Full Metal Jacket (1987)

8 Feb

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Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

The opening sequence of Stanley Kubrick’s war film “Full Metal Jacket” features young Army recruits getting their heads shaven in time for training camp. The expressions on each of their faces represent misery…but they haven’t experienced anything yet.

That’s one of many amazing, complex touches added to this story set during the Vietnam War. It’s the story of the descent into madness that war can bring. “Full Metal Jacket” is not a warm, heavy-handed movie about the Vietnam War, but a traumatic, blunt tale about war itself.

But what more could you expect with this kind of complexity from the great director Stanley Kubrick? This is a director who goes out of his way to make sure not one shot rings false or forced, to the extent of filming more takes than any other director (or actors to be directed) could imagine. Kubrick makes sure to capture every little detail on screen, positioning the cameras right where he needs them so we can feel what he captures.

Kubrick’s favorite close-up shot to use in each of his movies—a character has his chin down, but his eyes straight up at the camera. In “Full Metal Jacket,” that close-up is focused on Pvt. Leonard “Gomer Pyle” Lawrence, a chubby misfit who is the subject of humiliation at basic training on Parris Island and is about to be pushed over the edge.

Kubrick’s favorite camera movement—the Steadycam. This comes in handy almost throughout the entire movie, particularly in sequences that feature the drill sergeant on Parris Island instructing the marine grunts, and sequences in the final half that feature heavy war action in Vietnam.

Those are all essential to the tension that “Full Metal Jacket” brings—first to training camp, then to war.

The first 45 minutes of “Full Metal Jacket” are just brilliant, as we see the marine grunts undergoing basic training. Sometimes, it’s funny, but it’s mostly brutal, mainly because of the grunts’ instructor (R. Lee Ermey) making their lives hell when not giving speeches about the great Marine marksmen, which include Lee Harvey Oswald. Especially vulnerable is “Pvt. Pyle” (Vince D’Onofrio) who starts out as a complete loser not cut out for all of this. I’ll never forget the unbroken shot in which the other men thrash the poor guy at night in bed. That pummeling opens his eyes to what’s around him and causes him to slowly but surely give in to the madness.

That’s the first half of “Full Metal Jacket” and it’s pure Kubrick—irony, harshness, terror, and art. It’s so good that it comes close to overshadowing the rest of the movie, which takes place in Vietnam, following another Marine nicknamed “Pvt. Joker” who was the squad leader on Parris Island. Now he’s a journalist who doesn’t take the War seriously (he wears a peace symbol while wearing a hat that has “BORN TO KILL” written on it). Joker goes out into the wild to do a story on a platoon, just to relieve himself from boredom in De Nang, and gets more than he expected.

But even the second half is well put together and pretty strong. It’s also where “Full Metal Jacket” comes full circle—from basic training to real warfare. It shows how war affects these characters and in a key scene, we see the startled but joyful nature of these soldiers.

The Vietnam sequences were shot on stages and outdoor sets in England, and they look so realistic that, with the cinematography and no-nonsense acting, it feels like a documentary is being shot instead of a war narrative (that’s even more convincing when a news camera crew comes in to interview the soldiers—“We’re getting killed for these people, and they don’t even appreciate it. They think it’s a big joke,” one of them declares). This is one of the best-looking war movies I’ve ever seen.

The acting is excellent, particularly from Vince D’Onofrio and R. Lee Ermey in the first half of the movie. Matthew Modine, as Joker, takes a little getting used to, with the constant joking despite knowing where he is. But as the movie progresses, he does become more of a character than a “joker” and Modine shows how surprisingly solid he is at playing him. The other actors—which include Adam Baldwin, Arliss Howard, Dorian Harewood, and Kevyn Major Howard—seem so real, they help make the movie feel like a documentary. Kubrick has directed them well, as he always does (though I can imagine the hard work they must have been put through).

“Full Metal Jacket” makes Oliver Stone’s war drama “Platoon” look like a bedtime story. While that film was about embracing the soldier within, this film digs deeper into the terrors of the Vietnam War and the insanity that was brought about. It’s a harrowing, tensely-built story that is not for the faint of heart.

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