#311 Full Metal Jacket

(1987, Stanley Kubrick)
“If you ladies leave my island, if you survive recruit training, you will be a weapon. You will be a minister of death praying for war”

The Vietnam War is steadily becoming a recurring topic here on SvTM. We’ve already reviewed The Deer Hunter and Platoon and had wildly differing opinions on them both. So today I think it’s time to look at another one, Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket.

Full Metal Jacket is a movie of two halves. In the first, we spend time on a military boot camp, training soldiers for Vietnam. The camp is led by drill sergeant Hartman (R. Lee Ermey), who is a tough, stern man whose methods of teaching involve insulting cadets in order to break them down in order to build them back up as soldiers. While many of the cadets take to the training relatively easily, one cadet in particular, nicknamed “Gomer Pyle” (Vincent D’Onofrio) struggles immensely, and steadily begins to exhibit signs of a breakdown. The second half of the movie takes place in the war itself, where one of the cadets, Joker (Matthew Modine) is now a sergeant working as part of the military press. We follow him as he gradually sees more combat face to face, and realising the horrors of war.

So, first of all, this is the movie that doomed R. Lee Ermey to a life of typecasting as The Angry Drill Sergeant Type, and it’s easy to see why that happened. Ermey is just really good at it. Hartman is an imposing figure and it’s hard to know how to deal with him at times. However, this is a good thing. One minute he is terrifying, the next he’s disgustingly crude, and then suddenly he’s hilarious. Sometimes he’s all three at the same time somehow. What’s more, he manages this even while keeping up a permanent yelling performance that never changes.

But there’s more to this section of the movie than just Ermey yelling and eating up the scenery. There’s a certain degree of creepiness that seeps through much of the first half of the movie as the cadets grow into Marines and steadily fall into order. When they’re lying in bed chanting about how much they love their rifles, it feels like a cult, and the encouragement to beat up Pyle for his incompetence as a Marine makes it even creepier.

And then there’s Pyle himself. D’Onofrio plays a man who visibly breaks on screen every time Hartman yells in his face, throws his belongings around, taunts his poor fitness or generally wears him down. The ultimate snap is predictable but when it finally happens, it’s terrifying. The scene where his inevitable breakdown comes to fruition is one of the most tense and unnerving things I’ve ever seen in a movie, and Kubrick’s direction on this front was brilliant.

In fact, everything about the first half is fantastic, from the acting to the scripting, and even down to technical aspects such as the superb cinematography. It’s such a shame that this doesn’t last into the final half of the film.

The problem is, once we leave the boot camp, we’re in typical clichéd war movie territory again. Sadly, the movie lacks the effective characterisation that made Good Morning Vietnam and Platoon so watchable, since Kubrick made the decision to present a very clinical, distant style of film-making to the story. It worked when we were observers in the boot camp, not so much when we’re in the actual war.

Most of the cast is replaced, forcing to reacquaint ourselves with the characters, many of whom feel interchangeable anyway. Only Joker carries over, and he was the weakest of the cast in the first half. The action gets repetitive very quickly. It descends very easily into “men shooting other men (and a girl) for eternity” territory and never leaves. The second half simply forgets everything that made the first half so good, and ultimately ends up becoming very forgettable.

Full Metal Jacket should probably have been two separate movies, giving the second movie more time to develop, and giving the first movie a more satisfying conclusion. As it is, it’s a little messy but the first half is amazing.

Starring Matthew Modine, Adam Baldwin, Vincent D’Onofrio, R. Lee Ermey, Dorian Harewood, Arliss Howard, Kevyn Major Howard & Ed O’Ross
Written by Gustav Hasford, Stanley Kubrick & Michael Herr
Produced by Stanley Kubrick
Music by Abigail Mead
Cinematography by Douglas Milsome
Edited by Martin Hunter

Favourite Scene: “This is my rifle. There are many others like it but this one is mine.”
Scene That Bugged Me: The entire second half.

Watch it if: You don’t mind movies losing steam halfway through
Avoid it if: You hate shouty drill sergeants

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Posted on September 30, 2014, in 1980s, War and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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