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FULL METAL JACKET

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Matthew Modine, Vincent D’Onofrio, Adam Baldwin, Lee Ermey, Arliss Howard
Director:  Stanley Kubrick
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1
Studio:  Warner Bros.
Features:  See Review
Length:  117 Minutes
Release Date:  October 23, 2007

"Let's all try and keep our heads until this peace craze blows over..."

Film ***

Stanley Kubrick has always been a director to bring a curious sense of non-judgment to his subject matters, and Full Metal Jacket brings that kind of detachment to the Vietnam war.  Unlike other great films of the most unpopular war, Kubrick doesn’t bring any “we shouldn’t have been there” sentiment.  Instead, he focuses on the war in a straightforward fashion.  This was the fight, these were the men who fought, here’s some of what happened.  If one knew absolutely nothing about the real war going into the movie, he would have no idea afterwards if we won or lost it.

The film is basically segmented into two parts.  The first is exceptional, original, and strong.  It takes place on Parris Island, where a new platoon of Marines are being bullied, whipped, and cajoled into shape by the brash Hartman (Ermey, in the best performance I’ve ever seen of a drill sergeant).  We get a long, hard, unflinching look at the dehumanizing process that turns normal young men into killing machines.  We are also introduced to Private Pyle (D’Onofrio), an overweight, clumsy fellow whose mistakes constantly draw the ire of the sergeant, who is determined not to let this “softie” get away from him.

We are also introduced to the film’s real protagonist, Private Joker (Modine), who carries us from the first part of the film into the second part, which takes place in Vietnam.  This second part is not as lively or as focused as the first part, but in at least one respect, makes a terrific contrast to the earlier material.  The first part of the film is almost all loud, as characters scream constantly at one another.  The rare moments of silence are both refreshing and a little eerie.  The second part is the polar opposite.  It’s mostly quiet, but when the sounds get loud, you know it’s time to watch out.

Kubrick’s Vietnam is one of the most extraordinary looking, and unique, of all movies.  It’s not the harsh, unforgiving terrain of Platoon or the misty, surrealistic atmosphere of Apocalypse Now.  In fact, there’s no jungle in Kubrick’s film.  It mostly takes place in ‘city’ areas, decorated with bombed and burning buildings and a sandy, rocky terrain for the soldiers to police.  As mentioned, there really is no sense of Kubrick’s feelings about the war, one way or the other.  It’s more of a look at the end result of the process:  these men have lost their humanity in order to fight a war, and here’s what they do when they get there.

The main flaw of the movie, I think, is the lack of any real protagonist for the audience to identify with.  Joker is the lead character, but we never get a real sense of who he is, or why he’s there, or what he thinks and feels.  Then again, that may have been done to serve Kubrick’s vision of detachment, but it leaves the audience curiously uninvolved and uncaring towards him or any other of the characters.  The only character I connected with was Pyle, mainly because I see his experience as what my own would have been like under those circumstances.  But he doesn’t carry to the second part of the film.

All in all, this is an important film, though arguably not amongst the very best of Kubrick’s.  It has a great sense of his usual styles of fluidly tracking camera movements and carefully constructed scenes.  There are some unforgettable images, as with the men getting their heads shaved at the beginning, or the finale with the Vietnamese sniper.  And Kubrick makes a good use of his soundtrack, placing songs like “Surfing Bird” and “These Boots Are Made For Walking” at amusing intervals in the picture.  The acting is also terrific, despite the shallowness of the characters.

Ultimately, it is an unemotional look at war, with the director leaving it up to the audience to supply whatever emotion most readily comes to surface as they view the film.

Video ***1/2

Being the most chronically recent Kubrick film at the time of the release of the first box set did not make Full Metal Jacket any better for wear in the transfer...the film suffered from murkiness, grain and softness.  This new anamorphic remastered version corrects almost everything beautifully: grain is non existent save for a few moments during the final stretch, and images are much sharper and clearer, with far more natural coloring.  The level of detail is much better, too.

Audio ***1/2

The new 5.1 audio track is a considerable improvement over the original mono...certain scenes in Full Metal Jacket cry out for surround, and those are exactly the scenes that benefit the most from multi-channel usage.  The later battle sequences open up across the front and rear stages, and the subwoofer adds depth to the explosions.  Even earlier scenes with Hartman barking at his troops sound more well rounded and dynamic with this new mix.  Occasionally, there are bits of center-channel distortion with piece of dialogue; these are few and far between and not detracting from the overall experience, which is quite good.

Features ***

There's a terrific new commentary featuring the participation of stars Vincent D'Onofrio, R. Lee Ermey and Adam Baldwin, plus screenwriter and critic Jay Cocks.  There's also a new featurette on the movie and the original trailer.

Summary:

Full Metal Jacket deserves a place amongst the great war movies ever made, though it is quite a bit different from most of them.  It is a detached, unemotional and non-judgmental look at the dehumanizing process of preparing for, and then fighting a war.

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