FULL METAL JACKET had moviegoers hyped up in 1987—a Vietnam War movie directed by Stanley Kubrick! Wow, now we’ll have the definitive celluloid answer to that consistently undefined FUBAR. The ads for the revered auteurs first movie in seven years famously carried the breathless blurb by one Jay Scott of the Toronto Globe and Mail—“THE BEST WAR MOVIE EVER MADE!” Yeah, well, except they forgot to include “YOU WISH!”
cannon fodder American boys endure dehumanizing Marine Corps boot camp, then are sent to Vietnam to complete the process. Through the withering/winnowing scorn of drill instructor ‘Sgt. Hardman’ (R. Lee Ermey, magnificent), savvy recruits like ‘Joker’ (Matthew Modine) get with the program, but clumsy ‘Pyle’ (Vincent D’Onofrio) seems a hopeless case. When in Vietnam, during the Tet Offensive of 1968, Joker becomes part of an exclusive club that has little relation to Mickey Mouse.
Along with directing, Kubrick produced, and co-wrote the script with Michael Herr, former war correspondent and author of the highly regarded 1977 ‘Nam memoir “Dispatches” (Herr also contributed to Apocalypse Now); they both worked off Gustav Hasford’ novel “The Short-Timers”. No argument that the first section is riveting, but that’s not due to whatever the three writers wrote, or Kubrick’s direction, but in the main to the fortuitous casting of Ermey and D’Onofrio. At any rate, when it came to the Oscar-nominated script (the movie’s only nom), what wasn’t mentioned was that fully half of Ermey’s memorably profane dialogue was his own creation. Ex-marine (and former drill instructor) Ermey was originally hired as a technical advisor; he’d played a D.I. nine years earlier, making his acting debut in The Boys In Company C. Tough troop trainers had been done before—The D.I., back in 1957, the effective 1970 TV movie Tribes, An Officer And A Gentleman in 1982, to cite a few. Ermey had been colorful in the unsung ‘Company C‘, and the order-barkers in those other films did well—Jack Webb, Darren McGavin, Louis Gossett Jr.—but Ermey’s volcanic Sgt. Hartman in this salt-only saga doesn’t so much take the cake and eat it as just smashing it in your face along with the plate. Then he says less than than nice things about Mom.
His ferocious performance—essentially playing himself– and the more recognizably actor’y yet still affecting portrait of the pitiful Pyle delivered by D’Onofrio are so strong that the rest of the cast—and film—are left trying to catch up. Then there’s Part Two of the lead-balloon end of the script, with barely sketched characters (none of whom other than Pyle that we give a damn about), and Kubrick’s sledgehammer-obvious direction. They founder the Vietnam scenes even worse than another legendary director—Sam Peckinpah—had done when he was turned loose on WW2 in Cross Of Iron. Peckinpah’s failure in that sloppy epic can largely be attributed to his substance abuse messing with his choices, but watching the famously in-control Kubrick mangle this un-victorious (for us) contest you’d think not only he’d never seen a war movie (this from the man who directed the classic Paths Of Glory, for cryin’ out loud) but maybe had just discovered Vietnam was a bummer. Twenty-plus years after the fact, the guy didn’t even know The Rolling Stones had done “Paint It Black”! Perversely fitting enough for Vietnam, that sounds like the perfect man to put in command.
Stray good moments alternate with stuff so bad it’s cringeworthy, and the atrocious finale—the guys marching away singing “The Mickey Mouse March”—is so absurd, anvil-heavy in pretension and insulting—to the audience, vets, everyone— that it makes the puerile pap of The Green Berets look good in comparison. Well, almost.
With Arliss Howard, Kevyn Major Howard, Dorian Harewood, John Terry (very good), Bruce Boa (the idiot Colonel), Kieron Jecchinis (bad casting, poor line delivery), Tim Colceri (sadly believable as the crazed doorgunner in the helicopter, shooting at anything that moves), Papillon Soo. Filmed in England, using an abandoned industrial area to simulate the destroyed city of Hue. 116 minutes.
Like many in the audience, critics praised the first half, were let down by the second. In terms of Private Joe Public’s response, after all the expectation and buildup, it ranked just 23rd among the releases of 1987, a year freighted with Vietnam War movies of varying quality: Good Morning Vietnam, Hamburger Hill, Gardens Of Stone, The Hanoi Hilton. While Full Metal Jacket is mediocre as a ‘Stanley Kubrick movie’, it easily outshines those other entries, though Hamburger Hill eats it for lunch in terms of combat realism. Done for $17,000,000 (with perhaps nearly as much spent on prints and marketing), it earned an underwhelming $46,400,000 in the States, but international attendance brought the total up to $120,000,000.
Kubrick: “Some people demand a five-line capsule summary. Something you’d read in a magazine. They want you to say, “This is the story of the duality of man and the duplicity of governments.” I hear people try to do it — give the five-line summary — but if a film has any substance or subtlety, whatever you say is never complete, it’s usually wrong, and it’s necessarily simplistic: truth is too multifaceted to be contained in a five-line summary. If the work is good, what you say about it is usually irrelevant.”
Die-hard Kubrick worshipers will defend this one to the end. To be clear—not that it will help—we LOVE Paths Of Glory, Spartacus and Dr. Strangelove, really like Barry Lyndon, enjoy 2001: A Space Odyssey and Lolita. But lines are drawn when it comes to A Clockwork Orange, The Shining and Eyes Wide Shut. We’ll take Full Metal Jacket over those three. And that’s without the “goddam courtesy” of “a reach-around.”