Full Metal Jacket

Year of Release: 1987     Directed Stanley Kubrick.  Starring Matthew Modine, R. Lee Ermey, Arliss Howard, Vincent D’Onofrio, and Kevyn Major Howard.

Being a fairly large fan of Stanley Kubrick as a director, I was eager to see Full Metal Jacket, even if it earned less than stellar reviews from other Kubrick aficionados.  Admittedly, the film does have its share of admirers, but in my experience the detractors seem to be the larger group.  Having seen Full Metal Jacket for the first time, it is definitely Kubrick’s weakest film (barring the four I haven’t seen), but I think it is impressive he pulled this off as well as he did, and it has more merit than its critics generally seem to give it credit for.

The film has two distinct parts.  The first is training base for future members of the Marine Corps.  The sadistic drill sergeant (R. Lee Ermey) relentlessly works his cadets, cursing at them, demeaning their manhood, and humiliating them when they fail as a way to motivate them.  The second half of the film shifts to the war in Vietnam, following one of the Marines from the first half, Pvt. Joker (Matthew Modine), as he experiences even greater horrors and loses his ideas of the noble glories of war.

The transition between the two halves is jarring and rough, but what Kubrick does to connect them is impressive.  His use of tracking shots, when the camera consistently follows a moving object, gives the film most of the unity it has, which is its strongest asset.  As the marines run around the training base and as they investigate Vietnam, the camera follows them at a completely square neutral angle, reminding the viewer of the similarity between the way the soldiers are treated at home and the way they are treated in Vietnam.  Both halves also end with the death of an unexpected assassin, witnessed both times by Pvt. Joker, the ramifications of which are deeply unsettling.

As the film shifts stories from America to Vietnam, it takes time for the storyline to regain its momentum.  Some of the battle scenes do drag out as the movie meanders, unsure where the storyline is going.  I have heard it argued that this was a deliberate choice to recreate the tensions and the lost sense of direction of the Vietnam War.  However, since the film is trying to connect and compare the treatment of the soldiers in wartime at home and in Vietnam, the lack of focus in the second half seems out of place compared to the very focused first half.

Kubrick did provide decent and challenging food for thought about the effects of war on soldiers, both in training and in combat.  From the first scene in the marine base, the idea of heroically annihilating the enemy is questioned; by the film’s end the unsettling effects of lionizing killing are fully dramatized.  Despite its unevenness, the film is nowhere near the disaster it could have been in the hands of a lesser director.


Content Advisory: Many harsh obscenities, a scene of sacrilegious dialogue, occasional profanity, disturbing scenes of gruesome violence, a suicide, sexual dialogue, and references to prostitution.   MPAA rating: R

Suggested Audience: Adults with discernment.

Personal Recommendation: B

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