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.