Full Metal Jacket (1987)    2 Stars

“In Vietnam The Wind Doesn’t Blow It Sucks”

Full Metal Jacket (1987)
Full Metal Jacket (1987)

Director: Stanley Kubrick

Cast: Matthew Modine, R. Lee Ermey, Vincent D’Onofrio

Synopsis: A pragmatic U.S. Marine observes the dehumanizing effects the U.S.-Vietnam War has on his fellow recruits from their brutal boot camp training to the bloody street fighting in Hue.

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In his Vietnam War movie Full Metal Jacket, Stanley Kubrick is careful to avoid fleshing out the characters of the recruits subjected to the harsh mercies of the terrifying Gunnery Sergeant Hartman (R. Lee Ermey – Toy Story). In fact, most of the lines they speak in the film’s opening twenty minutes or so are in response to some typically crude query from Hartman which is yelled at them from a distance of about 2 inches. It doesn’t matter who they are – they’re simply raw material for the army to mould into efficient, unfeeling killing machines. With a killer’s eye, Hartman zeroes in on any weakness, seeking to destroy that which he can’t make stronger. He’s scrupulously fair in his treatment – cruel to everyone – but the more mistakes a recruit makes, the more attention he receives, which is why the hapless Leonard Lawrence (Vincent D’Onofrio – Adventures in Babysitting, JFK) finds himself repeatedly feeling Hartman’s wrath.

Ermey’s performance as the foul-mouthed Sergeant is a wonder to behold. His lines are so crudely inventive that they hold a horrible fascination for us, and they are all delivered in a mega-decibel bellow. It’s all part of the dehumanising process necessary to create the ideal soldier, and as that first half of the film unfolds we can see the process taking place. Survival becomes the prime objective, so when Hartman begins punishing the other recruits for Lawrence’s mistakes they mete out a brutal punishment of their own which sets him on his own twisted path of dehumanisation.

The second half of the movie takes place in Vietnam, and is connected to the first only by the presence of Private ‘Joker’ Davis (Matthew Modine – Married to the Mob), who acted as a kind of mentor for Lawrence during basic training. He’s a contradiction – a soldier who wears a peace symbol pinned to his combat gear, a crude piece of symbolism designed to illustrate the duality of man, and Modine’s rather anonymous features fit the part well. Unfortunately, the pinpoint focus of the movie’s first half is scattered in the second, and a sequence of rambling scenes lead us to a concluding battle which toys with genre clichés and ends with its survivors marching like the damned into hell as they sing a song of childhood innocence, their dehumanisation finally complete.

Full Metal Jacket is the kind of movie that rewards those searching for meaning and subtext, but which will disappoint those expecting a straightforward war movie. Its symbolism is a little too strident, as if Kubrick lacks confidence in the intelligence of his audience, and it suffers badly from the early departure of both D’Onofrio and Ermey. Despite this, it still packs a punch and, as with all Kubrick movies, is filled with intriguing ideas.

(Reviewed 7th April 2015)

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