Review by Derrick Carter
Running Time: 1 hour 56 minutes
MPAA Rating: R
Directed by: Stanley Kubrick
Written by: Stanley Kubrick, Michael Herr & Gustav Hasford
(based on the novel THE SHORT-TIMERS by Gustav Hasford)
Starring: Matthew Modine, Vincent D’Onofrio, R. Lee Ermey, Arliss Howard, Adam Baldwin, Dorian Harewood, Kevyn Major Howard, Ed O’Ross & John Terry
A montage of recruits getting their heads shaved to the tune of “Hello Vietnam” greets us at the opening of FULL METAL JACKET. We have no prior knowledge about these new recruits and aren’t given much of a back story for any of them either. Instead, Stanley Kubrick throws us through a young man’s journey in a world of shit. Though the distinct style in which this Vietnam War tale unfolds may throw some viewers off, FULL METAL JACKET remains one of the most unforgiving stories in Kubrick’s filmography and one of the best war movies of all-time.
The year is 1967 and James “Joker” Davis has arrived at boot camp. Through the harsh guidance of Gunnery Sergeant Hartman, Joker and his fellow recruits are emotionally stripped down and physically drained, only to rise up as hardened killing machines. Joker is put in charge of aiding Private Pyle, a dim-witted and overweight recruit who has drawn special ire from Sergeant Hartman. While the basic training continues, Joker finds himself increasingly worried about Pyle’s wavering state of mind. It all leads to an unnerving show-stopper of a scene and then it’s out of the frying pan into the fire for Joker. In the following year, Sergeant Joker is now a war correspondent and makes his way through the dark, hellish carnage and combat zones that cumulate in a long, innocence-shattering firefight.
It only makes sense to briefly analyze both halves of this movie, because that’s how Joker’s story is given to us. Each half works for different reasons, though the tonal shift during the middle might not work for certain viewers. The basic training section of the film feels repetitive, but that’s not a bad thing. The way in which we are introduced to Joker, Cowboy (Joker’s best friend) and Pyle is presented in very much a “show me, don’t tell me” sort of way. The first half of FULL METAL JACKET really doesn’t seem to have a ton of dialogue that isn’t being shouted by R. Lee Ermey. Speaking of which, the former real-life drill instructor turned actor is absolutely fantastic here. His creative insults, profane language and use of “What is your major malfunction?!?” has long since turned Hartman into one of the most iconic characters in cinematic history. If you think of a drill sergeant in film, R. Lee Ermey’s Hartman is immediately what comes to mind. The real story in the first half isn’t really between Joker and the infamous drill sergeant, but rather the escalating degradation of Private Pyle. This storyline can be so involving that viewers may find themselves a little out of their element when the film focuses strictly on Joker in the second half.
While the first section of FULL METAL JACKET is sterile, calm (as it could be) and repetitive, the second half goes into purposely unbalanced and chaotic territory. Sergeant Joker (played wonderfully by Matthew Modine, who sadly didn’t garner many significant roles after this film) guides us through various moments of what happens after boot camp. What’s really nice about this second half is how it throws calm, quiet conversations that can immediately turn into something utterly horrifying. A sequence in which the various soldiers are being interviewed about the war showcases how hardened they’ve become. Though there are moments of gunfire and booby traps throughout, a long masterfully constructed finale keeps you glued to the screen. It’s one of the most intense sequences in war movie history and made even more horrifying once you reach the conclusion. Let’s just say that a discussion about the thousand-yard stare (a symptom of shell shock) makes an important comeback.
To me, FULL METAL JACKET is truly one of the best war movies ever made and blends two distinctly different halves into one special creation. While there’s a definite sense of dark humor playing into certain scenes, the film is grim and absolutely haunting. R. Lee Ermey stands out as the biggest scene-stealer in the cast, but everybody gives their all to bring a band of unique characters to life. The basic training half feels clinical and effective due to being deliberately repetitive, while the second half throws horrors of war at the viewer. In one scene, Joker asks a deranged machine gunner why he’s killed women and children and the soldier simply replies by saying: “Ain’t war hell?” I doubt that you’d find a single sane person who’d argue with that response. It seems wholly appropriate to close the film out with the contrast of soldiers trying to maintain what little comfort they have left in singing “Mickey Mouse” while marching through fiery battleground and then rolling end credits to the tune of “Paint It Black” by the Rolling Stones. FULL METAL JACKET sticks out as one of Kubrick’s masterpieces and one of the finest films about war ever produced.