Monday, May 28, 2012

Full Metal Jacket (1987)

Starring: Matthew Modine, Vincent O'onofrio, R. Lee Ermey
Director: Stanley Kubrick

Gunnery Sergeant Hartman: Did your parents have any children that lived?
Private Gomer Pyle: Sir, yes, sir.
Gunnery Sergeant Hartman: I bet they regret that. You're so ugly you could be a modern art masterpiece! 

Well, it is Memorial Day, so it is time once again to commemorate the day by reviewing a classic war film. Granted, it is a film that shows a group of Marines as they are psychologically traumatized in boot camp before heading over to be further traumatized by an actual war, so I cannot say it is the most patriotic of films to spotlight. That being said...it is a war film and it is by Stanley Kubrick and awesome, so I am going to do it anyway!

Based on the novel "The Short-Timers" by Gustav Hasford, the movie follows a soldier nicknamed Private Joker (Matthew Modine) who in the first half of the picture attends the Parris Island boot camp, under the command of the tyrannical and profanity-laced Gunnery Sergeant Hartman (R. Lee Ermey). The drill sergeant is particularly cruel toward a sub par recruit whom he names Gomer Pyle (Vincent O'onofrio). Joker nervously watches as Pyle morphs into what Hartman wants them all to be: lean, mean, killing machines. The second half shows Joker in Vietnam as he heads to the front lines and witnesses the horrors of war and the effects it has on himself and his fellow Marines.

Like "The Deer Hunter," the film is intriguing in how it follows people as they go through the different stages of the Vietnam war. The boot camp is meant to be a training ground, a safe place for soldiers to hone their skills. Instead it seems more like the first phase of the conflict as they struggle to survive their commanding officer's wrath. Ermey does an outstanding job as Hartman, the iconic character who has come to epitomize the angry military authority figures we see in many of today's movies, television shows, and commercials (remember that GEICO commercial where Ermey is a therapist? Yeah, I liked that one too...). While it is likely that Hartman gets a bit of a sadistic pleasure out of torturing his cadets (for a supposedly model citizen and Christian, he sure does have a sexual-explicit vocabulary), it does seem to serve a twisted purpose, which is wear them down until they ready to release their fury upon the enemy when they face them. It should be noted that Ermey himself is a Vietnam veteran who was also a drill instructor while serving in the Marine Corps and he improvised a lot of his now infamous lines. Must have been pretty disturbing for the other actors! Another standout is Pyle, who is overweight and is not the sharpest tool in the shed, but seems to be a nice guy. However, the camp takes a toll on him and while he becomes a much better soldier, his mental well-being worsens, resulting in a disastrous conclusion. His struggles symbolize the destruction of innocence being inflicted on Joker and the rest of the men heading off to fight. 

When the troops are finally sent off to Vietnam, things really start to go downhill for them. They are caught in the middle of the Tet Offensive, putting them in the path of danger and destroying their morality. This is made clear when witnessing the actions and personality of Animal Mother (Adam Baldwin), a courageous but dangerously unbalanced Marine who you would not want to meet in a bar...or anywhere else for that matter. Except maybe the battle field, but ONLY if he was on your side (though I have to admit, along with Hartman, he is one of my favorite characters)! He basically replaces Pyle as the movie's poster boy representing what constant exposure to combat can lead to: effectiveness, but also to a loss of humanity.

It sounds like I am not paying much attention to Joker in this review. This is mainly because, even though he narrates the story and the plot is basically about what he did during the war, he is not really the main star. In reality, it is the actual atmosphere that is the real attraction of the film. There is relatively little use of music, but when there is, it is usually a low humming sound or drum beat that indicates impending danger, giving it a very chilling quality. Okay, the "Surfin' Bird" scene was a little weird, but hey, Kubrick always had a dark sense of humor. This can clearly be shown in various instances involving prostitutes, bigotry, and frank talk about the politics of the war. Needless, to say it also has a good amount of violence and heavy moments to pass around. The movie is a real psychological event to behold. Obviously, I cannot say how accurately this portrays the mindset of a soldier during Vietnam, or any war for that matter. From an entertainment standpoint, however, it certainly succeeds.

It is a classic for a reason and if you have not seen it already, I definitely recommend it.

I do not own the rights to the image and links in this post; they are the property of their respective owners and are being used here for entertainment purposes only.