanity while Lucas Black and Chris Cooper both register.
Jarhead aspires to be many things but in the end, is very few. It's an engaging film that apes earlier, better efforts, paling in comparison to what's fed live on the evening news; like those Marines cheering Apocalypse Now, Jarhead may get your blood pumping, but it's merely a pale imitation of the real thing.
Outfitted with a slick, sharp 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer, Jarhead looks gritty, desaturated and jittery - thanks to ace cinematographer Roger Deakins. Relying upon handheld camerawork and parched desert settings, the film doesn't suffer from edge enhancement, although there are occasionally noticeable motion artifacts (which is more likely a fault of my screener copy rather than a flaw of the final retail version) - a pretty good transfer of difficult visual material.
Boasting an active, immersive Dolby Digital 5.1 track, Jarhead sounds as good as it looks; as befits a war film, there's lots of surround activity and heavy bass, and all that shouted dialogue doesn't get lost amid the score and sound effects. Spanish and French Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack are also included as are English, French and Spanish subtitles.
For review, we were provided with the single disc release; Universal is also releasing a two-disc "Collector's Edition," which, in addition, to the bonus features listed below includes the following: "Jarhead Diaries," a collection of video diaries with an introduction from Mendes; "Background," a featurette examining the real U.S. Marines who appear in the film (also with a Mendes introduction); "Semper Fi: Life After The Corps," a featurette with Swofford and Laura Nix interviewing former Marines about re-integrating into civilian life (also with a Mendes introduction and Swofford audio introduction).
This isn't to say that the single disc isn't nicely equipped with supplemental material: there's a pair of commentary tracks – Mendes sits for a candid, informative solo chat, while screenwriter Broyles and author Swofford sit for a combined track that delves, expectedly, more into the technical writing aspects – as well as 11 deleted scenes in anamorphic widescreen and Dolby 5.1, playable separately or together (for an aggregate of 19 minutes), with optional commentary from Mendes and editor Walter Murch; the uncut news interview footage (running a total of 16 minutes), with optional commentary from Mendes and Murch and "Swoff's Fantasies," sequences deleted from the film which are playable separately or together in anamorphic widescreen and Dolby 5.1 (for an aggregate of six minutes), with optional Mendes and Murch commentary.
Jarhead is a flawed yet powerful film worth watching for several performances – Gyllenhaal, Sarsgaard and Foxx all turn in stellar work. A darkly comic satire that references many war films but surpasses none of them, Sam Mendes' film arrives on DVD with a healthy array of bonus features. Recommended.
Portions of this review were reprinted from the Oklahoma Gazette.