Matthew Modine, Adam Baldwin, Vincent D'Onofrio, R. Lee Ermey, Keir Dullea, Gary Lockwood, William Sylvester, Daniel Richter, voice of Douglas Rain
Gustav Hasford (novel, "The Short Timers"), Stanley Kubrick, Michael Herr, Gustav Hasford
Vietnam can kill me, but it can't make me care.
A superb ensemble cast falls in for action in Stanley Kubrick's brilliant saga about the Vietnam War and the dehumanizing process that turns people into trained killers. Joker, Animal Mother, Gomer, Eightball, Cowboy and more - all are plunged into a boot-camp hell pitbulled by a leatherlung D.I. (Lee Ermey) who views the would-be devil dogs as grunts, maggots or something less. The action is savage, the story unsparing, the dialogue spiked with scathing humor. Full Metal Jacket, from its rigors of basic training to its nightmare of combat in Hue City, scores a cinematic direct hit.
$2.217 million on 215 screens.
Runtime: 117 min.
Release Date: 6/29/1999
PURCHASE @ AMAZON.COM
Sony 36" WEGA KV-36FS12 Monitor; Sony DA333ES Processor/Receiver; Panasonic CV-50 DVD Player using component outputs; Michael Green Revolution Cinema 6i Speakers (all five); Sony SA-WM40 Subwoofer.
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Full Metal Jacket (1987)
Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (December 2, 2007)
When I reviewed 1987’s Full Metal Jacket, I did so in the midst of a reappraisal of the work of Stanley Kubrick. I’ve never much cared for most of his films, but after a surprisingly positive experience with previously-hated 2001: A Space Odyssey, I kept open the thought that perhaps I’d now enjoy some of his other works. How about FMJ - would I still dislike it after all these years?
Short answer: yes. Actually, the long answer's also "yes”. I originally watched FMJ during its theatrical run. If I recall correctly, I thought it lacked any real reason to exist. The first half is generally regarded as the best part, and Lee Ermey built his career around his "ultimate drill sergeant" act. Unfortunately, I didn't think much of those scenes, and the rest of the film was even less interesting. FMJ didn't seem to offer anything we hadn't already seen in 8000 other Vietnam movies, and I thought most its predecessors did it better.
While I've clearly modified my opinion of 2001, all my original criticisms of FMJ remain. Actually, my only substantial original problem with it stemmed from the fact that it offered nothing new, and that's definitely still the case. I had multiple instances of déjà vu throughout this film. Unfortunately, my recent experiences with Kubrick via 2001 and A Clockwork Orange showed that something else was missing from FMJ: the superb restraint and subtlety he showed in those films.
FMJ is split (unevenly) between the first 40 percent or so of the film - which introduces our main character, Joker (Matthew Modine) in boot camp - and the rest of the piece, which shows Joker's experiences in Vietnam. The first segment generally received the most praise, and I agree that it's more interesting than the remainder of the film. That doesn't make it very good, however.
As far as the "déjà vu" part goes, the first section of FMJ elicits a few memories of An Officer and a Gentleman, but to be frank, the movie it most resembled was Stripes. Essentially the boot camp part of the movie was a more intense and brutal version of that comedy classic. Even the film's opening shot - all the new recruits receiving their severe military buzzcuts - directly quotes the Bill Murray picture.
Since I've never been in the military, I can't say this for sure, but I think that ironically, Stripes probably presents the more realistic picture of training camp. Kubrick's offering is so harsh and negative that it almost completely destroys any view of the real world. I have no doubt that Marine boot camp would royally suck, but there has to be some semblance of humanity on display there! Not if we're to believe Kubrick. Only Joker occasionally shows glimmers of sympathy for pathetic Gomer (Vincent D'Onofrio), the sub-Gump loser who can't hack it until he goes psycho.
That brings me to the other main flaw of FMJ: the way that Kubrick virtually beats the viewer over the head with his concepts. All the "blank slate" ideas from 2001 and Clockwork fly out the window here; he clearly wants us to see that the military creates killers by stomping the humanity out of them.
It's all rather absurd, to be honest. One minute Gomer's a moronic screw-up who wants to succeed but is just too stupid to do so. Once he goes psychologically around the bend, however, Gomer all of a sudden gains about 30 IQ points and becomes one bitchin' Marine!
Of course, this comes at a cost: Gomer becomes both suicidal and homicidal (always a nice pair). Pretty subtle there, Stanley - I hope I didn't miss your point. As if Kubrick's ham-handed handling isn't bad enough, D'Onofrio offers an exceedingly bad performance as Gomer. As pleasant simpleton, his inspiration seems to come from Disney’s Goofy - I truly expected him to say "Gawrsh!" from time to time - whereas he appears to have used another Kubrick work to provide a model for psycho Gomer: Jack Nicholson from The Shining. I think D'Onofrio watched the "Here's Johnny!" scene over and over and took it from there. I know I was supposed to be scared or spooked, but to be honest, when he leers at Joker and his eyes look like they've rolled back in his head, I had a hard time not laughing; D'Onofrio's so over the top that the sequence becomes unintentionally comic.
After all that, you'd think the Vietnam scenes would be an improvement, but they're not. Once again, the inspiration pilfering continues. I think Kubrick must have liked Platoon because its stamp is all over the place. Toss in a little Apocalypse Now and even some M*A*S*H for good measure; one segment shows the grunts being interviewed for TV, and it reminded me an awful lot of those M*A*S*H episodes in which journalists visited the 4077th. Frankly, it was sad to watch a director who so obviously influenced others with his earlier work resort to stealing so much of his own film.
Kubrick's lack of subtlety continues during this part of FMJ. Once again, he tells us what to think and never allows us to draw our own conclusions. War is hell - thanks Stan, I didn't know that! Joker remains the most sympathetic character, and he's obviously supposed to be the audience's entry into the story. Unfortunately, Modine is pretty flat throughout the picture; they dressed him up as John Lennon (find a still from his appearance in How I Won the War and you'll see what I mean) and made him a pseudo-peacenik to keep the brutality of the other Marines from becoming overwhelming.
Actually, that touch wasn't needed, because the horror of war never really comes through in FMJ. Since Kubrick couldn't find an original way to depict the battle, it all seems like a summer rerun, and it lacks the impact of previous war films. I never felt involved in the story or had any interest in the happenings. The film tries to startle and shock us, but it fails and it essentially limps along until its conclusion.
Is Full Metal Jacket the worst movie ever? No, not by a long shot; for all its faults, it remains a competently-made war film. However, it may well be Kubrick's worst picture, and from that possibility emanates the reason why I and so many others have been harsh on it. For better or for worse, he's regarded as a master director, and “okay” just isn't good enough for someone of that stature.
"Average" also isn't good enough for the DVD releases of Kubrick films. They possess too high a stature in the film community and have too many rabid fans to get by with mediocre issues. Unfortunately, that's what Warner Bros. have offered to the public: Kubrick DVDs that are passable at best.
The DVD Grades: Picture C+/ Audio D+/ Bonus D-
Full Metal Jacket appears in a fullscreen aspect ratio of 1.33:1 on this single-sided, dual-layered DVD; due to those dimensions, the image has not been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Much stink has been made over the fact that FMJ is not presented in the letterboxed format. Apparently this is because Kubrick preferred it that way. From what I've read, the film was shot full-frame and then matted for the 1.85:1 ratio of the theatrical release, so no information has been lost on the sides, and additional material is visible on the top and bottom. Personally, I prefer that all films - even those shot this way - be letterboxed to preserve the original ratio; I feel that to add material that wasn't there on the screen distorts the movie in a way. Still, this kind of presentation isn't terribly bothersome to me; it's more annoying that they did such a bad job of mastering the picture in the first place.
One word you should know if you plan to watch this DVD: grain. Learn it, love it, because you're definitely gonna be living it! FMJ offered one of the grainiest images I've yet seen on DVD; we receive occasional respites from it, but a fairly heavy sheen of grain marred most of the movie. It's a shame, too, because the grain was really the only fault I had with the picture. Other than the occasional speckle or scratch, the image looked very good; it was quite sharp, with strong contrast and vivid colors. Drop the grain and this sucker gets at least a "B+" rating, and maybe even an "A-". As it stands, the grain drops it into firm "C+" territory.
At least the image only had one strike against it; the sound has two. For one, it's monaural. Mono's acceptable for a movie from 1967, or even from 1977, but not for a major studio offering in 1987. I don't know if this is true or not, but I've heard that Kubrick favored mono because it meant that every patron in the theater heard the same sonic images. If that's how he felt, great, but it doesn't work for me. By that token, all TV shows should be in black and white because some folks don't have color sets. By 1987, a film such as FMJ should have offered a Dolby Surround mix, but even stereo would have been more acceptable than this.
All that would also be more acceptable if the sound was good, and some of it was. Music and effects always sounded clear and relatively rich, considering the nature of mono. However, just as grain mucked up the image, distortion marred the dialogue in FMJ. Not all of the speech is shrill, but a very significant portion came across as both flat and harsh. Lee Ermey does not speak a word of dialogue that doesn't display serious static. I don't know if these problems stem from poor source elements or bad mastering, but I do know that a twelve year old movie should not sound this bad.
If at first you don't succeed, fail, fail again. If all the grain and distorted dialogue hasn't already turned you off of this DVD, the pathetic supplements will seal the deal. What do we have? A theatrical trailer! And that's it! Weak!
Recommendation time, and Full Metal Jacket is easy: mediocre film and generally poor DVD. Even for someone less than enthusiastic about the work of Stanley Kubrick, FMJ presents a surprisingly poor experience, and the bland quality of the DVD makes matters worse. Unless you just have to have it, stay away from it; it's not worth the money.
To rate this film visit the Warner Home Video Director's Series review of FULL METAL JACKET