In the conclusion to his seminal Vietnam book Dispatches, war correspondent Michael Herr recounts photojournalist Tim Page (who had been maimed in Vietnam) scoffing at a publisher's suggestion: "'Take the glamour out of war! I mean, how the bloody hell can you do that?" Herr helped Stanley Kubrick to do just that with the director's twelfth feature, the 1987 film Full Metal Jacket.
Herr shares screenwriting credit with Kubrick and Gustav Hasford, whose novel The Short-Timers provided the inspiration for the film (theirs was not a happy polygamous marriage: the erratic Hasford proved more than Kubrick could handle). Kubrick's free adaptation, marked by his unwavering rigor, reconstructs the Vietnam war in a bipartite structure of mad anticipation and equally mad consummation: Marines training for action, then finally seeing it.
To describe Kubrick's cinematic discourse on war as being foreplay and intercourse is a reading encouraged by the filmmaker's plain treatment of hungry masculine thrillseeking as inseparable from sex drive (meant to be sublimated into killing) and sexual humiliation (rushing in a vulgar stream from one's drill sergeant). "This is my rifle, this is my gun..." the Marine recruits sound off, in description of their weapons both metallic and fleshy (with practiced poker face, Kubrick recalls his more overtly jokey satire of militaristic phallic imagery in Dr. Strangelove...); in country, the Marines are twice seen negotiating for prostitute poontang (hence, the immortal line "Me so horny. Me love you long time").
The live by the rifle/die by the rifle first act introduces a corps of cadets that includes tough-nut narrator James T. "Joker" Davis (Matthew Modine), Robert "Cowboy" Evans (Arliss Howard), and Leonard "Gomer Pyle" Lawrence (Vincent D'Onofrio, in an astonishing debut). The nicknames issued by Parris Island drill instructor Gunnery Sergeant Hartman (R. Lee Ermey) immediately supplant their real names (in a sort of visual analogue, Kubrick includes a dissolve that conjures the numbers on a rifle range over the heads of marching marines).
What Joker calls "the phony-tough and the crazy-brave" are here to be given a military oil change, to be wiped clean of their piss and vinegar and turned into reliable automatons, though Joker qualifies, "The Marine Corps does not want robots. The Marine Corps wants killers. The Marine Corps wants to build indestructible men, men without fear." This fine distinction is lost on Pyle, whose abuse by Hartman and fellow recruits breaks Pyle and rebuilds him, too well, into a primal creature, man at his pre-civilized essence. "What is your major malfunction, numbnuts?" indeed.
Joker moves on to become a corporal and correspondent for Star and Stripes, paired with photographer Private First Class Rafterman (Kevyn Major Howard). A symbol of schizoid America—and, more broadly, as he puts it, "the duality of man, the Jungian thing"—Joker wears a peace sign and the slogan "BORN TO KILL," maintaining a sense of independence even as he navigates the ultimate system of the Marine Corps. Though Joker shows interest in truth-based reform from within (he chafes against his superior's dedication to misinformation), he also disconcertingly, fatalistically yearns to be "in the shit," the "world of shit" that is war, if only to experience and know it in all its presumable profundity.
And so at the film's halfway point, Joker marches into the war zone of South Vietnam and gets what he wished for in the Battle of Hue. The film's second act escalates the narrative's sense of aggressive absurdism, from the casual callousness to life (whether enemy combatant or hooker) to the futility of urban warfare (nailed in the bravura, extended climax in which a sniper—of shocking identity—holds off a dozen well-armed men) to the suddenly sinister nonsense of the American pop music rattling around in the heads of these not-so-indestructible men ("Surfin' Bird,""Woolly Bully," "The Mickey Mouse Club March").
Full Metal Jacket is another monument to Kubrick's peerless rigor as a filmmaker, his clinical examination of a subject leading to a better genre mousetrap. Twenty-five years after its release, the film still stands as the ultimate war movie (the impression cheekily underlined by Cowboy's line "This is 'Vietnam: The Movie'!" and all the references to John Wayne). Kubrick again turns his unsparing eye to the dread of existence ("The dead know only one thing: it is better to be alive"), of a godless universe (in spite of the blisteringly profane Hartman's Jesus-freakishness), of moral frailty and civilization gone wrong (embodied by backfiring Marine snipers Charles Whitman and Lee Harvey Oswald, both name-checked).
For all its clockwork precision of narrative and theme, Full Metal Jacket is also a visually potent film, given the unsettling Kubrickian touch of creepy symmetries (like those reverse-cut match shots in the barracks, the recruits interchangable), the brilliant production design of Anton Furst (who achieved Kubrick's crazy-like-a-fox vision of recreating Vietnam in East London), and the darkly beautiful work of cinematographer Douglas Milsome, who seems to put the twilight's last gleaming—pale light, dull glows, and smoky, burnt sunsets—into every shot of overcast obstacle courses, cold barracks, and battlegrounds under unearthly skies.
Warner reissues Full Metal Jacket—for its third go-round on Blu-ray—in a splendid 25th Anniversary Edition Digibook. The two-disc set (one Blu-ray, one DVD) repurposes the fine hi-def transfer found in the 2007 and 2011 issues of the film, and disc one here is identical to those discs. First-time Blu-ray adopters of this title won't find the image dramatically changed by high-definition, but that's a good thing: everything here is truer, subtly, than standard-def DVD could manage, but the overall impression remains mostly withholding in vivid primaries (think paler hues) and characterized by natural light and a mild softness, all of which contributes to a filmic feel that entirely honors Kubrick's visual intent. The audio comes in both lossless LPCM 5.1 and lossy Dolby Digital 5.1; obviously, the LPCM mix is preferable, though given the source material derives from Kubrick's mono mix, one shouldn't expect too much in the way of discrete separation. Dialogue is never less than clear, and the scenes of rifle fire and explosions have all the requisite LFE kick.
The previous bonus features of course return on this identical Blu-ray: the composite audio commentary with author/screenwriter Jay Cocks and actors Adam Baldwin, Vincent D'Onofrio and Lee Ermey, and the fine featurette "Between Good and Evil" (30:45, SD), including film clips and interviews with Ermey, Baldwin, D’Onofrio, Cocks, former Warner Bros. executive John Calley, The Complete Kubrick author David Hughes, Stanley Kubrick: A Biography author John Baxter, executive producer Jan Harlan, steadicam operator John Ward, assistant art director Nigel Phelps, Do the Right Thing cinematographer Ernest Dickerson, 2010 director Peter Hyams, and actors Kevyn Major Howard and Dorian Harewood.
New to this edition are the 44-page digibook (arguably the best yet issued by WB) and a DVD with the Channel 4/Sundance Channel co-produced documentary Stanley Kubrick's Boxes (1:00:59, SD). The digibook includes photos from Matthew Modine's personal collection, a "remembrance" essay by Modine, critical introduction and essay, color production stills, bios, and trivia. Stanley Kubrick's Boxes requires a bit of tolerance for documentary filmmaker Jon Ronson, who gives the subject a personal spin, but Kubrick fanatics who haven't already seen the doc will find it fascinating, since it unearths some gems from the Kubrick archives (including Vivian Kubrick-shot footage of the making of Full Metal Jacket). Whether or not there's enough here to justify a purchase depends on the individual—who might be looking at a double or triple dip—but for anyone who hasn't yet invested in a hi-def copy of Full Metal Jacket, this value-added release offers the most attractive package yet.
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