Full Metal Jacket
Powerful though familiar war & training drama
by Todd McCarthy
Hollywood — After a 7-year silence and amidst the usual atmosphere of secrecy, speculation and high expectations, Stanley Kubrick has delivered Full Metal Jacket an intense, schematic, superbly made Vietnam War drama that will impress some and confound others.
Previewed in more than 100 theaters June 19, Warner Bros, release should open well due to advance interest, but ultimate b.o. will depend upon whether Platoon has created a deep new market for Vietnam War stories or, in fact, has stolen the new film’s thunder.
As has been the case with all of the director’s films since 2001: A Space Odyssey, initial reaction will be strongly divided; anyone anticipating the ultimate Vietnam trip, a Southeast Asian Dr. Strangelove or a topper to Platoon will surely be let down. As always with Kubrick, it is best to throw all preconceived ideas to the wind.
Kubrick has dealt with the futility and horrors of war on numerous occasions in the past, notably in Fear And Desire (his little-seen first film), Paths Of Glory and Dr. Strangelove, and if there is a way in which Full Metal Jacket does disappoint, it is in the familiarity of the basic combat genre material. Most of what’s on view here has been seen before in some way or another, and pic is perhaps lacking that extra philosophical dimension that has marked Kubrick’s greatest films.
But this graphic portrait of two levels of hell on earth generates considerable power via many riveting sequences, extraordinary dialog and first-rate performances.
Like the source material, Gustav Hasford’s ultra-violent novel The Short-Timers, Kubrick’s picture is strikingly divided into two parts. First 44 minutes are set exclusively in a Marine Corps basic training camp, while remaining 72 minutes (including end credits) embrace events surrounding the 1968 Tet Offensive and skirmishing in the devastated city of Hue.
Always a great screen subject, basic training has surely never had its essential mechanics and motivations stripped so bare as they are here. Boldly and with considerable dark humor, entire section illustrates how young men are systematically dehumanized and refashioned as killing machines, and reminds somewhat of A Clockwork Orange in its portrait of the reprogramming of young men.
Gradually emerging through it all are the irreverent Pvt. Joker (Matthew Modine) and the earnest Cowboy (Arliss Howard), but engaging the D.I.’s special interest is the overweight simpleton Pvt. Pyle (Vincent D’Onofrio), whom the sergeant bullies and ridicules mercilessly until the kid goes over the edge, Kubrick acidly demonstrates how successfully the Marine machine transforms boys into killers, and first act ends with a stunning act of violence that exposes the potential for a trained soldier to warp into an assassin.
Director’s other point as he makes the jump over to Vietnam is that not even the contorted rigors of camp can prepare one for the realities of warfare; the demands of the former are a known quantity and can be fulfilled to the letter, whereas the latter is ruled by chance and uncertainty.
Film softens a bit in the midsection as Joker and Rafterman (Kevyn Major Howard), both working for Stars and Stripes, check the lay of the land. But the screws soon tighten again as Cowboy’s men, joined by the journalists, slowly move through the bombed-out city and begin being picked off by sniper fire. Pic concludes with a dramatic confrontation that echoes the climax of the first section.
Brilliantly staged and time, protracted finale recalls Paths Of Glory in its searing delineation of war’s awful essentials, but Kubrick’s dispassionate calculation also gives the sequence the dimensions of a fateful chess game in which all are disposable pawns. The director’s assessment of human beings and the world they have wrought remains low.
Much wonderment was devoted to how Kubrick, who won’t fly and supposedly hasn’t left the British Isles in some 20 years, would recreate the Vietnam War in the environs of London. He has done so with precise details but on a limited scale, with just a few soldiers running and hiding among the ruins in an urban conflict.
In this regard, production designer Anton Furst has amazingly fashioned a cohesive alien world, while lenser Douglas Milsome, moving up from second unit cameraman, has helped his boss obtain a subdued, slightly desaturated look dominated by greens, blues and gray skies. Film is, unsurprisingly, technically impeccable.
While it doesn’t develop a particularly strong narrative line, script by Kubrick, Michael (Dispatches) Herr and novelist Hasford is loaded with vivid, outrageously vulgar military vernacular that contributes heavily to the film’s power.
Performances by the all-male cast (save for a couple of Vietnamese hookers) are also exceptional. Surrounded on one side by humorously macho types such as Adam Baldwin’s Animal Mother and Dorian Harewood’s Eightball, and on the other by less secure soldiers such as Cowboy and Rafterman, Modine holds the center effectively by embodying both what it takes to survive in the war and a certain omniscience.
But most memorable of all, from the opening section, are Vincent D’Onofrio as the blubbery recruit who snaps from sweet dummy to madman, and Lee Ermey, a former Marine and Vietnam vet who doubles as technical adviser here (a role he filled on Apocalypse Now, The Boys In Company C and Purple Hearts) and is mesmerizing as the D.I. who never speaks beneath a shout. One shudders to think of Kubrick making him do 50 takes of all his scenes.
Variety, 24 June 1987