James Stewart stars as a railroad man hired to secretly carry a payroll despite his suspected connections to outlaws
Mathew Modine and Lee Ermey star in Kubrick's unforgettable chronicle of Marine training and combat action during the Vietnam War
If anyone's going to succeed in demonstrating how fresh-faced recruits can be reduced to machines during military training, it's Stanley Kubrick, a director not known for warm, fuzzy portrayals of humanity. Weirdly, by delivering this message so unflinchingly, Full Metal Jacket emerges as one of Kubrick's most engaging films, never letting us forget precisely what its lead characters have lost.
Following a perfunctory title card, we get straight down to business with a montage of recruits getting their heads shaved in no-nonsense fashion. Given Kubrick's reputation for endless retakes, it's a wonder this scene didn't take several years as actors waited for their hair to grow back. Significantly, we're given no character backstory, no call-up papers, tearful farewells or lonely sunsets - our first glimpse of the leads is two rows of identical bald bodies with Sergeant Hartman (real-life marine drill instructor Ermey) barking out his intention of breaking the men down, while employing an impressive lexicon of florid insults.
All of this establishes the film's atmosphere as nightmarish black comedy, dispelling comparisons with its more ponderous contemporary Platoon. Ermey's performance as the foul-mouthed Hartman is justly celebrated and it's difficult to imagine the film working anything like as effectively without him. Watching the relentless bullying of useless gutbucket Pyle (D'Onofrio) is simultaneously heartbreaking and hilarious thanks to the barrage of abuse coming from the exasperated Hartman.
Modine's Joker (most of the characters are referred to solely by nicknames in a further de-humanising touch) is the film's focus, maintaining a sarcastic attitude throughout while being constantly aware of the horrendous situation he's living through. It's a considerable achievement that Joker can flip between appalling John Wayne impersonations and potentially toe-curling mediations such as "the dead know only one thing: it is better to be alive," while remaining a consistent, believable character.
Despite assurances from those involved in its making that Full Metal Jacket was subject to Kubrick's typically extended shooting schedule and attention to detail, there's a willingness to move things along with none of the leisurely pacing that can make a viewing of 2001 or Barry Lyndon such a daunting prospect. Instead, the recruits' cliched transformation via montage into a team of precision drilled troops is rapidly turned around, provoking a sense of despair rather than triumph; their journey accompanied by a selection of crude, sex-based call-and-response marching songs as opposed to Survivor's 'Eye Of The Tiger'.
The training portion of the film is far more striking than second and longer section which re-creates the savage 1968 Tet offensive. Due to his fear of flying, Kubrick famously recreated his Saigon in East London's Isle of Dogs using derelict buildings and a few imported palm trees. Admittedly, the ploy works a treat (the grey English sky is unmistakable, an effect which makes the battlefield appear unearthly) and the first sign that we're in Blighty comes when the British film industry's favourite Yank in residence, Bruce Boa - famous for demanding a Waldorf salad in 'Fawlty Towers' - crops up, demanding to know why Joker wears a peace badge while his helmet bears the legend 'Born to Kill'. Comments about the duality of man fall on predictably deaf ears.
That the film comes to such an abrupt halt is also something of a surprise, especially given its running time of a very un-Kubrickian 112 minutes. That's not to suggest Full Metal Jacket feels either rushed or unfinished; if anything, it demonstrates just how clear and precise the director's vision could be when he resisted a fatal tendency for indulgence.
As taut and disciplined as its characters, Full Metal Jacket ranks with Dr Strangelove as one of Kubrick's very best.
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