Directed by: Stanley Kubrick.
Written by: Stanley Kubrick & Michael Herr & Gustav Hasford based on the novel by Hasford.
Starring: Matthew Modine (Pvt. J.T. 'Joker' Davis), Adam Baldwin (Animal Mother), Vincent D'Onofrio (Pvt. Leonard 'Gomer Pyle' Lawrence), R. Lee Ermey (Gny. Sgt. Hartman), Dorian Harewood (Eightball), Kevyn Major Howard (Rafterman), Arliss Howard (Pvt. Cowboy), Ed O'Ross (Lt. Touchdown), John Terry (Lt. Lockhart), Kieron Jecchinis (Crazy Earl), Kirk Taylor (Payback).
The first 45 minutes of Full Metal Jacket is as good as anything Stanley Kubrick has ever made – which means it’s as good as just about any film you can name. The problem with the film is that it is 116 minutes long – and the final 70 minutes of the film is nowhere near as strong as those first 45 minutes. This isn’t to say that those final 70 minutes are bad – they aren’t, they are actually quite good. But they cannot help but pale in comparison to where the film started. Whenever I think of the film, I think of R. Lee Ermey's Drill Sergeant and Vincent D'Onofrio's Private Pyle – and little else. Although I’ve seen the film numerous times, the final 70 minutes always fairly quickly fade from my memory after the film is over – which is not something I can say about just about any other Kubrick film. Full Metal Jacket is half masterpiece, and half very good war film. Well, that’s still better than most films.
The first 45 minutes on the film take place on Paris Island, where the Marine Corps run their basic training. The film opens with a montage of the various recruits all getting identical buzz cuts – and the point of the film becomes clear in those few moments – the Marines do not want individuals, they want the same person over and over again. They want killing machines. The film then moves to Ermey's Drill Sergeant walking around the barracks and berating the new recruits, with colorful, often hilarious insults. He informs the new recruits that he will break them down and turn them into Marines, not the bags of shit they currently are. He gives many of the recruit’s catchy nicknames – Joker for the recruit (Matthew Modine) who does a John Wayne impression during that opening tirade, and Gomer Pyle for the recruit (D'Onofrio) who cannot stop himself from smiling at Ermey's insults. He is overweight, and out of shape, and the Drill Sergeant sets his sights on him right away – he will be singled out from the most punishment because he needs the most work.
There is a point about 30 minutes into the movie that represents a turning point for Pyle – after which, he`ll go from the somewhat sweet, dimwitted man into something far more disturbing. When he looks at the camera later in this segment, he looks much like Jack Nicholson in The Shining – and he talks not unlike HAL 9000 from 2001 – cold, methodical and emotionless. The film ends this segment in violence – showing how the Marine Corps did precisely what they wanted with Pyle – turn him into a killing machine.
The last 70 minutes follows Joker, who works for the magazine Stars and Stripes, through the Vietnam war. He is told by his superior that they are interested in only two stories – those about winning the hearts and minds of the Vietnamese, or about winning the war itself – two things the rest of the movie make clear are not actually happening. The film follows Joker as he goes to the front, and climaxes in an incredibly tense standoff with a Vietcong Sniper.
That first 45 minutes is brilliant – darkly hilarious, surreal, disturbing and extremely well-acted by Ermey and D'Onofrio. Throughout his career, Kubrick would return to the idea of the dehumanizing aspect of violence in general, and war in particular. This is his theme in Full Metal Jacket – and by the end of those opening 45 minutes, it has firmly established that in a brilliant way. Like Paths of Glory, Full Metal Jacket is an anti-war movie. We will see horrific acts of violence in Full Metal Jacket – but Kubrick sees this more as a product of the war, than the personal responsibility of the people in general. Like D'Onofrio by the end of that first segment, almost all of the grunts who have seen violence in the second part talk in cold, methodical ways – almost like machines, not like people. If the first half of the movie is about the gradual dehumanization of Pyle, the second half does something similar for Joker – it takes him longer to get there, but he still gets there.
The second half of the movie is brilliantly well made in many ways – it has some great Steadicam shots following the men on patrol, and disturbing scenes like when it shows a Marine in a helicopter shooting everyone below them, for no real reason. The final confrontation with the sniper is masterfully constructed, and incredibly intense.
And yet, it feels like something is lacking in that segment. This is supposed to be Vietnam, but was shot in England – because Kubrick lived there, and didn’t want to get on a boat or a plane. He shipped in palm trees to try and make England look more like Vietnam – but it doesn’t quite work. It all feels a little phoney and false – especially when compared to movies like Platoon (1986) or Apocalypse Now (1979) or The Deer Hunter (1978). And worse than that, it feels slightly unnecessary – I don’t think Kubrick adds much to his overall point that he hadn’t established, and better, in the first 45 minutes.
The biggest problem with that last 70 minutes of the film is not really anything in it – it is well acted, directed and written, even if does feel a little fake at times. The biggest problem is simply that is has the misfortune of following the brilliant 45 minutes that opened the film. That part is as good as anything you will see. The 70 minutes that follow is fine – but cannot help but be hurt by following something brilliant.