"Full Metal Jacket" finds Stanley Kubrick behind the lens with lethal intent, camera locked, loaded and ready to fire. Cool and caustic, Kubrick pans the Vietnam war from afar, like a four-star general directing Armageddon from the rear echelon. His offensive is as painfully brilliant as a glass grenade.
There is a kind of grandeur that comes with distance -- a scope contrary to the rank, entangling warfare that typified 'Nam. But Kubrick could not make a movie in the jungle. He couldn't bear the confines, this director of empty spaces and vast ideals. Instead he tackles the Tet Offensive, the street battles of bombed out Hue, the Imperial City circa 1968. It is the Vietnam War portrayed as World War II, cocky and trigger-happy. John Wayne would fit right in; the Sheens, father or son, would not.
"Full Metal Jacket," based on Gustav Hasford's novel "The Short-Timers," is a disturbing, indelible movie structured in two parts -- the first is a boot camp opera, the Parris Island Follies, a drill instructor's aria sung to a chorus of grunts; the second takes the Marine Corps kids-turned-killers to the rubble that was Hue, where they are pinned down by fierce fighting men and little girls with guns. It's symbolic that the sharpshooter, nothing more than a slip of a girl, should turn the war upside down for these killers created from cornfed boys called "ladies" by their DI.
The raw recruits, shorn of their hair and so their individuality, become crack combat troops under the tutelage of the archetypal Marine drill instructor hollering insults faster than Rambo kills commies and 20 times as lethal. Tearing down their defenses, their relationships, realigning their sex drives, he marries love and violence, the soldier to his rifle. Lee Ermey, a former Marine NCO, is a natural as Sgt. Hartman, the bulldog-faced terror who turns these babies into replacement parts for Uncle Sam's Lean Green Fighting Machine.
We've seen it all before, most recently in "Gardens of Stone," most romantically in "An Officer and a Gentleman," but never more elegantly than here as Kubrick sustains the athletic ballet of obstacle courses and white-glove inspections for a breathtaking 40 minutes. It is precision he will contrast with randomness of war. His Marines chant like a chorus line in fatigues, jogging to the tattoo of macho doggerel. "One, two, three, four, I love the Marine Corps. This is my rifle. This is my gun. This is for killing. This is for fun."
Continual harassment, physical and verbal intimidation, inevitably break down the identity of the boy, and replace it with that of an American samurai. Or the loose gun. The impressive Vincent D'Onofrio, an off-off-Broadway actor who gained 60 pounds for the role, goes over the edge in Part 1. His unfortunate Pvt. Leonard (Gomer) Pyle, a fat, slow-witted boy whose stupid grin becomes a psycho's secret smile when something snaps under the rigors of war games. It is a broad, scary and skilled performance, expressed as it might be in a silent movie, for few words are spoken in this skillfully paced segment.
There is always a psycho somewhere in Kubrick's case -- like Jack Nicholson as the hellish father of "The Shining"; the whole mad war room of "Dr. Strangelove: or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb"; and even Hal the computer, which eventually cracks, in "2001: A Space Odyssey." Kubrick, with his distant, dead center eye, shows that we cannot, no matter how methodically framed, keep the psychoses in.
In "Full Metal Jacket," one man's mania erupts in a deadly showdown between the monster and the man who made him, in contrast to the greater, sanctioned insanity of the war that wasn't a war. Pvt. Joker, played by Matthew Modine, one of a few solid characters to emerge from the faceless body Marine, the boot-campers with their Hare Krishna haircuts, will take us there in Chapter 2.
The remarkable Modine returns to the Vietnam arena following his physically demanding portrait of a schizophrenic veteran in "Birdy" and the emotionally fatiguing one of the boy who is stabbed to death in the movie adaptation of the barracks drama "Streamers."
Insouciant as Hawkeye and just as jaded, Modine's Joker comes to 'Nam with stateside naivete' but not the eternal soldier's innocence of "Platoon's" hero. He's assigned to a communications unit, serving his country pushing a pen for the military paper Stars and Stripes, writing up a visit by Ann-Margret or phonying up a body count to build morale (Kubrick's slap at the military's ad-slick campaign to sell the war).
Joker's photographer Rafterman, played by Kevyn Major Howard, wants some "trigger time" and the two of them soon land assignments at the front. They tag along with a seasoned platoon, reunited with Joker's "basic" buddy Cowboy (Arliss Howard). Gradually the short-timers are picked off deftly by the enemy, fine soldiers and fierce patriots.
They hadn't expected that. They were told that: "Inside every gook is an American waiting to get out." But it's like what one fighting man, high on Semper Fi, says: "These are the finest people we will ever know. After we rotate back to the world, we're going to miss not having anybody who's worth shooting."
In these segments in Hue, shot in an abandoned gasworks beside the Thames near London, Kubrick overcomes his artistic claustrophobia and closes in on the fighting men. With a shaky hand-held "stumblecam," the Kubrick team follows the heroes into the brimstone of Hue (recreated from Library of Congress photographs), but looking like soldiers creeping into some tumbled city in West Germany.
The sound track, a mix of "The Marine's Hymn," training doggerel, Sam the Sham and Nancy Sinatra, is part of the first movie score by Abigail Mead. She performs this ingenious monaural work on a Fairlight music computer. It is bleating, beating, moaning, metallic, as if machine guns could sing.
And the sound is one of the most memorable ingredients in this corrosive, tragicomic film, which should not be compared with Oliver Stone's sweaty, cathartic "Platoon," the moral surrealism of "Apocalypse Now" or even the emotional romance of "Coming Home." Instead, it's a cynical statement that recreates the wahoo war-movie structure, then crumbles it to undermine idealized carnage, even as the moviegoing public is swept with 'Nam nostalgia.
Unfortunately, his work is weakened with obtuse burlesque and self-conscious narration meant to set scenes. And he and his cowriters seem to have lifted a series of fictional TV interviews from one of the finest of the TV "M*A*S*H" episodes. Then again, it's as if they borrowed bits of every war movie to make this eclectic finale. It doesn't feel like war, it feels like an old-fashioned war movie that cusses harder.
Only these are boy soldiers, who talk like G.I. Joe cartoons, or even Rambo. They are kids playing war. The movie makers even close with the "Mickey Mouse Club" theme song, because it was that kind of time, because of the politics back home and because our soldiers were kids -- an average of 19 years of age as compared with 26 in World War II. Leaderless and lost, they play a hideous hide-and-seek with the children of Vietnam who defend the Hue that was.
In one of his earliest films, 1957's "Paths of Glory," Kubrick indicted the military in a shattering World War I study on the insanity of war, a kind of "Breaker Morant." He continues the controversy with an indictment that is more complicated, speaking in explicit, slow-motion sequences of soldiers dying, as bloody and beautifully choreographed as if they were Kurosawa's samurai. An epic tragedy made of the living room war.
Kubrick imprints ghostly reminders: The face of the girl sniper, teeth clenched in the twilight of a gunfight, with a fanaticism in her eyes, the same that shone in Pvt. Pyle's. And the accessories of Pvt. Joker -- "Born to Kill" written on his helmet and a peace button pinned to his fatigues -- a statement on "the duality of man," and an oblique reference to the politics back home. Let others embrace the Vietnam veterans as heroes, Kubrick would rather pick at the methodology of violence that created what he has called this "phony war."
"Full Metal Jacket," ice and wildfire, order and chaos, is intellectual war, hard thought.
Full Metal Jacket, at area theaters, is rated R and contains violence and profanity.