Warner Bros. // 1987 // 117 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Roy Hrab (Retired) // November 12th, 2007
"Who's the leader of the club
That's made for you and me
Hey! there, Hi! there, Ho! there
You're as welcome as can be
The best "war" movies do not dwell on the details of a specific war (for example, The Deer Hunter and Paths Of Glory). Instead, these movies focus on individuals. Individuals thrown into the most undesirable of circumstances: kill or be killed. The very best of these films show how the individuals involved deal with the stress and consequences of such situations. With this in mind, Stanley Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket ranks as one of the very best films about war.
A group of young men go to Marine Corps basic training. When they are finished they will be shipped off to Vietnam. To survive in battle they must be processed into hard hearted killers. Full Metal Jacket follows the journey of these men from raw recruits to reapers of souls in the fields of Vietnam.
Basic training (and the film) begins with blank faced recruits having their heads shaved. It resembles the process of sheep being sheared. They next lose their self-esteem and identity as their instructor, Gunnery Sergeant Hartman (R. Lee Ermey, Se7en), verbally assaults them and gives them new names, such as Joker (Matthew Modine, Birdy), Cowboy (Arliss Howard, Birth), and Gomer Pyle (Vincent D'Onofrio, The Break-Up). The physical breakdown through intense physical training follows. They will be broken down and built back up into killers, or as Hartman declares: "You will be a minister of death praying for war." This is a chilling statement. Nobody would want such people walking the streets. And yet, if these men are to survive in a war zone this is what they must become. It's neither good nor bad, but a simple fact of the situation in which they have been placed.
One of the exceptional elements of Full Metal Jacket is its observational approach to the action. Kubrick shows cause and effect without heavy handed commentary or symbolism. For example, Hartman is not portrayed as a villain (in fact, there are no villains or heroes in the entire film, only people making their way through a war). Hartman is a person who is doing his job. And he does it well, too well, in fact. He successfully manages to turn the uncoordinated and out of shape Pyle into "a minister of death" through ridicule, humiliation and turning the rest of the recruits against Pyle. However, the problem is that for a normal person to turn into a killer involves a tremendous amount of mental stress. This mental stress can send a person into a breakdown. Thus, Hartman's ends up creating a monster out of Pyle, leading to a climactic showdown between the two that concludes the first section of the film.
For the second act, Kubrick follows Joker to Vietnam. Many feel that the film loses much in the switch from training to Vietnam, but the second section is about the soldiers putting into practice what they were taught in the first section. Both sections are necessary to tell a complete story of war.
The second section of the film takes place in the fog of war. We're not in the well-order barracks of Parris Island anymore. And since war doesn't make any particular sense or follow any rules, why should the film's story remain linear or follow a specific path? Indeed, at the beginning of the film's finale, the soldiers find themselves off-route and Joker asks "What are we, lost?" Yes, they are, both physically and mentally (and morally). Such are the realities of war.
The film reflects this change with the narrative disintegrating into short passages involving Joker interacting with other soldiers, including Animal Mother (Adam Baldwin, Serenity). Sometimes they are under fire, sometimes they're just hanging-out. The focus, as in the first section, is on the consequences of war. How are the former trainees holding-up to the stresses of a kill or be killed environment? The main coping mechanism on display is that the soldiers try not to take anything seriously when they are not fighting. There are insults between the grunts and morbid jokes aplenty. However, their behaviour is not portrayed as good or bad, but as a consequence of this specific set of circumstances. Without any humor (no matter how dark it may be) these men would surely lose their balance and go insane, like Pyle.
As in the first section, the second section concludes with a sudden grave turn and the minister of death within must make an appearance.
The performances are excellent across the board, especially the ultra intense and career making turns by Ermey and D'Onofrio. Modine does a fine job as the single agent connecting all the scenes together. The rest of the cast make the most of their limited roles.
Technically, there is not much to complain about. The video transfer has some grain, but no major problems. The audio is clear and all of Hartman's profanity laced diatribes can be heard without any problems.
The extras are comprised of a commentary by Adam Baldwin, Vincent D'Onofrio, R. Lee Ermey and critic/screenwriter Jay Cocks, the featurette "Full Metal Jacket: Beyond Good and Evil," and the theatrical trailer. The commentary is pretty solid and carried by D'Onofrio and Cocks with Ermey providing some comments on the basic training section and Baldwin providing limited input on the Vietnam section. The themes of the film, the composition of shots, filming in England, the length of the shoot, and comparisons with Platoon are discussed. Also, much praise is heaped on Kubrick by the three cast members for his hands-off approach to directing actors.
The featurette is built around interviews with cast (Modine is conspicuously absent), crew, and Kubrick biographers, John Baxter and David Hughes. It covers some of the same ground as the commentary, but from different points of view, so while there is overlap between the two, there is plenty of new material. One specific point that is discussed in more detail in the featurette than in the commentary is that the original ending, as written, featured a decapitation. However, Kubrick did not film it because he felt it was too horrific.
Those who want clean and unambiguous stories will reject this film strongly. This movie does not romanticize war. Some people survive while others do not. A war is presented, but nothing heroic occurs, there are no winners, and there are no answers.
Second, the ending sequences of both sections of the film are quite violent and bleak. In fact, the final confrontation between Hartman and Pyle is so intense that some may not be able to get past the conclusion of the basic training section. But, war is hell, as they say, and Full Metal Jacket pulls no punches.
Also, those who are looking for a historical war movie will be disappointed. This film is not about the Vietnam War. It has nothing particular to say about Vietnam. The action merely takes place during this particular war.
Last, as of this time, the Standard DVD version of this edition of the film is available only as part of the Stanley Kubrick: Warner Home Video Directors Series box set. It is not sold separately. However, it is available individually on Blu-ray and HD DVD.
Platoon won the Oscars, but Kubrick's film is the one that will endure. Full Metal Jacket reveals the nonsensical, destructive nature of war and the moral confusion war causes with pinpoint accuracy and without unnecessary embellishment, making it the most complete (if not the best) movie about war ever made.
Review content copyright © 2007 Roy Hrab; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
Running Time: 117 Minutes
Release Year: 1987
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Commentary by Adam Baldwin, Vincent D'Onofrio, R. Lee Ermey and Critic/Screenwriter Jay Cocks
* "Full Metal Jacket: Beyond Good and Evil" Featurette
* Theatrical Trailer
* Stanley Kubrick Official Site: Full Metal Jacket
* DVD Verdict Review: Full Metal Jacket (HD DVD)