Press "Enter" to skip to content

Review: Full Metal Jacket (1987)

Full Metal Jacket (1987)

Directed by: Stanley Kubrick

Premise: A United States Marine (Matthew Modine) passes through the rigors of boot camp and is sent to Vietnam where he covers the war for Stars and Stripes during the 1968 Tet Offensive. 

What Works: The war film is one of the motion picture industry’s cornerstone genres. It is reliably profitable and generally appeals to audiences and critics. In fact, Hollywood ascended to cultural dominance in America on the back of World War II; during and after the war the film industry put out tales of Allied forces serving heroically in the European and Pacific theaters and the audience ate them up. After the Vietnam War, Hollywood’s regard for the military remained mostly positive but allowed for more nuance with films like Top Gun offset by critical stories such as Platoon. It was in this environment that Stanley Kubrick made Full Metal Jacket. This story of Marines passing through boot camp and fighting in Vietnam was one of the more debated titles of its day and critics and Kubrick enthusiasts continue to discuss its place in the filmmaker’s oeuvre. The movie can be divided into two distinct parts: basic training on Parris Island and soldiering in Vietnam. The first part of Full Metal Jacket is almost a movie unto itself and it has some of the most influential and often imitated sequences in the last thirty years of the war genre. The boot camp portion of Full Metal Jacket is anchored by R. Lee Ermey’s performance as the drill sergeant. Ermey, who had in fact been a drill sergeant during his time in the Marines, provides one of the most iconic performances in the history of the war film. The drill sergeant is vulgar and aggressive and breaks down the recruits in order to rebuild them as the warriors that the Marines require. The drill sergeant sets his sights on a bulbous and clumsy trainee nicknamed Gomer Pyle (Vincent D’Onofrio). The drill sergeant’s haranguing pushes the recruit to the breaking point and Gomer Pyle’s transformation into a killer is chilling. All of this is observed by another Marine nicknamed Joker (Matthew Modine). Joker is the through line of the film as he transitions from boot camp to the battlefield and writes for the military publication Stars and Stripes. In its second part, Full Metal Jacket becomes a combat film and as that it’s quite good. The transformation of these young men from civilians to soldiers is complete and they are loosed upon the battlefield. The combat scenes of Full Metal Jacket are terrific especially the final sequence in which a squad of Marines is terrorized by a sniper. Although it is set in Vietnam and has a remarkably vivid sense of place, Full Metal Jacket gets at something deeper about the military, combat, and masculinity. It has many of the qualities of other war films but Full Metal Jacket portrays warfare in a way that hadn’t been seen in a mainstream movie as of 1987 and hasn’t really been replicated since. Full Metal Jacket is about the transformation of young men into killers; this isn’t a jingoistic piece but it isn’t an antiwar screed either. Instead, Full Metal Jacket puts the militaristic transformation on display and forces the audience to reassess the way in which we’ve thought about combat and what the process of military training does to the people in uniform. The film also has a sardonic view of all this and one aspect of Full Metal Jacket that has been underappreciated is its sense of humor. That’s more obvious in the first half; viewers can’t help but laugh at the drill sergeant’s obscenities. But the second half of Full Metal Jacket is also comical, albeit in a pitch black sort of way. Kubrick had a mordant view of humanity and looking at Full Metal Jacket next to his other films, namely A Clockwork Orange, Dr. Strangelove, and Lolita, the humor Kubrick found in this material becomes clear. That humor is part of the film’s challenge and further distinguishes its place in the war genre.

What Doesn’t: As is often the case with Stanley Kubrick’s films, Full Metal Jacket is a more intellectual exercise than an emotional one. That’s partly due to the structure of the narrative. The appeal of many stories is in the way the viewer’s emotional investment deepens as the narrative progresses and ultimately pays off in the ending. Full Metal Jacket doesn’t quite work that way. When the action moves from Parris Island to Vietnam, the story resets. The second half has its own escalation but the plotting of the second half is episodic, almost a series of vignettes. This is probably intentional as it reflects the chaos and randomness of the battlefield. But the first half of Full Metal Jacket is much stronger than the second half. As a result, the film has a lopsided feel. Also, partly owing to its narrative structure, the characters of Full Metal Jacket lack depth. Most everyone is exactly who they initially appear to be. Again, this is probably intentional in a film about young men stripped of their identity and forged into killers. But the lack of character details makes the film difficult to invest with emotionally. Full Metal Jacket also avoids the sentimentality and affirmations of patriotism and martyrdom that characterize pictures like Sands of Iwo Jima and Saving Private Ryan. In fact, this film deliberately undercuts a lot of those appeals. That’s to Full Metal Jacket’s credit but the core audience for the war film might not find what they are looking for.

DVD extras: Commentary track, documentary, and a trailer.

Bottom Line: Full Metal Jacket is a classic of the war film genre. It remains a unique and challenging picture, one that upends a lot of what we expect from a combat film. Full Metal Jacket mixes visceral war sequence with a cerebral detachment that may be off-putting to some viewers but makes it a fascinating film to re-watch and examine.

Episode: #700 (May 27, 2018)