Full Metal Jacket Review
After dividing critics with his intense 1980 Stephen King adaptation The Shining, Stanley Kubrick waited seven years before making another film. Based on the Gustav Hasford novel The Short Timers, Kubrick chose Vietnam as his next subject, and turned in a film that demonstrates the futility of war whilst maintaining a sardonic grin on its face.
Renamed Full Metal Jacket, the film is strongly split into two acts, which has seen it attract criticism in some quarters. The first act is centred solely on the training of new recruits for the Vietnam War on Paris Island. Lead by the witty and yet ruthless drill instructor Gunnery Sergeant Hartman (R. Lee Ermey, who was himself an experienced Marine in the Vietnam War), the recruits learn the values of army life whilst training to be a marine. Brainwashed into believing that Marines sole function is to kill, the recruits' own personalities are submerged and replaced by the new ones Hartman grants them. Each soldier is given a nickname. Private Joker (Matthew Modine), the main protagonist of the film, is courageous and intelligent, and yet appears to need the experience of war in order to test his lifestyle. Other nicknames given to the soldiers range from Private Snowball to Private Cowboy. Private Pyle (Vincent D'Onofrio) is overweight compared to his fellow soldiers, and is frequently the slowest to adapt to new skills. This causes Hartman to victimise Pyle, sending the tubby soldier into a mental breakdown that eventually causes tragedy amongst the barracks.
The second act of Full Metal Jacket is almost completely divorced from the first and is set in Vietnam. We follow Private Joker, who has now been assigned as a combat correspondent, and we witness the different aspects of his job, from reporting news stories to interviewing soldiers and the actual involvement in combat, which is a prolonged sequence at the film's conclusion.
Full Metal Jacket has often been criticised due to the lack of narrative cohesion between the first and second act of the film. The first act, which contains a tremendous frenetic energy is let down by a bog-standard second act which contains the same old war combat. Arguably, the reason the first act is so strong is down to two performances, R. Lee Ermey as Hartman and Vincent D'Onofrio as Private Pyle, and as these characters are absent in the second half the film arguably loses its impetus. There is also however, a counter argument to this claim. If one listens to the morals the film preaches, it is possible to argue that Kubrick deliberately intended the film's two acts to feel completely distanced from each other. In the first act, the recruits are trained to be almost cyborg-like in their blind faithfulness to the art of killing, almost as if they are taught to believe the notion that they will be dropped into Vietnam and swiftly demolish anything in their sights. The Vietnam conflict was different to most other American conflicts since combat lacked boundaries between the two sides. It was a war fought over three hundred and sixty degrees, and yet the soldiers are still trained in the old-fashioned sense of code, convention and discipline. In the second act, because the war is presented as such a chaotic, free-for-all in most cases, Kubrick is attempting to argue through his narrative that the marines were completely physically and mentally unprepared for such a war, hence America's infamous real-life struggle in Vietnam. Another problem is the fact that the film's basis, Hasford's The Short Timers, was an extremely farcical and episodic depiction of the war, and in attempting to adapt it, the film will obviously maintain some sequences that are mere set-pieces.
Both acts of the film are funny, but for different reasons. In the first act, we laugh mostly at Hartman's take-no-prisoners dialogue, in which he dehumanises recruits to a horrifically low level. Hartman is a figure we fear and yet respect instantly, and is a credit to R. Lee Ermey's acting skills that he is so horrible and yet so likeable. The second act is funny because Joker switches to the centre of the film's focus, and his personality seems to find the Vietnam War ridiculous and therefore funny. This is the man who wears a Peace symbol on his lapel and yet wears the slogan 'BORN TO KILL' on his helmet, "suggesting the duality of man" he claims. It's possible that Joker is the only soldier in the film equipped to handle the Vietnam War, since he frequently mocks the soldiers who embody the traditional John Wayne-Green Berets persona. Matthew Modine gives his career's best performance as Joker, a character who finds his fellow soldiers' ignorance of morality hysterical.
What about Kubrick's direction? There are sequences in the film, particularly in the first act, that are textbook Kubrick, both in terms of style his customary cerebral humour. However, most of the action sequences are flat and uninspired. His realisation of Vietnam (actually shot in an abandoned London gasworks) is the least convincing compared to films such as Casualties Of War, The Deer Hunter and Platoon, and the combat terrain is uninteresting and dated in terms of a realistic aesthetic. However, Kubrick has managed to deliver a film with enough ideas to chew on, even if Full Metal Jacket never recovers from its fantastic first act. This is probably not the worst film of his career, but Kubrick still disappoints slightly.
Fifteen years on, the film appears as much a product of the eighties as opposed to a Vietnam War genre film. Now Kubrick is dead, Full Metal Jacket will be scrutinised even further as the director's penultimate career effort.
Academy Awards 1987
Academy Award Nominations 1987
Best Adapted Screenplay - Stanley Kubrick, Michael Herr, Gustav Hasford
Being that this is the second release for Full Metal Jacket, the packaging claims the DVD to have been Digitally Restored And Remastered, and although there is only a slight difference, the picture quality on this release is very good indeed. Presented in unmatted 1.33:1 (the way Kubrick apparently requested) the colours are given perfect renderings and there is hardly a print scratch or digital artefact in sight.
Although Full Metal Jacket was originally released in mono, this 5.1 remix maintains the mono track and throws in a few surround elements, such as the sounds of helicopters whizzing overhead or bullets narrowly flying past. The musical cuts from the film are given more room to breathe over five channels, but this is still hardly reference material despite the remix, and why wasn't the original mono track included?
Menu: A static menu consisting of music from the film and featuring a few images.
Packaging: The usual Warner Brothers snapper case with the Stanley Kubrick Collection blue stripe at the top, and chapter listings printed on the inside of the snapper case.
Trailer: A brief one-minute trailer that encapsulates the actual combat sections of the film yet mostly neglects the training aspects.
If you already own the first release of Full Metal Jacket, it's hard to recommend this re-release since the improvements are marginal. The picture and sound quality of the DVD are fine even if extras are limited to a trailer. Any fan of Kubrick or Vietnam War films should definitely consider this a factor in their collection, although it might be cheaper to buy the Stanley Kubrick Box Set as opposed to shelling out on his films individually.