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Full Metal Jacket Print E-mail
Thursday, 01 June 2006

Imagetanley Kubrick’s idiosyncratic war film, “Full Metal Jacket” was released during 1987’s upsurge of interest in Viet Nam films (following “Platoon” and “Heartbreak Ridge” in release and preceding “Hamburger Hill”), and finds the visionary director bringing his own fascinations and interests to a fairly simple story. The film follows private Joker (Modine) through an intense, dehumanizing basic training camp where he is put at odds with demonic drill instructor Hartman (Ermey) and befriends the troubled private Pyle (D’Onofrio). Later, while in Viet Nam, Joker and his platoon are caught up in the Tet offensive and during maneuvers and are pinned by a sniper after taking a wrong turn.

“Full Metal Jacket,” while a Vietnam film, is told in a much more archetypal way, leaving almost all the political and cultural background out of the main body of the story. Those aspects combined with its non-tropical filming locales (it was filmed almost entirely in the United Kingdom, except for a few helicopter establishing shots) and its distanced Kubrickian stylings, give it a non-specific haunting quality. The bombed-out buildings where the final section of the movie takes place could almost be an abandoned outpost on an alien planet. Kubrick and DP Douglas Milsome make them seem intangible and somewhat surreal. In fact the unseen enemy is given such a mysterious, off-screen presence that sequences like the Tet Holiday attack on the base and the sniper sequence have a creepy quality to them that recalls “The Shining”’s haunting atmosphere.

R. Lee Ermey is riveting as a terrifying, grotesque drill instructor and his tirades still pack a punch after nearly twenty years. It’s a show-stopping, intimidating performance that’s somehow hilarious yet deeply horrifying at the same time. Hired originally as the film’s military technical advisor, Kubrick realized Ermey’s potential and cast him in the pivotal role. It launched Ermey’s acting career. Matthew Modine is fine as private Joker, though his natural warmth and likeability may perhaps be at odds with Kubrick’s intentions. Modine’s Joker becomes the audience surrogate almost by default, but are we really supposed to identify and care deeply for him? It’s ambiguous. He’s a cocky bemused figure, essentially shrugging off the horrors of the battlefield and ends up in battle essentially out of boredom. While it’s an anti-war film, it’s a cool intellectual one. Nowhere in “Full Metal Jacket” is there a character as profoundly incensed by the horrors of war as “Paths of Glory”’s righteous Col. Dax (Kirk Douglas) was. “Full Metal Jack” is completely different tonally. In fact, to find a matching tone in Kubrick’s filmography, one would have to look to back to “Fear and Desire” which is like “Full Metal Jacket”’s last two-thirds made with an even cooler detachment.

Kubrick’s controlled and balanced compositional style is a perfect match to the regimented, controlled and oppressive order presented in the first third of the picture. One of Kubrick’s underlying points seems to be that intense oppression, control and the crushing of individuality leads to violence and chaos. While Kubrick doesn’t abandon his compositional sense or his directorial vision in the second part of the picture, the story and events portray this confusion and chaos. The last two-thirds of the film seems on the surface to be a standard war film series of set-pieces, but are actually working against the standard tropes of the genre. There’s no big battle or satisfying heroic actions, no meaningful sacrifice; just a bunch of men, alternating between confusion, futile macho posturing and aggression, futile death and unexpected cowardice. There’s no real sense of camaraderie or power- they’re just a disparate group caught in a pointless situation.

“Full Metal Jacket” is a welcome but odd choice for Warner’s first wave of HD DVD releases. It’s a lightly grainy film and was originally released in Kubrick’s preferred mono soundtrack. The disc is a visually perfect rendition of the film and the HD encoding captured the soft grain of the photography and its various scenes of low light and smoke without digital artifacts or macro-blocking. The disc is somewhat comparable to a recent INHD TV broadcast of the film, except the facial expressions, props and costume details are completely stable and sharp here, and lacking the slight softness caused by broadcast HD signal compression. While the presentation is excellent, it’s an awkward choice to use as a demo for the new format, especially since it’s the clarity, detail and sharpness of HD over DVD that are the chief selling point of the new platform.

Unfortunately, average consumers will doubtless see little difference between this release and the previous DVD, and the grain will leave a disappointing impression to those unfamiliar with slower, grainier film stocks. Perhaps it would have been a wiser marketing move for Warner to debut “2001: A Space Odyssey” or “A Clockwork Orange” on HD DVD first.

The 5.1 surround audio is a remix of the original mono tracks done for the previous DVD. It’s a clean, well-recorded track but is very subdued in surrounds. Songs of the era have a nice stereo punch, but the dialogue is almost entirely steered into the center channel. Apart from a few instances of gunfire or explosions (such as the finale to the sniper sequence) the rest of the film sounds monaural. The only extra is the theatrical trailer. The original Mono mix is not included.

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