Stanley Kubrick is a master filmmaker, no question. I realised that the first time I watched the beautifully bizarre ‘A Clockwork Orange’, but after recently watching ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ I was truly in awe of the legendary director. So, with ‘Full Metal Jacket’ sat on my DVD shelves, I would be a fool not to delve further into Kubrick’s catalogue and explore a very different side to his work. The only problem is, with the aforementioned films ranked in my top 20 of all time, ‘Full Metal Jacket’ would always struggle to match up.
Taking an intense and personal look into the Vietnam war and the American Marine Corps, ‘Full Metal Jacket’ tracks the progress of a group of wannabe killing machines, from military training camp to the battlefields of Vietnam. Enter, Gunnery Sergeant Hartman (Ronald Lee Ermey), a vicious drill instructor with a bark as equally fearsome as his bite, who is prepared to push his set of unworthy maggots to their limits and beyond before sending them into war. We follow, more than most, the experiences of Private J.T. ‘Joker’ Davis (Matthew Modine) as he navigates his way through the tour of duty and studies his comrades.
High praise must be bestowed upon Ronald Lee Ermey, whose portrayal of an abrasive, ruthless and cruel drill sergeant is helped by the fact that he served in the actual Marine Corps. I would be very surprised if you had got this far in life and had not seen the image of Ermey’s stern face and his finger aggressively pointing at the screen (before seeing the image attached to this review, of course). His harsh tactics of motivation provide a brilliantly dark humour and the sheer volume of his voice is attention-grabbing to say the least. Matthew Modine, whose character is quickly renamed ‘The Joker’, only really lets any real energy into the role once he is a fully fledged soldier, at which point he shows a dry wit and genuine likeability which stand him in good stead as the main protagonist. At no point however, did I feel like I should take a deeper interest in his character, and I think that is down to a distinct lack of authority or intrigue surrounding ‘The Joker’. Of the band of brothers put before us, the other standout performance is that of a young Vincent D’Onofrio. I’m a big fan of his more recent work in ‘The Judge’ and of course, Marvel’s ‘Daredevil’ series on Netflix, but here is a completely different man altogether. His transition from a hopeless fool, to maniacal Marine though, is pretty much skipped over and rushed; more of a steep descent into madness than a gradual development. That said, once he gets there, it is absolutely terrifying and chilling to see, as he looks at the screen with those dead, sullen eyes.
The opening 45 minutes of this film are great, and I was really getting into it all until a cataclysmic event at this point which shifted the whole narrative. When it happened, I thought the story may have peaked too soon; I couldn’t imagine where it would go next at least. Unfortunately, I was right, and the second act is particularly slow and uneventful save for a spot of shooting practice for a Vietnamese sniper. Before the Marines entered the Vietnam warzone, I was urging them to get there, but once they were there, I regretted my hasty wish very much. The training camp may have been a precursor for the main event, but I just think the personal, intrusive element of that environment allowed for a more interesting experience.
The beauty of Kubrick’s cinematography is still plain to see, nevertheless, with immaculate use of shadows, lighting, colour, intense close ups and dramatic slow-motion footage. His implementation of music was perfect too, with Kubrick even managing to utilise the infamous Surfin’ Bird track effectively, much to my surprise. The contrast of this frankly ridiculous song (which will forever make me picture Peter Griffin), against footage of helicopters and soldiers in the warzone, was uncomfortably awkward and rather haunting, in a good way.
Maybe this is another case of me having unrealistic expectations again, but I was somewhat underwhelmed by ‘Full Metal Jacket’. This is by no means a bad film, at all, but it is nowhere near the brilliance of ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ and ‘A Clockwork Orange’. If it’s a war movie you’re looking for, I would suggest looking elsewhere, at films like ‘Saving Private Ryan’ or ‘Apocalypse Now’. But with the combination of an entertaining first act, and a reasonably interesting look at the Vietnam war for the remainder, ‘Full Metal Jacket’ is still a film worth watching.
Director: Stanley Kubrick
Starring: Matthew Modine, Ronald Lee Ermey, Vincent D’Onofrio