'Full Metal Jacket': THR's 1987 Review
On June 17, 1987, Stanley Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket premiered in Beverly Hills. The anti-war film comprised two acts — the first at the U.S. Marine Corps trailing facility in Parris Island, and the second in Vietnam on the eve of the Tet Offensive. The Hollywood Reporter's original review is below.
Stanley Kubrick has made two great anti-war movies, Paths of Glory and Dr. Strangelove. His latest anti-war effort, Full Metal Jacket, belongs on the other end of the filmmaking spectrum. Unfortunately, the word that Warner Bros. has had trouble inserting into some print ads also applies to this didactic, static harangue. Box-office prospects for this Vietnam saga seem limited to the Kubrick curious — look for a quick exhibitors' retrenchment on this massive artistic misfire.
In Full Metal Jacket, Kubrick's pre-filmmaking endeavors as a professional photographer and competition-level chess player are all too evident — scenes are so overly composed they seem contrived and artsy. The well-arranged characters are merely mouthpieces for differing points of views — pawns. Most disappointing, Kubrick has positioned his uniformed perspectives in talky situations. The verbose discussions in this cerebral movie reach numbing proportions.
Carrying the filmmaker's political banner is Matthew Modine, playing a smart and smarmy countercultural Marine recruit. In essence, Modine's just the kind of soldier the military can't handle: He's not like the other malleable, young Marine grunts — he questions things, has a mind of his own. In the chessboard script by Kubrick, Michael Herr and Gustav Hasford, he's their spokesperson, taking on the ogre-ish, double-talking military figures.
Structurally, Full Metal Jacket is two films, the first set at the notorious Parris Island boot camp and the second taking place in a smoldering, burned-out battlefield during the Tet Offensive of '68.
Full Metal's clichéd opening, which includes the recruits getting their '60s locks shaved, is an incredibly plodding, padded look at basic training. Even those who've never been closer to the military than a Berkeley poli-sci club meeting may find these scenes pretty predictable stuff. We see the evil, right-wing gunnery sergeant (Lee Ermey) whipping his recruits into shape, bullying the fat one (Vincent D'Onofrio) and trying to break the rebellious ones.
However, despite its placard-like polemics and dull training sequences, there are explosive, horrifying bursts. In the film's most chilling, caustically dark sequence, the gunnery sergeant proudly notes that sniper-assassins Charles Whitman and Lee Harvey Oswald learned to shoot in the Marines. "Be like Oswald" is his perverted leadership lesson to the wet-behind-the-ears recruits.
Mini-movie No. 2 opens with a shot of a swishing black mini-skirted South Vietnam hooker propositioning Modine, now a behind-the-lines Stars and Stripes reporter, and his cameraman. While they dally, Modine and cohort smugly synthesize the whole Vietnam experience — "We're supposed to be helping them and they shit on us." While far too much of the film is staged discussion and smug political jousting, there is savage and lethal black irony. At times, it's as decimatingly dark as Dr. Strangelove — "I always wanted to meet people from ancient cultures, and kill them," an increasingly outraged Modine tells a Gen. Westmoreland/Woody Hayes-type leader — the military man appreciates his gung-ho attitude.
Similarly lethal salvos are, however, scarce in this heavy verbiage essay. While there's plenty of gore in Full Metal Jacket, there's little flesh and blood. Both segments of the film end on horrific, black notes. And both endings are terrifying but logical culminations of the insanity. In the end, the killer-trained Marines see the face of the enemy — it is the face of a young girl.
Technically, Full Metal Jacket is best served by its shrewd, contrapuntal use of '60s pop music — The Rolling Stones' "Paint It Black" blistering over the end credit says it all. — Duane Byrge, first published on June 22, 1987