As the picture starts, we're introduced to the main cast of characters getting their heads shaved. These young recruits have their identities and distinguishing physical characteristics stripped from them. Even their names are taken away, replaced with generic and easy-to-remember monikers like Cowboy, Joker, or Gomer Pyle. For 45 solid minutes, almost every single line of dialogue is screamed at them by their taskmaster Drill Instructor. Any uniqueness or hint of personality is sapped out of them through a constant and relentless schedule of marching, chanting, and drilling procedures in unison for hours on end. What were once young men are turned into robotic, unthinking, unquestioning killers. Real Marines will testify to the authenticity of these scenes, if not necessarily the conclusions drawn from them, but to Kubrick's mind this behavior is no different than the misguided "rehabilitation" that the authorities tried to perform on the main character of his 1971 film A Clockwork Orange, treatment that only served to make the boy more psychotic. Indeed, by the time the Boot Camp section of the film is over we'll witness the dangerous psychosis breeding in one of the Marines long before anyone is sent overseas. It isn't just war that makes these characters crazy; it's the entire industry of warfare we've built in preparation for it that does.
The shift to Vietnam in the second half is intentionally jarring, as we move from the regimented order of Boot Camp to the chaos of real war. Pvt. Joker, the most sensible and human of the recruits we've met takes a station not in infantry like his friends, but writing jingoistic propaganda for the military's official Stars & Stripes newspaper. He knows the stuff he's shoveling is crap and has no compunctions about it. He takes a detached, ironic view of the insanity around him. Nonetheless, even this relatively meek soldier yearns to get out "into the shit" to prove his worth as a man, until actual combat starts, at which point he immediately admits that he's not ready for it. Wearing a peace symbol on his shirt and the words "Born to Kill" scrawled on his helmet, Joker says kiddingly that he's making a statement about "the duality of man, the Jungian thing". In fact, that's exactly what Stanley Kubrick does with the movie. Through Joker's eyes we view the extremes of humanity, the camaraderie of soldiers for their brothers as well as their cold-blooded hatred for not just the enemy but anything foreign. Joker's story is the moral backbone of the film, and his ultimate corruption informs us of the filmmaker's attitudes about mankind as a species and its frightening potential.
Full Metal Jacket features a few battles, including a harrowing confrontation between the squad of Marines and a lone sniper, but drama is clearly its focus, enhanced by Kubrick's mastery of the film medium. Every one of those surreal devastated cityscapes of Vietnam was actually shot in England, with amazing production design by Anton Furst. Matthew Modine makes a fine audience surrogate through this journey, and R. Lee Ermey delivers an iconic performance as the stern D.I. (the actor has since based an entire career around recycling this role). Kubrick's notorious misanthropy is evident throughout the production, as it is with almost all of his films, which I say not as criticism but as actual praise for his conviction. Full Metal Jacket may not win over every viewer expecting a traditional war movie, but regardless deserves to stand among the best of the genre.
The Blu-ray Disc:
Blu-ray discs are only playable in a compatible Blu-ray player. They will not function in a standard DVD player or in an HD DVD player. Please note that the star rating scales for video and audio are relative to other High Definition disc content, not to traditional DVD.
Let's begin by addressing the controversy about the movie's widescreen aspect ratio. Full Metal Jacket was composed for and played theatrically at 1.85:1. However, when his films were released on the VHS and laserdisc formats in the early 1990s, Stanley Kubrick instructed that they be presented open-matte, exposing the entire image on the camera negative regardless of his original framing intentions. In some films, this revealed previously hidden production flubs such as the helicopter rotors at the top of the frame early in The Shining. On other films like Dr. Strangelove, the full-frame presentation resulted in aspect ratio variances from shot to shot within scenes, since certain shots had hard mattes in place inside the camera while others didn't. Both of these artifacts would normally be invisible or at least lessened with proper widescreen matting. In almost all of the films, the looser 4:3 framing simply throws off the compositional balance of the entire movie, leaving too much empty headroom at the top of shots and dead space at the bottom.
Kubrick asked for the full-frame presentations because, to be perfectly blunt about it, he was a black bar hater and didn't like seeing letterboxing on his TV screen. He had some eccentric ideas about black bars affecting the viewer's perception of the movie. Unfortunately, the director died before the prevalence of widescreen televisions on the market, and we will never know if he might have eventually changed his opinion (William Friedkin used to be a black bar hater too, but now embraces widescreen on home video). This is especially problematic because it's lead to the common misconception that 4:3 was always the intended Original Aspect Ratio for these films, which is simply not the case. When it came time to release them on DVD, Warner Home Video believed that they were doing the right thing in honoring Kubrick's wishes by retaining the 4:3 framing, even for the "Digitally Remastered" editions released in 2000.
Film purists protested the full-frame decision, and now Warner is using these new High Definition releases as their excuse to finally unveil Full Metal Jacket in widescreen for the first time on home video. The widescreen framing is a marked improvement, restoring the proper sense of balance and proportion to the shots. Facial close-ups that were previously centered too low in the frame are now more effectively positioned (the golden rule for close-ups is that the actor's eyes should be placed no more than 1/3 of the way down from the top of the frame), and Kubrick's striking symmetrical compositions are better emphasized.
With all that out of the way, the other picture quality aspects of this disc are also likely to perplex and frustrate many viewers. The fact of the matter is that Stanley Kubrick had his own preferences for motion picture photography that were usually antithetical to the slick and glossy style that Hollywood has weaned us all on. The Full Metal Jacket cinematography is drab, hazy, flat, and grainy. That's the way it's meant to look, and to be honest it's often quite beautiful in its way. Especially toward the end of the film, as the soldiers are maneuvering through the burning remnants of a bombed-out city, much of the imagery is really lovely, and wouldn't be nearly as effective in the usual magazine-perfect Hollywood style. With a movie like this, you're not going to get popping colors or rich black levels with vibrant three-dimensional depth. Nevertheless, with the exception of some occasionally pinkish flesh tones, the color transfer here is accurate to the way the movie is supposed to look.
We do have a couple of issues with the disc's technical mastering, though. Like the HD DVD before it, Warner authored this Blu-ray disc from an older HD master originally transferred in 1080i format and only recently deinterlaced to 1080p in the studio. Unfortunately, at the time the master was struck, heavy vertical domain filtering was applied to reduce the appearance of aliasing and interlace artifacts on 1080i TVs. The process has the side effects of losing vertical resolution detail and introducing jagged artifacts and shimmer in diagonal lines when reassembled to 1080p or other progressive resolutions. It's still better than standard DVD, but not nearly as good as the best that High Definition can deliver, especially when combined with the movie's already soft photographic style.
The other noticeable problem is the Blu-ray's MPEG2 compression (this is in fact Warner's final MPEG2 Blu-ray before switching to their preferred VC-1 codec). Although for the most part identical in quality to the VC-1 compressed HD DVD, this is a rather grainy movie in parts and at times the MPEG2 can't keep up, rendering it as mosquito noise that clusters around specific objects in the frame (which real film grain would never do). The HD DVD also has this problem, but to a lesser extent. The difference between the two discs is slight, but the HD DVD does have a small advantage.
Neither problem is severe enough that it should deter Kubrick fans who want to see Full Metal Jacket in its best presentation to date.
The Full Metal Jacket Blu-ray disc is not flagged with an Image Constraint Token and will play in full High Definition quality over a Blu-ray player's analog Component Video outputs.
As idiosyncratic as he was about photography, Kubrick had just as many strange preferences for audio. After using expansive, multi-channel sound mixes on his epics Spartacus and 2001, one day Kubrick just decided that he would only use basic mono from that point forward. The decision had something to do with inadequate theatrical support for stereo and multi-channel at the time, as well as the fact that his movies would wind up in mono on television broadcast anyway. This attitude lasted all the way through to Full Metal Jacket in 1987. It wasn't until his final film, 1999's Eyes Wide Shut, that Kubrick would come back around to multi-channel audio, and at that time authorized his earlier mono films to be remixed into 5.1.
The remixing of a mono film can go wrong in a number of ways. At its worst, we get gimmicky tracks where sounds are artificially panned around the room in a distracting manner, or where sound effects are replaced with newly foleyed substitutes that don't sound anything like the originals (both problems that plague The Terminator's 5.1 remix, for example). Fortunately, Warner gave Full Metal Jacket a quite tasteful remix. The movie's first half set in Boot Camp remains mostly monaural with the exception of some music cues given mild stereo presence. The track doesn't open up beyond that until the shift to Vietnam, where we start to get some occasional directional cues to the rear speakers and subdued surround envelopment every once in a while. Traits like that I would consider criticisms of a modern 5.1 soundtrack, but when it comes to remixing an originally mono movie what I'm looking for is something that sounds the least tinkered with, and that retains as much of the original mix's flavor as possible. Unlike many similar attempts, Full Metal Jacket's 5.1 mix feels very organic to the picture. It's subtly done and not distracting. The purist in me wishes that the original mono track was provided as an option, but I don't have any serious complaints about the new soundtrack.
In terms of its technical presentation, the Blu-ray's audio is set for a low default volume and will require amplification above normal levels. The track isn't particularly dynamic in aggressiveness or bass response, but sounds good for what the movie is. Fidelity is about average for a 1980s production. Dialogue is clear without distortion. Machine gun fire has a very naturalistic crackle that hasn't been exaggerated like we hear in most action and war movies. You won't feel any deep thumping in your chest when the shooting starts, but this just isn't that type of movie. The track probably won't bowl anyone over, but it's a faithful representation of how the movie is meant to sound (in this 5.1 configuration, at least).
Subs & Dubs: