Full Metal Jacket (1987)

Loosely adapted from Gustav Hasford’s Autobiographical novel The Short Timers, Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket remains as engrossing, and as flawed as the day it was released. His second to last film (and last commercial success) it was released in the midst of a late 80’s Vietnam War Film Cycle (Platoon, Causalities of War, Hamburger Hill being examples), and quickly gained a reputation as one of the boldest (if most controversial) anti-war films of the decade. 

Putting a classic (if episodic) structure to good use, the film follows a small Group of Enlisted Marines, through the brutality of Boot Camp, to vicious frontline duty in Vietnam, focussing in particular on the protagonist ,the aptly Nicknamed Private Joker (A wise cracking, arrogant Matthew Modine).  

Although it arrived in the midst of a cycle of Vietnam War films, and follows a similar narrative to many of its competitors, Full Metal Jacket isn’t quite your standard war film. Filmed entirely in the UK with a largely unknown cast, the film balances humour and not too subtle satire with shocking (and relatively sparse) action sequences, before surrendering to an unnervingly ironic ending.

That’s not to say all the expected characters, and clichés of the genre are absent, the truth is far from it. Full Metal Jacket is a film that strives to be ‘clever’ and ‘different’, whilst still following a template of more conventional war films; the results are very distinctive, often engrossing, and undeniably uneven.

Whilst it’s not entirely conventional, and certainly has a lot of flaws, Full Metal Jacket is a film that will be compelling viewing, for an appropriate audience of course. Although released in 1987 it is worth noting that the brutal violence, sexual content and coarse language (some very colourful examples are featured) which feature (heavily) in the film’s 116 minute runtime, haven’t dated much, this remains an adult film, and not for the fainthearted.

Most war films either show training or Warfare, not both. In this film Kubrick attempts to show both parts within the confines of one story, he succeeds to an extent- each halve is quite strong in its own right, but the two halves never quite gel together, with the result  that one film often feels like two. It’s not exactly a fatal issue, as some viewers will find one half more compelling than the other anyway, but the sudden switch in tone and location could prove a little disconcerting, and it is only one flaw in a somewhat muddled script.

The opening montage sets the scene well, and showcases a strong soundtrack (music makes relatively sparse, but well thought out appearances in the film). A group of young, spoilt American males face the terror of the Marine Corp barber- shorn of their hair, and therefore shorn of their identity,  before we are introduced to the plot properly, their training on Paris Island.

 ‘You are nothing but unorganised, grabastic pieces of amphibian shit!’ screams the ferocious, maniacal and slightly disturbing Drill Sergeant Hartman (R Lee Ermey) at the ‘maggots’ who have the misfortune to be under his control as he paces their dormitory. It’s just one of a string of memorable insults featured in this opening sequence, but sets the tone perfectly (Ermey a real life former Marine Drill Instructor was apparently given free rein to improvise insults by notorious perfectionist Kubrick), Ermey is astonishing in his film debut, anchoring the first ‘half’ of the film, and making a repugnant character surprisingly likeable. (Ermey would Later Voice ‘Sarge’ in the Toy Story films!)

Under Hartman’s watchful eyes the men are broken down into killing machines. Running the paths of Paris Island, singing coarse songs, and firing outdated rifles, they gradually bond, before his relentless abuse leads to tragic consequences. The surviving ‘scumbags’ are split up, and shipped out to Vietnam.

This opening section, (about 40 minutes in length) is an appropriate but inconsistent start to the film, which will make or break the viewing experience for a great proportion of viewers. Admittedly it’s a bold way to start a war film (for that reason alone some viewers may be pulled in), and it largely succeeds in getting Kubrick’s points across. The Dialogue is sharply written and gives the more prominent members of the cast a lot to work with, and immediately you know in what direction the film is headed.

But, on the other hand it is slow paced (although the pace certainly quickens as the film progresses), and heavily reliant on generic clichés (i.e. firing rifles at the firing ranch, forced marches, fingernail inspection) to move the plot along.

Other problems with the script (co-written by Michael Herr (Author of Dispatches and Apocalypse Now’s voiceover), Hasford and Director Stanley Kubrick) surface as the film progresses, ‘gap filler’ dialogue is annoyingly prominent (for such a short film) in the latter ‘half’ of the story, there are more than a few military acronyms which could cause confusion, and the sporadic voiceover by Modine is intrusive, and often irrelevant. But these issues are balanced by a string of memorable one liners, a well-structured narrative, and an easy to follow storyline.

Many marines are little more than extras, and only a few have a purposeful role in the narrative, admittedly this may not prove an issue to all viewers, as fewer main characters certainly makes the film easier to follow, on the other hand some may get tired of the few core characters, especially since many are mere generic caricatures (cocky young kid, tough black guy, Arrogant Officer etc.).

Generic clichés are perhaps to be expected, and they will prove a problem to varying extent depending on the viewer, but all the same, it’s a shame the film is often forced to be as dumb as the films it seems to be ridiculing.

Whilst the supporting cast aren’t utilised as well as they could have been, and the script less than perfect, the performances of the central characters in the film are excellent. Modine, a somewhat surprising choice for the lead role is charismatic and convincing, (although the character may be a little too cocky for some viewers) Ermey is frankly underused, whilst Adam Baldwin (Independence Day, Firefly) is excellent as usual as a slightly unhinged machine gunner.

As well as his skill with actors Kubrick brings a distinct visual style (quickly apparent in the film), and a great deal of technical expertise to the film. Superbly shot and skilfully edited throughout, the film packs boggling tracking shots, meticulous frame composition, and uncomfortable close ups into its running time, but it is the underlying sense of unease that truly impresses. Long before the first shots are fired, we feel Jokers inner turmoil, and get a glance at the dehumanising consequences of war.

Kubrick’s strengths as a filmmaker certainly benefit the film, and help to lessen the blow of its flaws, but all the same (as with his other films) visually it may feel a little too well made for some viewers. Indeed, at points the film feels almost as mechanical as the Military it is lampooning, such coldness is rarely a good thing in the emotion driven war genre.

Several Months pass and Joker finds himself stationed at a US army base. Quick witted, and slightly arrogant his sense of humour has won him several friends including Private Rafterman  (Kevyn Major-Howard), as well as the increasing annoyance of his commanding officer. Eager for action the duo finds themselves transferred to a combat unit, and on the journey north the films is at its most satirical and daring.

Attempts at satire and irony are prevalent throughout the film, they don’t always work, and don’t always serve a clear purpose (some are in your face self-indulgent), but many make for striking viewing: The first Vietnamese seen in the film are a prostitute and thief respectably, one US trooper keeps a dead VC as a war trophy, and when asked how he can kill women and children a helicopter gunner replies ‘It’s easy, don’t lead them so much’, these are just a few examples. Such diversions from the central plot may annoy or unease viewers, but they certainly showcase Kubrick’s input on the film, and make watching the film a more memorable experience.

Eventually an increasingly unnerved Joker reaches the frontline, and the film draws to its action packed conclusion. It is during the last half an hour that the film most closely matches its peers, whilst still retaining a distinctly ‘Kubrickian’ flavour. Whilst the ‘action’ scenes in the film are few, and far between, all are well staged, graphic and sure to entertain (if it can be called entertainment) fans of the genre.

Sucked into a lethal street battle, Joker’s platoon struggles through the unnamed backstreets of a ruined city, gunfire is exchanged with unseen enemies, insults are traded with comrades, and several prominent characters meet violent ends, it’s a well shot, tension wracked and fitting climax. Playing out against a very impressive and thoroughly convincing set (built on a disused London Industrial site) the climax makes extensive use of practical effects, and is arguably the film’s highlight. The film ends with a surprising, but very uncomfortable resolution that is sure to cause fierce debate amongst viewers.

Full Metal Jacket is a well-made, but unusual and curiously uneven war film. A strong cast and impressive technical aspects are let down by the self-indulgent irony prevalent in the film, and more than a few clichéd plot developments, Kubrick’s techniques intermittently work against the film instead of helping it, and it never really comes across as the masterpiece it is often claimed to be.

Despite these aspects, the film certainly has many strong points, which in the end outweigh the negatives. It’s extremely well-acted and directed, impressively put together for its budget, and a great deal more memorable than many examples from the genre. Whether it’s too clever for its own good, and whether its featured clichés are that big a deal is left to the viewer’s discretion, but fans of the genre, Kubrick or people looking for diverting drama are likely to enjoy this film, although other viewers may struggle to connect with the extreme subject matter.


Paul Ashwell


About paulashwellreviews

A Blog dedicated to Film, TV and Book reviews of all ages and genres
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