Stanley Kubrick's first film for seven years details the dehumanizing effect of military combat, as experienced by a bunch of Vietnam conscripts under the training of the sadistic Gunnery Sergeant Hartman (R. Lee Ermey). The second half of the film follows one of the recruits, Joker (Matthew Modine), onto the battlefield as he is thrown into the war at the height of the Tet offensive. The entire movie was shot on location in East London.
One of a series of revisionist Vietnam cinema released in the late 1980s, Stanley Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket
is essentially split into two stories linked by a number of characters. The film follows new recruit Joker (Matthew Modine) and his fellow soldiers through their basic training and into combat in Vietnam. The first half is a chilling portrayal of military brutality and de-humanisation, mainly at the hands of Sgt Hartman (played at a level of staggering intensity by ex-Marine Lee Ermey), that centres around the tragic character of Private Pyle, a young man pushed to the edge of his endurance. The tone of the film is no less harsh when transported to the combat zone as we see the results of the training process in action: the young men turned into unquestioning killing machines. Joker is perhaps the one exception, a soldier with "Born to Kill" written on his helmet who also sports a peace sign on his lapel. But the film finds itself caught in the trap of many of the war movies of the time--how to create audience empathy with characters who are essentially in the wrong. It's a dilemma that Full Metal Jacket
never really solves, although as a spectacle the film is a masterpiece. Made in the days before CGI became the norm, the battle sequences--filmed, rather bizarrely, in London's Docklands before its redevelopment--are hugely realistic and are perhaps the key moments of the movie, heightening the disorientation and fear felt by the soldiers. By offering no more than a snapshot of the Vietnam conflict (the action deals with one individual skirmish), Kubrick cleverly leaves any judgement on the war to the audience, although clearly attempting to influence them. The fate of the characters who survive is also left in the balance, but we can perhaps imagine what awaits them.
On the DVD: Part of a series of Kubrick DVD reissues, Full Metal Jacket has been treated to the full remastering and restoration treatment. The battle sequences have benefited the most, gaining a new audio and visual crispness and clarity that adds to their already impressive sense of realism--you can almost feel the heat searing from the screen and the explosions detonating around you. Maybe not the best war film ever made, as some may claim, but certainly one to take you right to the heart of the action. --Phil Udell