Friday, August 21, 2009
Full Metal Jacket (1987)
By Eric Jessen 8/21/09
Don't be fooled by sharp tongue, sardonic soldier-jive (plucked from Gustav Hasford's novel, The Short-Timers) or the early scenes of Marine Corp S&M. Full Metal Jacket is undoubtedly Stanley Kubrick's least imaginative film and his most disappointing.
The film opens at recruit training camp where heads are shaved to the music of “Hello Vietnam.” In the midst of crotch-grabbing silly chants (“This is my rifle, this is my gun. This is for fighting this is for fun”) the first part of “FMJ” has a macho self-punishment nightmarish vivacity. The skin head “maggots” are spit on and berated by drill Sergeant Hartman, played with a cartoonish over animated temper by Lee Ermey. He shouts obscenities and idealizes the marksmanship of Lee Harvey Oswald while praising the Virgin Mary. Hartman in particular verbally abuses and humiliates the incompetent, overweight Leonard who he names “Gomer Pyle,” played by Vincent D'Onofrio. Hartman's tough love slowly turns Gomer into a gun-groping psychopath which finally leads to a confrontation. D'Onofrio tilts back his eyes, half smirks and drools to best mimic the warped, crazed look.
We jump from the neatly folded white sheets, bunk beds and synchronized jogging of the camp base to an only slightly more chaotic, not at all intimidating Vietnam (Kubrick chose to film in England), which pales in comparison to the frightening jungle in Platoon or Apocalypse Now. Oliver Stone's Vietnam makes Kubrick's look welcoming. We follow “Joker,” (not that he's funny), a correspondent for the “Stars and Stripes” military propaganda paper, played by Matthew Modine. Modine has the sarcastic grin of Malcolm McDowell in A Clockwork Orange, but none of the devious bite or intelligence. The “Joker” is totally uninteresting. But I'm not sure I should blame Modine. Kubrick gives him nothing to do and no time to shine. Actually, all of the characters in the film are no more human or engaging than “HAL” from “2001.”
In the second half of “FMJ” we don't closely follow any characters and there isn't much of a story. It is more a collection of dull vignettes. Kubrick uses steady-cam to death giving us the illusion of a story moving forward. (I'm having trouble remembering what actually happens.) Oh, “Joker” and his photographer Rafterman (Kevyn Howard) fight off the North Vietnamese Army during the Tet Offensive. They go to Phu Bai and fight, usually in the traditional way: moving slowly forward, hiding behind rocks or walls.
When journalists interview the soldiers and ask what they think about the war, they all give strange, stoned faced answers: some talking about trivial things, others sounding racist. I think Kubrick is trying to convey that the soldiers have become indifferent about killing and desensitized. But the setting is non-threatening. We never felt a connection to the characters (maybe the split second before their hair was shaved in the first scene). As a result the message seems arbitrarily supplanted to make the film anti-war trendy.
I think I would let all of this go if in the second half the film retained its sadistic comedy. But that is also left at training camp with Gomer and the drill Sergeant. There are bits of irony like “Joker's” helmet which has a peace symbol pin attached and “Born to Kill” written on the side. But the humor lacks a character center. It's like a Kubrick movie without an actor to give one menacing stare (which Gomer does in the bathroom scene).
The first part of the movie has a dark irony horror show vigor, the unique audacity of Kubrick giving us a jolt and even living up to hype. But the rest falls flat on its face. It is slogging in war movie clichés and by the end I'd nearly forgotten Gomer and the famous soap socking scene.“FMJ” features some of Kubrick at his worst: suffocating actors until he doesn't have any characters. It also in the end fails to live up to our enormous expectations for a Kubrick movie. And although Kubrick is great at damage control - rousing us with a catchy soundtrack, a few beautiful shots, and fun foul mouthed dialogue - Full Metal Jacket is for Kubrick, shockingly banal.