Reviewed by
Colin Jacobson

Title: Rules of Engagement: Special Edition (2000)
Studio Line: Paramount Pictures - A Hero Should Never Have To Stand Alone

Tommy Lee Jones and Samuel L. Jackson deliver electrifying performances in this "tense, superbly-directed and top-drawer drama" (Jeffrey Lyons, NBC-TV) about what happens when the rules that command a soldier become the rules that condemn him.

Colonel Terry Childers (Jackson) is a patriot and war hero. But when a peacekeeping mission he leads in Yemen goes terribly wrong, he finds himself facing a court martial. Accused of breaking rules of engagement by killing unarmed civilians, Childers' only hope of vindication rests with comrade-in-arms Hays Hodges (Jones), a military lawyer of questionable abilities. Together they face the battle of their lives.

Directed by Oscar-winning director William Friedkin (The Exorcist) and co-starring Guy Pearch, Bruce Greenwood, Anne Archer and Academy Award-winner Ben Kingsley, Rules Of Engagement is "a magnificent movie you must see" (Larry King, USA Today).

Director: William Friedkin
Cast: Samuel L. Jackson, Tommy Lee Jones, Guy Pearce, Bruce Greenwood, Ben Kingsley, Blair Underwood, Anne Archer, Philip Baker Hall
Box Office: Budget: $60 million. Opening Weekend: $15.011 million (3155 screens). Gross: $61.322 million.
DVD: Widescreen 2.25:1/16x9; audio English Dolby Digital 5.1, English Dolby Surround, French Dolby Surround; subtitles English; closed-captioned; single sided - dual layered; 15 chapters; rated R; 127 min.; $29.99; street date 10/10/00.
Supplements: Audio Commentary from Director William Friedkin; 23-minute featurette "Behind the Rules of Engagement"; 13-minute cast and crew interviews "A Look Inside".
Purchase: DVD | Score soundtrack - Mark Isham

Picture/Sound/Extras: B/A/B

Although I like courtroom dramas, I must admit that they tend to be extremely predictable. Every once in a while one will throw you a curve, but usually the outcomes of the trials can be seen a mile away.

That factor intensifies when the story in question involves the military. Films like A Few Good Men start, proceed, and finish along inevitable lines, and while these sorts of films can be quite entertaining compelling, they do lack many surprises.

Add Rules of Engagement to the list of well-executed and professional military trial films that provides some interest but ultimately is a little too rote for its own good. The movie follows the lives of Marines Terry Childers (Samuel L. Jackson) and Hays Hodges (Tommy Lee Jones), long-time friends and comrades in Vietnam. The early story depicts some crucial actions during that conflict and then skips ahead to 1996. After Vietnam, Hodges became a mediocre lawyer with the Corps and moped his way toward his then-approaching retirement, while Childers remained an active commander.

In that position, Childers leads Marines as they attempt to quell a potentially-problematic demonstration in front of the US mission in Yemen. Inevitably, things go wrong and Childers finds himself brought up on serious charges. Although Hodges never showed any legal skills, Childers asks his old friend to lead his case and the legal theatrics begin.

Part of the problem with ROE is that it leaves almost no room for doubt about either the outcome of the trial or the facts in the case. In a good courtroom movie, you may feel you know what will happen to the characters but questions may arise about the truth of the matter; for example, Anatomy of a Murder kept me guessing about the facts. ROE did this to an extremely limited degree. For a short while, we have some doubt about what happened in Yemen, but the story quickly eliminates any question.

Since the story offers virtually no surprises, we have to rely on the talent of the participants for our entertainment, and that's where ROE rises slightly above the pack. It features a very strong cast, starting with Jackson and Jones. Neither offers especially great work here, though Jackson's live-wire performance comes closest; while potentially-violent characters are not new to him, he imbues Childers with a quality that makes him seem dangerous but not psychotic.

Jones seems somewhat ordinary in the less showy role, though he does provide a few nice moments. For example, during his opening statement at the trial, Hodges starts out shaky and uncertain but slowly becomes more assertive and confident; Jones conveys this growth subtly and smoothly. The rest of the cast boasts some solid supporting players who do their jobs ably but without much flair. A couple of oddities exist, however. First, although I always like to see Paul Thomas Anderson's favorite actor Philip Baker Hall, he seems awfully young to play Jones' father. Or maybe the problem is that Jones appears too old to be Hall's son. For the record, Hall is 15 years older than Jones, so while the difference makes the relationship a stretch, at least it's not ludicrous. Best example of an absurd casting in regard to age: in Laurence Olivier's 1948 edition of Hamlet, Larry is actually 13 years younger than Eileen Herlie, the actress who plays his mother! Talk about a medical miracle!

The other somewhat strange acting choice in ROE stems from Guy Pearce's performance as Major Biggs, the military lawyer who prosecutes the case against Hodges. Aussie Pearce adopts a serious Noo Yawk accent for no apparent reason; it doesn't serve the character at all and just makes Pearce 's work look somewhat awkward and forced. Pearce clearly can do an American voice well, as he demonstrated in L.A. Confidential, but his choice here seems silly and unproductive.

Ultimately, Rules of Engagement functions as a workable and moderately interesting but largely lackluster drama. Despite the predictable nature of the story, director William Friedkin creates enough tension and excitement to involve the viewer, but he doesn't make the film anything special.

(One odd note: look at the scene that occurs at about the 97-minute mark. Am I mistaken or is that Darth Maul shooting at Sam Jackson??!! Maybe not, but it sure looks like him, and the fact Jackson's a Jedi makes him a likely target for a Sith warrior!)

The DVD:

Rules of Engagement appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 2.25:1 on this single-sided, double-layered DVD; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Though generally solid, the movie suffered from some strange flaws that made my grade drop to a "B".

Sharpness is the most problematic aspect of the picture. Most of the movie seemed adequately crisp and detailed, and at times the image appeared absolutely stunning. However, quite a lot of softness interferes with the production. This seemed most noticeable during interior shots such as those in offices and the courtroom. Since much of the action takes place in that latter environment, this meant that much of the final act of the film looked fuzzy and hazy. I think the softness resulted partially from Friedkin's use of overexposure; many images looked a little too bright, and that apparently-intentional effect caused the picture to appear vaguely out of focus.

Moiré effects are a minor concern, and I noticed moderate artifacts from the anamorphic downconversion on my 4X3 TV. Print flaws appeared mild but were surprisingly heavy for a brand-new film. I noticed light grain and some white speckles and black grit at times. These problems are very infrequent and mainly affected the courtroom scenes; I think Friedkin used fast film for those shows, which means that the depth of field was weak (and sharpness became an issue) plus print flaws became more of a concern due to the low-light levels. The defects seemed nearly non-existent in the scenes that didn't take place in the courtroom, so they cause only minor concerns throughout the film.

Despite the strange brightness of parts of the courtroom set, black levels largely appeared deep and rich, and contrast was strong. Shadow detail seemed similarly clear and appropriately opaque without any excessive heaviness. Colors looked accurate and clean, with no signs of bleeding or noise. Hues usually took on a clear and natural tone, and they always seemed very attractive. Much of Rules of Engagement presented an exceedingly crisp and detailed image, with no flaws in sight. However, some persistent softness and a few print defects negatively affected the picture and left it with a still-positive "B" rating.

Much more compelling is the Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack of Rules of Engagement. The soundfield was consistently immensely active and engaging as it provided a startlingly distinct audio environment. The front channels get most of the action, mainly because a number of scenes - particularly those in court - present appropriately modest soundscapes; in the quieter moments, the mix appeared subdued as well for the most part. At those times, the surround speakers provided very modest atmosphere.

However, when we encountered action scenes, the mix went absolutely ballistic. The film features two of these kinds of pieces: one in Vietnam and one in Yemen. During those segments, the soundtrack seemed amazingly violent and intense. The audio flies all about you as the gunfire and explosives careen, and the result made these war scenes almost as stunning as those from Saving Private Ryan, the all-time 5.1 champ. ROE doesn't quite match up with Spielberg's film, but it gives it a run for its money and provides an amazingly aggressive soundfield.

Actually, I thought the mix seemed a little too active on occasion. There's a forced and busy quality to some of the audio. Two examples: first, during the Vietnam scenes that open the film, we hear the footsteps of the soldiers as they walk through the forest. While this seems like a cool effect, I found it to be awkwardly unrealistic; the footsteps came across as too loud and prominent in the mix and felt like a gimmick.

The same went for another more subtle example: flies that buzzed around the background. When the smoke cleared after the Yemen violence, we hear flies as they survey the damage. Had the sound designers restricted this to a soft, restricted "zzz", then the results would appear good. However, the buzzing became too busy and showy; the insects scoot all around the rear spectrum and generally create a nuisance and a distraction. They reappear during a later Yemen scene when Hodges inspects the damage; I got really tired of this effect, which took away from the appropriate focus of the scene. For the most part, the soundfield seemed wonderfully rich and evocative, but at times it got a little happy and became burdened with too much activity.

Audio quality appeared strong throughout the film. At times some dialogue betrayed mildly brittle tones - such as when Jackson and Jones take a quiet walk through some woods - but usually the speech was natural and distinct, with no concerns related to intelligibility. Music appeared clear and smooth and showed positive range, and the effects were absolutely stunning. The battle sequences displayed a wide range of sounds that came across with excellent clarity and realism. From gunfire to explosions to lighter ambiance, all of these effects were accurate and crisp.

No matter how loud the track became - and believe me, it got plenty loud - I couldn't discern the slightest hint of distortion; the mix remained clean and clear from start to finish. That aspect became more surprising when I considered the depth of the track, as it presented some intense bass. Boy, does this sucker pack a serious punch! I felt every bomb blast and explosion through the movie, and the track seemed quite intense. Although I occasionally felt the mix became overly ambitious and distracting, it usually provided a fantastic audio experience. I almost awarded it an "A+", but those stupid flies irritated me too much, so it'll have to settle for a high "A".

Rules of Engagement includes a few supplemental features. First up is an audio commentary from director William Friedkin. Although it suffers from a few too many empty spaces, Friedkin's track nonetheless offers a frank and compelling look at the movie. Friedkin takes a refreshingly unassuming bent much of the time; for instance, he starts the commentary with a disclaimer that his word about the interpretation of the film should not be seen as gospel.

Somewhat surprisingly, much of the track focuses on Friedkin's thoughts about the content, but these aspects aren't his only aim. He also relates insights into the production and the actors, and we get a nice perspective on what it was he wanted to do with the film and what decisions were made during the production. One entertaining part: I got the feeling Friedkin didn't care for Pearce's American accent either, but he makes it clear the voice was Pearce's choice all alone. Another interesting note: Friedkin tells us that he had to "dumb down" (my words) the film to a degree because modern audiences can't accept ambiguity; he even encourages us to ignore some parts of the picture he had to add to make the story clearer to folks! Overall, it's an interesting and informative piece that made me better appreciate the film; Friedkin provides a lot of insight into the picture and offers an experience that's actually much more stimulating and involving than the movie itself.

One minor but unusual note about Friedkin's commentary: unlike most of these kinds of tracks, there is no movie audio to be heard in the background while he speaks. This felt slightly odd, since I'm so used to hearing gentle film information accompanying the commentary, but it's not a big deal to me. I just thought it should be mentioned so no one would think there's something wrong with their DVDs.

Two video programs appear on the DVD as well. We get "Rules of Engagement: A Look Inside", a collection of cast and crew interviews that provides comments from director Friedkin, screenwriter James Webb, and actors Jones, Jackson, Ben Kingsley, and Bruce Greenwood. This piece runs for 13 minutes and five seconds and offered a pretty superficial look at the film. We learn a little about how the project started, and we hear some reactions from the participants to working with each other, but it largely sticks to the surface. The comments were basically puffy and we obtained little insight.

Although it also provides a promotional look at the film, I preferred "Behind the Rules of Engagement" to the other video piece. This 23-minute and 35-second program gives us a decent look at the creation of the movie. It combines interviews with the principals - all of which (happily) differ from the segments found in the previous piece - plus film clips and some good footage from the set. The show definitely aims to tout the movie, but it seems pretty interesting nonetheless, if just for the "behind the scenes material"; those parts are very compelling and cool.

One note about the program: it tells far too much of the story. Granted, ROE doesn't provide any shocking plot twists anyway, but the documentary gives away an awful lot of the tale. If you haven't already seen the movie, skip this program until after you've done so.

Rules of Engagement is a DVD that I recommend, but not with much enthusiasm, I'm afraid. I found the movie to provide a moderately exciting and enjoyable experience bolstered by a fine cast, but it was too common and predictable to be anything special; only some intense action sequences stood out, and those worked mainly due to phenomenal sound design. The DVD provides a generally strong though occasionally flawed image plus absolutely stunning audio and a few decent extras. For fans of the genre, Rules of Engagement merits a rental.

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