A group of new recruits get their military haircuts in the opening moments of Full Metal Jacket. While each start with a different style and cut of hair, they all end up with the same shaven head. It’s a perfect metaphor for the basic training concept, a grind that wears everyone down to the same individual: uniform, barren and simple. This opening moment of Full Metal Jacket perfectly encapsulates the first hour of the film.
During this hour, Gurney Sergeant Hartman (R. Lee Ermey) shouts foul insults at a group of recruits, shaping and disciplining them into killing machines. One particular object of his spite is Pvt. Pyle (Vincent D’Onofrio), a slow, overweight kid who’s always lagging behind. Fellow soldier Pvt. Joker (Matthew Modine) tries to come alongside and help him, patiently showing him all the basic duties of a soldier.
This opening act displays a great contrast between the use of brute authority for education and the application of peer mentoring. Hartman screams at these men, using the threat of punishment and ridicule as motivation. Meanwhile, Joker uses patience and encouragement to help Pyle learn the ways of a soldier. While there are merits to both styles of learning, the film clearly concludes the training with a judgment of one system.
This section of the film is the most entertaining and stimulating. The dialogue is crass, degrading and foul, but has a good wit, pacing and humor to it. Likewise, the more memorable characters of the picture appear in this first act and get fleshed out through the course of the training. This first half of the film is one of the great war films, a look at what it takes to shape these boys into the killers that are so often seen in war movies.
However, the film then decides to actually take itself to the Vietnam War at the halfway point. The problem is that once there, the film has no idea what it wants to be about. Joker becomes an army journalist, but the rest of the film is hardly about that. Likewise, it isn’t much about the life on the battlefield because there is really only one battle worth speaking about. It’s all over the place, picking up all these different set-pieces and never unifying them into anything coherent.
There’s even a scene where Joker talks about why he wears a peace badge but has “Born to kill” written on his helmet. “I think I was trying to suggest something about the duality of man.” This could be an interesting conflict, but the Joker character gets lost amid the ensemble group soldiers that he follows for the rest of the film. He becomes part of their group and there’s no nuance or duality to their characters (but one of them is played by Adam Baldwin, for what it’s worth).
At least the war scenes make for some good shots. Kubrick uses a lot of smoke and fire to get some great contrasting shots. However, the look is derivative of Apocalypse Now with the high usage of oranges. Still, it’s shot as a Kubrick film with a lot of longer, tracking shot and a strong emphasis on composition. It would be nice if he got his own visual look for the film but it’s distinct enough not to feel like a rip-off.
Full Metal Jacket is one half of a great war movie and the other half a bad war movie. The second half isn’t as bad as something like Platoon, but it lacks direction, focus and just isn’t as compelling to watch as you average war film. It’s a film that should still be seen for its long, opening act, but after that the film has little interesting, memorable or worthwhile to offer to its audience.
© 2010 James Blake Ewing