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RULES OF ENGAGEMENT

Review by Gordon Justesen

Stars: Tommy Lee Jones, Samuel L. Jackson, Guy Pearce, Bruce Greenwood, Ben Kingsley
Director: William Friedkin
Audio: English Dolby Digital 5.1, English Dolby Surround, French Dolby Surround
Video: Widescreen 2.35:1 Anamorphic Transfer
Studio: Paramount
Features: See Review
Length: 127 Minutes
Release Date: October 10, 2000  

Film ***1/2

William Friedkinís Rules of Engagement is a taut and highly entertaining military thriller that covers familiar territory, but covers fresh territory at the same time. The movie also contains a cast that you simply canít lose with. Iíd anticipate great things from any movie that would pair up Tommy Lee Jones and Samuel L. Jackson, two of our strongest presences on the screen today. As far as I can see, they couldnít have picked a better film to collaborate on, because the script is well written, and we completely buy these characterizations as portrayed by the two leads. The first half of the film mainly consists of contemporary war combat, while the second half crafts some very intense courtroom scenes that are the best Iíve seen in quite a while. Perhaps the strongest quality in the storyline are the rules of engagement in general, which cause some serious moral conflicts with the characters, thus becoming very thought provoking for the audience.

At the heart of the film is the friendship between Col. Hayes Hodges (Jones) and Col. Terry Childers (Jackson). The film opens with the two serving together in Vietnam, where Childers saved Hodgesí life. Cut to several years later, Hodges quits military action and gets a law degree to become a marine lawyer. Meanwhile, Childers is a highly decorated Marine who is given a rescue mission to lead in Yemen, where furious demonstrators are attacking the U.S. Embassy. When Childers and his soldiers arrive in Yemen, they come upon unexpected circumstances involving the crowd of demonstrators, which results in Childers ordering his men to fire into the crowd. His men briefly question his order, but they carry it anyway, resulting in the slaughter of 83 people, including women and children. The military charges Childers with murder. Childers only wants one lawyer, so he looks up his friend Hodges, now a divorced man and a alcoholic, and persuades Hodges to represent him.

So thus begins the trial, which occupies the second hour of the movie. Heading the prosecution is Major Mark Briggs, played superbly by Guy Pearce, who appears determined to generate a conviction for the accused by convincing the jury that Childers ignored the rules of engagement, then slaughtered the civilians in cold blood. Along the course trial, there are numerous twists and discoveries, including one involving the disappearance of a security tape, which recorded the entire incident in Yemen, which could help in explaining Childersí order to fire into the crowd.  The National Security Advisor (Bruce Greenwood) is suspected in that matter, since he was rumored to have it in his possession, though he claims he knows nothing of it. A case of true irony presents itself with the testimony of the U.S. Ambassador (Ben Kingsley), who Childers saved and put out of harmís way, including the Ambassadorís wife and son. But the main element in question is Childersí conduct, and why he gave the order to open fire on the demonstrators. Without the security tape, it would be tough to prove. Childers stands by his story, telling the court that the crowd fired on them first, and that he would not stand to lose any fellow marines, even if it meant ignoring the rules of engagement.

Some of the actions of the villains in the movie are obvious and fairly conventional, but it didnít matter, because I was already very much entertained by the movieís pace, sharp directing, and grand performances. I mentioned how good Jones and Jackson were, but for my money, the best performance in the movie comes from Guy Pearce as the prosecuting attorney. Pearce, an Australian actor, got his big break 3 years ago with a remarkable performance in L.A. Confidential. Since then, he hasnít made many movies, and so I was very pleased to see him again. Armed with a strong, Brooklyn-like accent, Pearce is extremely convincing, giving his character the necessary hardedge to defeat Jacksonís character, which is displayed in the movieís climatic showdown in the courtroom. He simply plays the role smart and intense, and thatís what I admire about Pearce.

Most movies involving the military are supposed to be taken seriously, but Rules of Engagement is not. It has plenty of inherent drama, and even a few moments of emotional intensity, but the movie is strictly for entertainment value, and it truly does deliver doses of entertainment.

Video: ****

Paramount prevails again! In fact, this is about as sharp and clear as any transfer Iíve seen from the studio since perhaps the Mission Impossible disc, although that disc wasnít anamorphically enhanced, and this one is. The image is simply of picture perfect quality right from frame one of the movie. I didnít detect an ounce of grain, or any odd color resolution or color bleeding at any moment of the viewing.

Audio: ****

Even though there are only two key action sequences in the movie, the audio transfer really delivers on all accounts on Rules of Engagement. The 5.1 Dolby Digital presentation is simply free of any flaws. Particularly, the action scene at the U.S. Embassy is where the sound truly kicks in, as you can just about hear every single bullet coming from each and every direction. Following the action scenes, the audio still holds up, with perfect clean quality for dialogue, and a very perfect tone for the musical score to the film.

Features: ***

While not at the level of the extras supplied on such releases as Sleepy Hollow and The Talented Mr. Ripley, Paramount still has yet to fail with their use of extras on this disc. There are only three primary extra features, but good ones nonetheless. There is a 20 minute behind-the-scenes look at the making of the film, which also takes a brief look into the actual rules of engagement that exist in the military. There is also a cast and crew interviews segment, and a full-length commentary with director William Friedkin.

Summary:

While not at the level of such other military thrillers as Courage Under Fire and A Few Good Men, Rules of Engagement is nonetheless a gripping, intriguing two hours. I also find it to be an accomplishment of sharp directing and terrific acting. It is recommended highly, and I seriously feel that you, dear reader, will be entertained by the movie in one way or another.