Full Metal Jacket (1987) 4.22/5 (2)


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Rating: The Good – 83.8
Genre: War
Duration: 116 mins
Director: Stanley Kubrick
Stars: Matthew Modine, Adam Baldwin

Full Metal Jacket has been unfairly maligned for its dramatic shift in focus and tone about 45 minutes in but for anyone who steps back from it, they’ll see that the change is utterly in sync with where the film was heading from the opening scene and that the quick transition counts as perhaps the bravest and most defining shift in gears since Cimino’s The Deer Hunter. We begin as a raw unit of recruits for the Vietnam War are being stripped of their identity in preparation for their savage training at boot camp. However, as their hard-as-nails Gunnery Sergeant tells them, this is not so as to make them robots but rather to build them up from scratch into pure killing machines. The techniques employed by this ferocious individual are both coarse and subtle as the natural drives of sex, love, and survival are welded together in the minds of these hormonally charged young men.

We are narrated through the training by Private Joker (Matthew Modine) who resists much of the Sergeant’s brainwashing but does ultimately get drawn in. Modine gets the performance just right and is neither overbearing enough to distract from the wider focus of the film nor overrun by the gargantuan presence of his drill instructor. R. Lee Ermey is that drill instructor in both craft and person and he consumes much of the opening 45 minutes. The most striking thing about this performance is how funny it is. The insults he screams in the faces of his charges are genuinely hysterical and if you haven’t seen it before you will laugh your way through it. Of course, once the transition to Vietnam occurs we are presented with the finished article, a bunch of raw killers who like good students, at least profess to enjoy their killing and express a desire “to be in the shit”. But something remains, something the Sergeant couldn’t get at and as the film comes to a close, the end is tied perfectly to the beginning and Kubrick’s work is complete.

Visually speaking, this is arguably Kubrick’s warmest picture along with The Killing and Spartacus as there is, unusually for Kubrick, much compassion for the characters he is focusing on. The contrast in colours (though still present) is less stark and the more frequent use of short lenses gives things a more personal focus. His perfect framing is still very much a feature and those wide/deep focused shots which he does employ (this is a Kubrick picture after all) along with his use of silhouette (particularly in the twilight PT sessions) are magnificent. The second half of the film is even more visually impressive and some of the battle sequences are extremely visceral. As is typical for a Kubrick film, the sound plays a central part in setting the tone of the film with Vivian Kubrick’s mechanical score seemingly working both diegetically and non-diegetically. Kubrick decided to shoot these scenes in England (as he did with all his later films) and it does take away from the South East Asian feel of the film. However, that is a small quibble against a truly exceptional piece of film-making.

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