Warner Home Video
Cast: Matthew Modine, Adam Baldwin, Vincent D'Onofrio, Lee Ermey
Extras: Commentary Track, Featurette, Trailer
That Stanley Kubrick was one of the most uncompromising American directors is indisputable. He was a man of unique vision who was not to be undermined by producers or actors, and he literally spent years on some of his productions meticulously fine-tuning every last detail until he achieved the perfection he so desired. A critical and box-office champion in the 1960s, thanks to the sensations of "Dr. Strangelove" and "2001: A Space Odyssey, " Kubrick fell from grace after the financial failure of his epic "Barry Lyndon" and never fully recovered. His last three films, "The Shining," "Full Metal Jacket," and "Eyes Wide Shut," were met with mixed critical reaction and largely indifferent public interest. Even so, his untimely death in 1999 signaled the loss of one of the world's great filmmakers, an auteur of extraordinary range and one of the most savage of social critics.
Time has been kind to his latter-day films. What once were considered disappointing and inferior to his earlier, accepted masterpieces can now be approached from a different perspective, taking into consideration Kubrick's increasingly cold detachment from society and his developing view of humanity. "Full Metal Jacket" was released in the middle of a cycle of films about the Vietnam War in the late 1980s that also included Oliver Stone's "Platoon" and Brian De Palma's "Casualties of War." It mixed graphic realism with Kubrick's own stylized and somewhat artificial visuals, resulting in a deceptively unnerving vision of chaos. Having forsaken Hollywood altogether in 1960, Kubrick moved to England where he filmed the rest of his movies, and "Full Metal Jacket" was no exception. Recreating a war-torn Vietnam on distinctly English locations was criticized by many, but looking back it actually plays into the film's overall uncanny atmosphere. There is something off-kilter about the movie that separates it from other films of the era that strove for an authentic verisimilitude. Kubrick seems to be directing his vision beyond the reality of the Vietnam War to issues far more universal and timeless.
The film is essentially broken into two very different but strikingly connected halves. The first takes place at a military boot camp on Parris Island, where young Marine recruits endure brutal basic training under drilling instructor Sgt. Hartman (Lee Ermey). The brunt of the punishment is administered on Pvt. Leonard Pratt (Vincent D'Onofrio), whom Hartman disparagingly refers to as Gomer Pyle, a fat and hopelessly simple-minded young man whose physical inadequacies drive Hartman to push the rest of the corps to their limits. The idealistic, John Wayne-impersonating Pvt. Joker (Matthew Modine) is assigned to discipline Leonard, taking him under his wing and teaching him what to do step-by-step until he emerges as a frontrunner among the men. During this time, Leonard begins to exhibit signs of emotional instability. Growing tired of paying the price for his mistakes, the other men exact a brutal punishment on him that seemingly throws him over the edge of sanity. He eventually erupts in an explosion of violence that is shocking but, at the same time, devastatingly inevitable.
The second half of the film follows Pvt. Joker, now a reporter for "Stars and Stripes," as he witnesses and takes part in the action of Vietnam. With "Born to Kill" inscribed on his helmet and a peace button on his shirt, Joker embodies what he refers to as "the duality of man." As a character, he remains largely undefined. His real name is never revealed nor his background. He becomes a kind of detached observer, like so many of Kubrick's heroes, slyly commenting on his surroundings while never able to either control them or change them. He meets up with a fellow Marine from boot camp, Pvt. Cowboy (Arliss Howard), who is now squad leader. Under his command is Animal Mother (Adam Baldwin), a loose cannon whose hulking presence is reminiscent of the deranged Leonard. He is the most defiant and outspoken of the group, although he directs his violent outbursts at the enemy rather than his fellow Marines.
The major criticism aimed at "Full Metal Jacket" is that its first half is much more interesting than its second. It is true that the dynamic conflict between Hartman and Leonard outweighs most of the interaction between the characters in the film's second half, but it is important to look at the two halves in relation to one another as opposed to separate entities. The boot camp scenes are an obvious illustration of the dehumanization of the military, as Hartman breaks his men down to their basest level in order to build them up into killing machines. This correlates perfectly with the film's second half, in which the men struggle between their humanity and the killing machines they have been trained to be in the midst of combat. When viewed from this perspective, Pvt. Joker's odyssey through the confusion of Vietnam and the climactic duel between the Marines and an unseen Vietnamese sniper become just as compelling as the earlier antagonism between Hartman and Leonard. In some ways, it is even more complex because the battle is now internalized within each Marine rather than literally played out by two characters.
The acting is uniformly fine, though obviously special mention must go to Lee Ermey and Vincent D'Onofrio. Ermey, a former drill instructor, was originally brought on board only as a technical adviser, but with a little influence he managed to convince Kubrick that he was perfect for the role of Sgt. Hartman, a role that had already been cast. Indeed, he is ramrod straight and unrelenting, furiously breaking his men down and instilling in them the hardness they must have to survive. D'Onofrio gives perhaps the most impressive performance as the enigmatic Leonard. He takes the character from irritating to sympathetic to frighteningly insane, and his psychological descent is on par with Jack Nicholson's in Kubrick's "The Shining."
As I mentioned earlier, Kubrick shot the film entirely in England, importing palm trees to create the illusion of Southeast Asia. The result is an almost dreamlike depiction of Vietnam, a peculiarly aestheticized vision that seems at once real and unreal. Kubrick makes extensive use of his trademark steadicam tracking shots, often moving the camera swiftly to the left or right while shooting actors walking in the same direction in front of burning buildings. Unlike other Vietnam films of the period, which attempted to put the audience within the action, this film has us frequently looking directly at the action, as if it is on a stage. This emphasizes the unreality and makes clear that Kubrick is not commenting directly on the Vietnam War, but on all wars and the nature of man in general. His use of popular 1960s hits throughout is sometimes poignant and often ironic. Like many of his films, "Full Metal Jacket" does not make a direct statement and is open to multiple interpretations and readings.
The film has been released in a special Deluxe Edition as part of Warner Home Video's "Stanley Kubrick Directors Series" box set, which also includes "2001: A Space Odyssey," "A Clockwork Orange," "The Shining," and "Eyes Wide Shut," as well as the documentary "Stanley Kubrick: A Life in Pictures," all loaded with bonus features that certainly trump the old bare-bones editions. Oddly, "Full Metal Jacket" is the only film in the set (apart from the documentary) not released as a two-disc set and not available individually in standard definition. The Deluxe Edition is available individually in both HD-DVD and Blu-Ray.
Warner has presented in the film for the first time in a 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer. There has been much controversy since the film's initial DVD release in 2000 over what the proper aspect ratio should be. Kubrick filmed his last three movies in the 1.33:1 Academy ratio and had them matted for their theatrical releases. This was apparently done in response to the horrible pan-and-scan version of "2001" shown on television so that his future films would not suffer from cropping. As a result, however, fans have debated for years over whether the films should be seen on TV as they were presented in theaters or with the extra information on the top and bottom. Looking at Warner's widescreen transfer, the movie looks perfectly framed for 1.85:1, and it is my judgment that this is the ideal framing (though I know many will still disagree). The image itself is clear, with very good color saturation throughout. It is a bit soft, and there is some noticeable grain, but none of this is distracting. Overall, the film looks great.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 track does a fine job of spreading the sounds of raging gunfire in the combat scenes around the speakers, creating a visceral atmosphere. Dialogue and music are well represented as well. The songs used throughout the film sound clear, if perhaps a little flat, but that is most likely how they originally sounded. There are also 5.1 tracks in French and Spanish, as well as subtitles in English, French, and Spanish.
Starting off the supplementary features is a new commentary track with actors Vincent D'Onofrio, Adam Baldwin and Lee Ermey, and critic Jay Cocks. The four gentlemen were recorded separately. D'Onofrio and Cocks are featured throughout, while Ermey's comments are featured only during the first half of the film and Baldwin's during the second half. Each of them provide thorough information about the making of the film and about Kubrick himself, with D'Onofrio offering some of the most interesting insight into his participation, pretty much crediting the film entirely for his subsequent success. I must admit I was a tad disappointed in the general enthusiasm of the actors, as I had heard for years that there was some animosity between Kubrick and his stars. Whether this was just tabloid fodder or the actors holding back, I do not know, but the commentary is nonetheless well worth a listen.
A new featurette entitled "Full Metal Jacket: Between Good and Evil" is up next. At 31 minutes, it boasts interviews with cast and crew members, including Baldwin, D'Onofrio, and Ermey. It keeps overlap with the commentary to a minimum, and there are some very interesting anecdotes about the production and some abandoned ideas, most notable the original ending of the film, that make this quite worthwhile. A trailer rounds out the disc.
As part of Stanley Kubrick's ongoing exploration of mankind's increasing dehumanization, "Full Metal Jacket" holds an important position in his oeuvre. Though not immediately embraced by either critics or audiences upon its release, it has grown in stature over the last 20 years, and I believe in time it will be ranked among Kubrick's best films. Warner Home Video's decision not to make the standard DVD edition available individually is perplexing, but this is just one good reason to purchase the complete Kubrick box set, which is a must-own for film buffs.