THERE'S A MAJOR STAR in "Full Metal Jacket": Stanley Kubrick's direction. Resurfacing like a cinematic cicada after a seven-year absence, the American expatriate has overtaken the homegrown Viet Pack of Coppolas, Ciminos and Stones to make the most eloquent and exacting vision of the war to date.
Ironically, "Jacket" is the most synthetic "Vietnam film" thus far. Kubrick's screenplay (cowritten with novelists Gustav Hasford and Michael Herr) is an adaptation of Hasford's "The Short Timers," and Kubrick, who is not a veteran, ingested countless films, videotapes and books for background.
Most significant, he built his own Vietnam, D.W. Griffith-like, in Britain. Kubrick's Vietnam is primarily an abandoned gas-works near the Thames. His South Carolina boot camp is England's Bassingbourn military barracks. "Jacket" is hardly history -- but as an artistic statement it's compelling stuff.
On this Far East facsimile, Kubrick has layered sound and image -- leaving no shot, click or segue to chance. To watch "Jacket" is to watch the beauty of a complicated surgical operation.
In it, Pvt. "Joker" (Matthew Modine) enlists at Parris Island, where Gunnery Sgt. Hartman (a crisp, stunning performance by former Marine Lee Ermey) makes would-bes into killer bees. The story then moves to the front, where Joker joins Stars & Stripes -- the military newspaper with the double-edged duty of boosting morale and reporting war news. Seeking firsthand action to report on, Joker tags along with a youthful, guts-and-glory outfit about to meet a mysterious, deadly enemy via the Tet Offensive.
The modern-day jester Joker joins the fray, but while Marines kiss the dirt with requisite vigor, he remains detached, retaining his requisite objectivity. He keeps his conscience on ice with dark humor and frequent John Wayne imitations ("Listen heyah, Pilgrim," etc), but his frozen morality can't prevent the one-on-one confrontations he seeks to avoid, including one that makes for the film's climactic finale.
Kubrick divides "Jacket" into two acts. The first follows Joker and Pvt. "Gomer Pyle," an overweight klutz (and the gunnery sergeant's favorite chewee) whom Joker must usher through training. Pyle suddenly discovers, with alarming zest, the joys of gunmanship. "Full metal jacket" -- gunspeak for bullet casings -- is one of the last things he talks about before making his last bloody move.
The second act expands the theme onto the battlefield, where the nicknames include Eightball, Cowboy, Lt. Touchdown and, the most significant, Animal Mother -- a belligerent, jocular infantryman who is a living, breathing "gook"-killing machine. His swinish features resemble the pudgy Pyle's; they also recall the mindless lout Dim in Kubrick's "Clockwork Orange." Like Pyle, Animal Mother becomes too hot to handle. And Joker, an unwilling participant in Pyle's tragedy, also must face off with Animal Mother.
Although the elements of the story are simple and precise, Kubrick infuses a dreamlike, fatalistic quality. Sometimes the characters come alive, other times they seem like so many props for Kubrick's smoldering landscapes and tracking camera movements. The finale, a harrowing cat-and-mouse game with a sniper, ends in a building that -- with its forever-burning (and strategically placed) fires -- looks like a satanic temple. Kubrick's soundtrack is characteristically dynamic and explosive -- whether it's the hardened trudge of soldier's boots (one of the many songs he uses is Nancy Sinatra's "These Boots Were Made For Walking"), the omnipresent crackle of burning buildings or the prolonged bass note in the final scene that never lets up. Inspired with technique rather than overblown with it, Kubrick, the filmmaker's filmmaker, lays one on you.
FULL METAL JACKET (R) --
At the Uptown and area theaters.