South Carolina in the sixties and at an army camp the new recruits for the war in Vietnam have just arrived to begin their Marine training. As they line up at the bunks, the soldiers-to-be meet their drill sergeant, Hartman (R. Lee Ermey) and are instructed in no uncertain terms to do whatever he says, and that includes having "Sir" be the first and last words out of their mouths when they speak to him. As Hartman prowls around barking orders, one of the recruits does a John Wayne impression to send him up, but it doesn't go down well and the man responsible (Matthew Modine) receives a punch in the stomach and a new name: Private Joker. But the joke turns out to be on him once he reaches the war...
Full Metal Jacket was producer and director Stanley Kubrick's much anticipated first film after The Shining, and hopes were high for it. However, it's keen edge was somewhat blunted by being released at a time when there was a trend for Hollywood to release Vietnam War movies and by the time this came out people were wondering what else there was to say about the conflict that hadn't already been said by the likes of Apocalypse Now and Platoon. Yet Kubrick and co-writers Michael Herr and Gustav Hasford (who penned the original novel) did have a point to make about war, and it wasn't a palatable one, and was often glossed over in the efforts to praise (or damn) the rest of the film.
When the series of Iraq war movies were released in the twenty-first century, they rarely took off with the public, but back in the nineteen-eighties the cool thing to do was go and see a Vietnam War flick - perhaps the passage of time made them easier to process. There was a grim sheen of glamour about them, so that the viewer could set their jaw and agree that war was hell while still thoroughly enjoying the explosions and violence that went with them. Kubrick's film opted to delay those dubious pleasures, however, and spend the first forty-five minutes in boot camp, showing how the typical American Marine was moulded.
As most of that initial act is taken up with Ermey shouting his head off, we only get brief flashes of the recruits' personalities in amongst the barrage of insults, which to be fair can be highly amusing. Ex-army man Ermey had pulled the same trick in the earlier Boys in Company C, but this is the film he will be remembered for and much of that caustic dialogue was improvised by himself. But the theme is being crafted, that to survive in a war situation you literally have to be inhuman, neglect all those impulses to nurture and pacify, all rolled up in the form of Private Pyle (Vincent D'Onofrio, who credits his career to Kubrick casting him here). Pyle is a lardy buffoon, wholly unsuitable for war, the butt of jokes and resentment and worn down by the pressures of needing to be a killing machine.
In an important scene, Joker, who fancies himself as a humourist, never mind a humanist, follows the lead of his fellows in attacking Pyle to teach him a lesson, although he really deserves pity. This out of character act will be echoed at the end of the film's second story, where Joker is sent out to the conflict as an army journailst but gets closer to the action than he would have intended. Although he strives to keep an ironic distance from what is going on around him, he receives a brutal wake up call when he goads his superior into dispatching him to the front line (he's growing bored writing propaganda). In a way it's fitting that the electrifying opening overshadows the rest, because when that sniper begins picking off the men around Joker it shows that this is not a film of two halves but a cohesive whole. And what it is saying is that if you're in a war, you're there to kill and destroy, and forget all that other bullshit about building bridges. When push comes to shove, Private Joker, there's nothing to laugh about, is there? Music by Vivian Kubrick under a pseudonym (she also had a hit record in the UK with her Full Metal Jacket remixed single).
[Warner's Special Edition DVD has an audio commentary (would Stanley have approved?), a documentary and a trailer as extras.]
American director famous for his technical skills and endless film shoots, who made some of modern cinema's greatest pictures. New York-born Kubrick began shooting documentaries in the early 50s, leading to his first directing jobs on the moody noir thrillers Killer's Kiss and The Killing. The powerful anti-war film Paths of Glory followed, leading star Kirk Douglas to summon Kubrick to direct the troubled Spartacus in 1960.
Lolita was a brave if not entirely successful attempt to film Nabokov's novel, but Kubrick's next three films were all masterpieces. 1964's Dr Strangelove was a brilliant, pitch black war comedy, 2001: A Space Odyssey set new standards in special effects, while A Clockwork Orange was a hugely controversial, shocking satire that the director withdrew from UK distribution soon after its release. Kubrick, now relocated to England and refusing to travel elsewhere, struggled to top this trio, and the on-set demands on his cast and crew had become infamous.
Barry Lyndon was a beautiful but slow-paced period piece, The Shining a scary Stephen King adaptation that was nevertheless disowned by the author. 1987's Vietnam epic Full Metal Jacket showed that Kubrick had lost none of his power to shock, and if the posthumously released Eyes Wide Shut was a little anti-climatic, it still capped a remarkable career.