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Full Metal Jacket
1987 - R - 116 Mins.
Director: Stanley Kubrick
Producer: Stanley Kubrick
Written By: Gustav Hasford and Michael Herr
Starring: Matthew Modine, R. Lee Ermey, Adam Baldwin, Vincent D'Onofrio, Ian Tyler
Review by: John Ulmer
I always hesitate to call "Apocalypse Now" a Vietnam film, because essentially it has nothing to do with any war in particular. The novel, by Joseph Conrad, was written long before the Vietnam War. Its hero was an ivory merchant traveling down the Congo River in search of a man named Kurtz, who was reported to have locked himself away from civilization in the heart of darkness.

"Apocalypse Now" had a fine story, great acting and a terrific narrative drive helmed by Coppola. But it wasn't a Vietnam film.

Oliver Stone's "Platoon" was a 'Nam film, and the best one ever made. It still stands today as my favorite war film, not counting those centered around wars--such as "The Great Escape" or "Apocalypse Now"--but those entirely focused on wars as the themes of the films.

"Platoon" worked for a number of reasons, primarily because it had interesting characters and a brutally honest outlook upon what war can do to a man. It was a very human story, powered by the innocence in a single young kid who joined the Army in hopes of coming to appreciate his own life. And that is one of the biggest flaws of "Full Metal Jacket." It has almost no humanity at all, and when it does, the humanity feels contrived.

Often referred to as one of his lesser great works, Stanley Kubrick's "Full Metal Jacket" is an assortment of various ideas that never really come together in perfect harmony. It's an anti-war film, a war film, a film about Military training, a film about Military combat, and a film about soldiers all packed into one little bundle. It's overstuffed, too full to carry all of its own weight, and it's got nowhere to dump the excess cargo but on its viewers.

One of the film's characters, "Joker" (Matthew Modine), wears a peace necklace around his throat and a helmet with the words "Born To Kill" scribbled in the center throughout the film. "Whose side are you on?" someone asks him. He's not sure, and either is the film--which is one of its considerable flaws.

The biggest flaw is its cold manner. This isn't a bad film, and far from it, but when compared to a Vietnam film such as "Platoon," it seems rather weak in many comparable ways. But, as I noted in a paragraph above, the worst thing about "Full Metal Jacket" is the humanity of the story. It has virtually none whatsoever.

This isn't particularly surprising, since Kubrick has often been famous for his cold style of filmmaking ("2001," "A Clockwork Orange," "Eyes Wide Shut"). Don't misunderstand what I'm saying--Kubrick may very well by an amazing director. But a war film is different from one about art and deep meanings--you have to introduce characters, get the audience to like them, have them suffer personal trials and tribulations, and have some emotional moments in the film. Kubrick fails at this on the same level that Stone succeeded, even though they're both trying to get across the same messages. (It doesn't help that "Full Metal Jacket" was released a year after "Platoon," which makes it look like a pale imitator in comparison.)

All of the characters in "Full Metal Jacket" seem very written, which basically just means they're words and motions on paper, acted out by individuals in Army suits. Of course, from a literal viewpoint, this is correct--but it's hard to doubt the realistic nature of a film when we are fully convinced that what we are witnessing is true. These characters in "Full Metal Jacket" seem hardly likable, and they are very rarely put through any type of emotional anguish, which is the key to all great war films--even "Forrest Gump" had some.

I enjoyed the first half of the movie, which is basically the training period. We see a group of soldiers being prepared for conflict outside their barracks by a nasty Drill Sergeant (R. Lee Ermey). One of the kids in the group, Lawrence (Vincent D'Onofrio), is a bit of a dummy--and the drill sergeant takes out all his anger and fury upon the kid. After weeks of training, Lawrence finally snaps in half and shoots the drill sergeant, then himself, leaving Joker as the sole witness.

This is where the first half of the film essentially ends and the second half begins, which is all boring combat. This is where I started to grow weary of the film's heavy-handed anti-war protest and ineffective characters. There was at least some type of subtle setup for the Lawrence character, but all the other characters are just wandering clich├ęs.

This may sound like an ignorant thing to say, but it's not. I enjoyed "Full Metal Jacket" to a certain extent. I just can't find it anywhere within me to call this a great film, nor a perfect one. It has many flaws, most of which result from poorly introduced characters and unattached emotions. There are also flaws from a technical viewpoint, such as the voice-over narrative by Modine. It's like screenwriting guru Brian McKee advises students--don't use voice-over unless it's essential to the story. Any idiot can express characters' emotions with their own words.

Voice-over was essential in "Apocalypse Now" and "Platoon," but not here. It only occurs three or four times throughout the film and only halts the progression of the story. It's sloppy, pointless, and Modine's voice provides almost nothing to the story. Some people may disagree with me, but why have a character (in this case Modine) tell us where he's heading to instead of just putting subtitles in grainy Courier font? By introducing the audience to this voice-over, Kubrick does nothing but take the easy route towards scene explanations. Especially considering this voice-over is only used a handful of times for a few seconds each time.

Regardless of technical flaws or figurative flaws, "Full Metal Jacket" fails where most war films succeed. Whether you agree with the message or not, Stone knew how to deliver the anti-war message within "Platoon" with deadly accuracy and subtlety. There's no subtlety here--Kubrick makes his echoing statement clear from the beginning on. And whether you personally like him or not, Stone also convincingly portray Vietnam. Even DePalma did a fine job of this in "Casualties of War." "Full Metal Jacket" isn't quite as convincing. Everything's heavy-handed. Everything feels fake. Everything feels contrived. It gets boring very quickly, and feels like an imitator of all the other Vietnam films. And the fact that it was released a year after "Platoon" seems to suggest that Kubrick may have indeed been borrowing a few ideas from Stone.

There's a reason the die-hard Kubrick fans consider this one of his lesser works, and there's a reason you don't hear it mentioned very much when war films are discussed. In conclusion, it's just a copycat of many various films, with a dozen or so different ideas that never mix together very successfully.

This is a good war film, but I can't say it's anything more than that.
Movie Guru Rating
An excellent film.  Among the best in its Genre.  Worth seeing in the Theater. An excellent film.  Among the best in its Genre.  Worth seeing in the Theater. An excellent film.  Among the best in its Genre.  Worth seeing in the Theater. An excellent film.  Among the best in its Genre.  Worth seeing in the Theater.
  4 out of 5 stars

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