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Conduct Unbecoming

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 7, 2000


    'Rules of Engagement' Tommy Lee Jones and Samuel L. Jackson star in "Rules of Engagement." (Paramount)
Let's start with the closing argument: "Rules of Engagement," a military courtroom drama starring Samuel L. Jackson and Tommy Lee Jones, is guilty of flagrantly formulaic behavior. It is the verdict of this court that it be led to a stockade reserved exclusively for cheap, pandering movies and duly shot.

Written by television-show scribe Stephen Gaghan, "Rules of Engagement" follows just about all the rules except one: to have a twist ending, thanks to some surprise witness who suddenly appears at the back of the courtroom, then walks tentatively toward the witness stand, causing the hostile attorney and the crowd to stand up and gasp.

This thing is cut, dried and creatively dead on arrival. No surprises. Just two Marines trying to help each other out pitted against a rigged conspiracy that includes a sleazy national security adviser (Bruce Greenwood), a steely-eyed prosecutor (a skeletal Guy Pearce) and an ambassador (Ben Kingsley) willing to bend the truth a little.

What a shocker.

Col. Terry Childers (Jackson), a 32-year Marine veteran, is being court-martialed for his involvement in the deaths of 83 unarmed citizens demonstrating outside the U.S. Embassy in Yemen. Caught on the roof of the embassy, Childers and his Marine expeditionary force were under fire, apparently by snipers ensconced in high nooks and crannies across the way. But Childers seemingly ordered his men to fire on the innocent demonstrators, whom he deemed to be in league with the snipers.

The fact that he fulfilled his mission – to evacuate the ambassador (Kingsley), his wife (Anne Archer) and young son from this hellhole – has no bearing on the trial. The White House – as usual in these kinds of films – is hanging Childers out to dry because the U.S. government needs a scapegoat to quell the international furor.

Childers asks his longtime friend, Col. Hays Hodges (Jones), to represent him. Since Childers saved his skin in Vietnam 28 years before, Hodges can hardly refuse. With only a week to build Childers's defense, Hodges flies to Yemen, asks questions, gets pushed around by the angry survivors, then comes back to take on his client's formidable charges. His biggest conundrum: What happened to the embassy security videotape that will exonerate his client if it shows that the demonstrators fired first?

Some miscellaneous comments: Although this movie takes great pains to show positive Yemeni characters, including a doctor who tends to the wounded children, the filmmakers shouldn't exactly hold their breath for any kind of Positive Arab Depiction awards.

One should give positive citations where they're due, however. You have to hand it to Archer, whose career of playing dignified wives in everything from "Fatal Attraction" to "Clear and Present Danger" is still thriving. She shows no sign of flagging.

Also, the opening sequence in Vietnam, leading to Childers's saving of Hodges, is masterfully choreographed. Director William Friedkin, a veteran of suspense and large-scale action scenes, more than shows his mettle. Most of the scene is silent, as Childers wordlessly leads his men through the jungles, unaware that the North Vietnamese are lurking in the foliage. The anticipation is excruciating, as good as wartime scenes can get. But after that, I'm afraid, "Rules" starts to commit the rank offenses that led me to convene this trial.

RULES OF ENGAGEMENT (R, 127 minutes) – Contains violence, obscenity and a creeping sense of deja viewed.


© Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company

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