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At-A-Glance Film Reviews

Full Metal Jacket (1987)



Reviews and Comments

Full Metal Jacket is one of those movies that are frustrating in that there is unique brilliance in it that never quite comes to fruition. It can be broken up into three pieces, the first being the brilliant one, the second being clumsy and desultory, and the third being effective but routine. The three pieces are thematically unrelated to each other, resulting in a whole that feels overdone and incomplete at the same time.

The brilliant portion is the first 45 minutes or so, which chronicle marines undergoing basic training. It is so hyper-realistic as to be unrealistic. Gunnery Sergeant Hartman, arguably the most memorable drill sergeants in the movies, is so realistically unreal that this section of the film is practically a black comedy with devastatingly accurate aim. It's all over the top, while bearing a documentary-like straight face.

Basic training is a popular subject for military movies simply because the grueling work and screaming drill sergeants are so inherently cinematic, but few movies understand how it really works. Most movies only see the first part, where mean-eyed sergeants create no-win situations for the trainees to tear them down. But afterwards, trainees are built back up, remade as good soldiers, and the nasty old sergeants start putting the men through winning situations. Anybody who undergoes the standard movie version of boot camp will come out broken, not a soldier.

At times, Full Metal Jacket almost understands this, and, paradoxically, this results in a minor flaw, for it asks us to accept that Hartman's basic training course will break a man and yet still pass him. It is unlikely that the training sequence of Full Metal Jacket would close as it does. More of a problem: why does it close as it does? If it's an anti-military statement, it's one it seems to realize isn't true. As far as character arcs go, it closes the door on the two most interesting characters, denying us the opportunity to learn more about the characters. One of them is Private Leonard Lawrence, a chubby man who is either stupid or merely slow. The movie hints that there is more to him than first appears but frustratingly leaves it at that. Furthermore, Stanley Kubrick's Kubrickian direction betrays him in this scene, as his visual trademarks give away what will happen.

After the training sequence, we jump to a series of anecdotal scenes in Vietnam. Most of them are watchable, but none of them are compelling. They're all too mechanical, and nowhere is this more apparent than in a scene where people make remarks about soldiers killed in battle as the camera pans from one to another. The most watchably failed scene is a sequence where several soldiers are interviewed on location in front of news cameras. The acting is made to look spontaneous with calculated, exacting precision.

The third part of the film is a showdown with a sniper that is a lot more effective but not more inspired. One expects something more visionary from Kubrick, especially after the first half of the film, but it's not there. Strange to see even a portion of a Kubrick film without great aspirations.

I hope my frustrations with Full Metal Jacket are apparent. But, having aired them, I still have to give the movie a pretty good rating and a recommendation simply because the first half is so good. It strikes some weird balance between realism and hyperbole, has a wicked sense of humor, and has a deviously penetrating perspective. It's more than enough to redeem the rest of the film.