Full Metal Jacket

About an hour into Stanley Kubrick’s 1987 take on the Vietnam War (or, rather, Vietnam cinema), Full Metal Jacket, I decided I’d had enough.

The movie has always struck me as an oddity. Released a few months after Oliver Stone’s Platoon swept the Oscars and pretty much changed our views of what a war movie could be, FMJ is divided uncomfortably, and unsuccessfully, into two parts: the Parris Island section, which follows a handful of raw recruits under the brutal tutelage of DI Hartman (R. Lee Ermey, who should have won an Oscar), and the Vietnam section, which follows some of the same recruits into “the shit.” I guess I’ve always had trouble reconciling these two sections because the movie itself does not. There is no reason for the two halves of the film to exist in the same film. Kubrick should have either made a movie set entirely within the confines of Parris Island (which would have been far better), or one set entirely in Vietnam (which we’d seen before, especially by 1987). But sticking the two halves together without allowing one to comment or reflect upon the other is a massive mistake.

The film is just disjointed. It takes a half-assed approach to the brutalizing process of dehumanization that is Marine boot camp, and a half-assed approach to the genuine tragedy that was the war in Southeast Asia. What’s worse is that Kubrick attempted to make some kind of joke out of it all. The film is also undeniably racist. Kubrick seems to have absorbed the lessons doled out by DI Hartman and applied them to the human beings who died under American fire in Vietnam. There’s a scene where a “dead gook” is displayed by an American soldier who makes kissy faces at the camera, like a deer hunter showing off a trophy. That this soldier is Caucasian, and the “corpse” opposite him is clearly an Asian-American actor playing “dead,” makes the scene all the more reprehensible in light of last week’s terrorist assault on the capitol perpetrated by American white supremacists. FMJ strikes a very offensive chord that feels totally wrong for 21st century viewing.

There is nothing wrong with movies that depict the war in Vietnam. Apocalypse Now did it best, showing the visceral brutality of the fighting while also using the tragedy that occurred there in a metaphoric/literary sense; Francis Ford Coppola made a statement about both art and war. I always thought Platoon a bit too on-the-nose, a bit too manipulative, but at least it’s honest — Stone was actually there. His film functions as reportage, if nothing else. (I never bought into his intellectual symbolizing, but the graphic nature of the warfare and the horror it conveys is still powerful stuff.) Rambo: First Blood Part II is the comic book version of Vietnam, with America getting to go back and “win this time.” It’s Vietnam as action extravaganza. Forrest Gump wraps up its Vietnam sequences with squirm-inducing patriotism, viewed through the eyes of someone who would never, ever have been deemed fit to serve.

FMJ is confused and confusing. Is it all a joke, or are we supposed to take Kubrick seriously? Much of it does work, beautifully well, but these scenes are all contained in the Parris Island chapter. The opening five minutes, in which Hartman introduces himself to the raw recruits, is probably some of the most intense cinema ever filmed. The sheer level of vitriol, the insanely poetic use of twisted, pornographic profanity, is something to behold. Ermey simply owns these scenes, as indeed, he owns the whole movie. Once he is out of the picture, FMJ never recovers. It loses its reason to exist.

Yet Hartman tortures an obviously unfit and unstable recruit, Private Pyle (Vincent D’Onofrio), way past the point of reason. Pyle would never have made it to Parris Island, yet he’s allowed to disrupt the training of the rest of the men. He’s turned over to another private, labeled “Joker” (Matthew Modine), who works wonders with Pyle, actually turning him into a fairly decent (if accident-prone) soldier. I don’t buy this, either. Pyle would have been rejected immediately.

Unfortunately, after about 45 minutes of torment at the hands of DI Hartman (whose profanities grow more creatively delirious), we begin to realize all the inconsistencies. How, for example, can all the rest of the guys browbeat Pyle in the middle of the night without waking Hartman? How can Hartman allow Pyle to almost willingly become a quivering pile (ha-ha) of goo without 4-F’ing his ass out of the barracks? And how it is that Joker, while on “fire watch” their final night on the island, fails to notice Pyle’s absence from his rack in the first place.

Kubrick does a great job showing us the dehumanizing process required to turn men into killer Marines, but Pyle’s final transformation comes out of nowhere. We know he’s crazy because he leers into the camera like Jack Nicholson in The Shining. Somehow I don’t think this is a very realistic depiction of life in the Marine Corps, or how a homicidal maniac would behave. This wouldn’t matter if we didn’t already have Apocalypse and Platoon, which treated war with much greater respect. For some reason, Kubrick veers wildly into cartoon territory, suggesting he’s making a satire. But a satire of what?

The film then wakes up in Vietnam, with a prostitute uttering the classic pick-up line, “Me luv you long time,” to Joker and photographer Rafterman. Here the film becomes a series of unrelated episodes that suggest combat correspondent Joker is, in fact, a joker, a wiseacre in the face of horror. His shtick is that he wears a peace button on his flak jacket and has Born to Kill scrawled on his campaign cover. Hardee-har. At one point, a door gunner on a Huey helicopter actually looks into the camera and says, “War is hell, ain’t it?” This is simply Kubrick pounding us over the head with unearned Irony. If this is a satire, it is about as subtle as a Carrottop routine.

The Vietnam sequences are not only poorly written, with soldiers offering each other non-stop helpful advice and introducing themselves as if they were all at a fraternity fundraiser, but patently fake. Kubrick famously filmed the whole movie in England, and it shows. As troops and equipment rumble along roads in the English countryside, the presence of powerlines and neatly-mown ditches tip us off to the actual location. The city scenes are all clearly shot on sets. After the stunning realism of the Coppola and Stone films, one has wonder who Kubrick thought he was fooling, and why.

Then there’s the acting. It’s over the top, while the characters are frustratingly under-written. The dialogue is also disappointing, with the actors delivering stage-y speeches and trading insults that sound like they were written to be repeated in a movie. The climax is too gory, and our horror is replaced with disgust. We don’t like these characters, and Kubrick hasn’t earned our horror by creating any dramatic interest. The movie feels too much like a joke, disengaged and uncommitted. After 33 years, it has aged poorly. It’s the one big disappointment in Kubrick’s whole resume; even Barry Lyndon is better.

A pair of spy movies

Two quirky titles to add to the spy-movie genre, which has been resurgent of late: MI-5 (2015) and Steven Soderbergh’s 2011 Haywire.

MI-5, directed by Bharat Nalluri, is apparently based on a British television series called “Spooks,” unseen by me. In the contemporary James Bond wannabe sweepstakes, it’s not bad at all, a bit low-key and low-budget, but damned entertaining across repeat viewings.

The film suffers only from what might charitably be called blandness. Compared to the Craig Bonds, especially those directed by Sam Mendes (Skyfall and Spectre), it’s thin tea, indeed, lacking the propulsive, multi-million-dollar action set pieces that make Bond the crown jewel in the spy genre. I imagine the catering alone on Skyfall added up to more than the entire production and advertising budget for MI-5. But that’s no reason to dismiss MI-5 entirely out of hand. If you’ve seen Spectre one too many times, as I have, MI-5 makes for a refreshing change of pace.

The film seems to involve many of the same characters and dilemmas from the show, which makes me feel a bit like walking in on a program I haven’t been following (which is the case). But as a standalone it still isn’t bad, with a unit of tightly-knit super-spy protagonists using technology and teamwork to catch a brown-skinned criminal mastermind (the villains always seem to be brown-skinned, don’t they?). There’s not a nuclear clock ticking down, so the stakes seem curiously lowball. Ghost Protocol, this ain’t. But the acting is solid across the board (Kit Harrington is convincing as a spook on the run), the cast is attractive and gritty, and the London locations are effectively deployed (there are also scenes shot in Russia and Berlin). If Bond represents the top end of the spy-movie spectrum, then MI-5 ranks somewhere in the middle, which is, surprisingly, good enough.

Haywire also falls in the middle, which, given its pedigree, makes it more of a disappointment. As a standalone Bond wannabe attempting to introduce a brand-new character into the spy game, the film falls short of expectations, given that it was directed by Soderbergh. I think this is largely the fault of the script (by frequent Soderbergh collaborator Lem Dobbs), which seems undercooked. Soderbergh ladles on the style — the film has magnificent camera work and eye-watering location photography in cities we haven’t seen in this genre — but the writing often just isn’t there.

MMA star Gina Carano leads as Mallory Kane, a deadly government contractor who does dirty work in glamorous foreign capitols for a shadowy cabal. Michael Douglas, Michael Fassbender, Ewan McGregor, Bill Paxton, the tremendously overrated Channing Tatum, and Antonio Banderas turn up in supporting roles. Their performances are all uneven, given that in too many scenes, these actors seem to be inventing their characters as they go. Dobbs would apparently rather err on the side of under-developing his dialogue. Soderbergh fills in gaps with long tracking shots, allowing the tension to build while also killing lots of screen time. It’s strange; the style of the film works against it.

Carano is the reason to see the movie, and while she is acceptable, she demonstrates no acting range. Not sure why Soderbergh cast her, though 10 years ago, she might have been a hot pick. Fortunately, there are a handful of bang-up, hand-to-hand combat scenes that kick ass in a variety of ways, none more exciting than the hotel-room dust-up between Carano and the surprisingly able Fassbender (who would have made an interesting Bond). Soderbergh has called this his homage to 007, and while it works fine as that, I can understand why this film never spawned a franchise.

Still, anyone looking for a decent spy flick that’s original and entertaining could do a lot worse than these two. Or, you could always just re-watch Brian De Palma’s Mission: Impossible, still the all-time champ.

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