1987 Movie Review: FULL METAL JACKET, 1987

Movie Reviews

Directed by Stanley Kubrick

Starring: Matthew Modine, R. Lee Ermey, Vincent D’Onofrio, Adam Baldwin, Vincent D’Onofrio, Ed O’Ross, Arliss Howard, Kevyn Major Howard, John Terry

Review by Surinder Singh


A two-segment look at the effect of the military mindset and war itself on Vietnam era Marines. The first half follows a group of recruits in basic training under the command of the punishing Sgt. Hartman. The second half shows one of those recruits, Joker, covering the war as a correspondent for Stars and Stripes, focusing on the Tet offensive.


There have been many classic movies made about the Vietnam War: The Deer Hunter (1978) and Apocalypse Now (1979). And when Stanley Kubrick decided to take on the challenge of adding to this already impressive milieu, it was clear that cinema audiences were in for a real treat! Full Metal Jacket was not made during the powerhouse decade of cinema (also known as the 1970s) and when the war itself was most prominent in popular culture. This allowed Kubrick adequate time to reflect on the subject, the themes and the ideas he wanted to explore. His legendary pre-productions always ensured that he never made a rash film and that every one of his films was flawlessly designed in style and substance.

The structure of the movie is quite brilliant. Like a documentary we follow in perfect chronology the journey of these young Americans. Kubrick shows us the intensive training and conditioning that transforms boys into Marines or rather “killing machines”. The training sequences in Full Metal Jacket are now amongst the top all-time classic scenes in modern American cinema. Kubrick has never forgotten the importance of acting in his movies. He has never fallen prey to the tendency that some directors have of being distracted by the practical side of production, forgetting the need for believable performances.

A prime example is the powerhouse performance of Drill Sergeant Hartman delivered with perfection by R. Lee Ermey. Even though Hartman is not the central character he commands your attention and pulls you into the movie with his unrelenting barrage of sadistic yet hilarious jibes to instate his authority over the young boys: “I bet you’re the kind of guy that would fuck a person in the ass and not even have the goddamn common courtesy to give him a reach-around!” Kubrick uses the performance to entertain, thrill and inform us with total believability that this man can turn mere boys into the toughest soldiers in the world. How could they not be ready for war if they can endure him?

Private Joker is quick to make a name for himself and is promoted to squad leader after impressively showing he was brave enough to reject the Virgin Mary directly to his deeply Christian Drill Sergeant. Joker is from the very start following his own moral compass and isn’t afraid to stand by it. Many directors would not be brave enough to have such a seemingly amoral central character in their movie (out of fear of loosing the audience). But the effect Joker has on the audience is one of wonder. He isn’t the usual boring, all-American son going into the savagery of war, rather he’s a complex character with an interest in killing. While we may not agree with Joker we still want to see what happens to him when he does end up in the thick of war and this keeps us immersed: “I wanted to see exotic Vietnam, the crown jewel of Southeast Asia. I wanted to meet interesting and stimulating people of an ancient culture… and kill them.”

The other outstanding performance is that given by Vincent D’Onofrio as the unforgettable Private Pyle! Never before or since has there been such a harrowing portrait of the demoralizing nature of war. Pyle never even makes it into the conflict but in his eyes is a war, a war within himself. Private Pyle enters training as nothing more than just a big, innocent baby. But he finishes training as a terrifying tower of insanity! With the grueling training, the Drill Sergeant constantly on his back and his lack of focus, Pyle eventually cracks and becomes a completely different person. In the US Marine Core’s strive to create Killing Machines they were bound to be some unfortunate accidents. While many of the other notable Vietnam movies were all to eager to get straight into the war, with the training section Kubrick hit upon an area of exploration that other filmmakers tackling the subject missed.

While it’s important to show the horrific acts of violence Americans bestowed on the Vietcong and Vietnamese people, it is also important to show the violence that Americans bestowed upon other Americans. Private Pyle symbolizes the failure of the US Vietnam War effort on the American people and while films like Born on the Fourth of July (1989) also tackled this, the idea was best realized in that final training sequence when Private Pyle (sat on the toilet) loads the full metal jacket. There are many harrowing images in pop culture about Vietnam, so creating something memorable in any medium is a tall order. Alas, the sight of Private Pyle reciting the US Marine Corp’s Rifle Creed and then shooting both himself and his Drill Sergeant is definitely one of the most important and lasting Vietnam War images in any medium.

After this the movie changes gears and starts to resemble some of the other Vietnam War movies of the past. The most notable similarity is the way the director balances humor, exhilaration and tragedy within each scene. While Kubrick cares about people on both sides of the conflict, he does realize that some things about the experience of war are funny. The truth is that even in the face of death young men will continue to goof around, indulge themselves in playful banter and whatever entertainment is available. In war you can be larking around one minute and be shot dead the next so… why not have a laugh?

In all the praise showered over Kubrick’s directing, his skill in directing comedy is always left out. While Full Metal Jacket is no M*A*S*H (1970) it does have some brilliant comedy sequences in it. Take the scene with the Vietnamese hooker (Leanne Hong) trying to entice Private Joker: “Me love you long time!” Another classic movie quote, providing the perfect distraction for thief (Nguyen Hue Phong) to steal Joker’s camera and make a getaway, not before performing a hilarious martial arts routine to rub his nose in it! The scene is funny even on repeat viewings thanks to Kubrick’s great understanding of comedy.

The climax of Full Metal Jacket is perhaps the greatest action set piece in any War movie. Kubrick subtly conducts a symphony of shockingly sudden impacts of violence with beautifully staged slow motion shots that show the effect of this violence. The scene is loaded to the brim with nail biting suspense that pushes you to the edge of the edge of your seat for every second of its duration. Kubrick shows us everything: the pain, the excitement, the loss and the beauty of warfare. And like all great filmmakers how does he end the sequence? With a revelation that raises the film to an even higher artist level! We see that the deadly sniper (Ngoc Le) is just a lonely, scared, young girl trying to protect herself from danger.

Full Metal Jacket is one of the best war movies ever made and is compulsive viewing for anyone interested in the Vietnam War and the fine works of modern cinema.

By Surinder Singh – Apr 2010


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