Revisiting Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket, I found that my response to the film was pretty much the same as my initial impression: It is one part great movie, and one part pretty good movie. I guess how you feel about the film depends on how you feel about Matthew Modine’s performance. As his character (or, more specifically, his acting) starts to dominate the story, you are either with him, or are supremely irritated by him.
That said, the first 45 minutes of Full Metal Jacket are fantastic. I felt this way the first time I saw it, and still feel the same way. It is the Vietnam era, and a bunch of young Marine recruits are getting their hair shaved off in the opening credits. Kubrick wanted to portray how a bunch of individuals are stripped of their uniqueness and molded into killing machines.
The boys are a motley crew, and only a handful are given any identity that the viewer can track. These identities are attached to them, however, by the impressions of their ruthless drill sergeant (the scary, hilarious, and poetically foul-mouthed R. Lee Ermey). Making jokes? You are now Joker. Are you from Texas? You are now Cowboy. Are you fat and dumb? You are now Gomer Pyle.
The big dumb kid now known as Pyle (Vincent D’Onofrio in a star-making role) sneaks donuts, can’t keep up with the drills, and in general is bringing down his whole group of Marine recruits. It is a turning point when their pity turns to hostility, and this hostility from his peers is enough to break what is left of humanity in mind. These first 45-minutes at boot camp are easily the best part of Full Metal Jacket, and you can even click the off switch at the end of this act and feel like you’ve watched a satisfying full film.
Alas, the movie goes on, focusing on the character of Joker, who becomes a Stars and Stripes correspondent in Vietnam. His story, I suppose, would be interesting, but Matthew Modine is so annoying in the role that you just want to grind your teeth. Apparently, Anthony Michael Hall was the top choice for Joker but had to back out, and I can only wonder if he would have made a better film. Unfortunately, whenever Modine becomes the focus of a scene, he pulls the moment down to annoying.
Almost saving the Vietnam portion of the film, though, is a great final act involving a small group of soldiers pinned in an urban wasteland by a sniper. There is enough chaos and tension in that relentless sequence that the bad acting by Modine and (sadly) Adam Baldwin can be momentarily forgotten. The moment of a green soldier finally learning the “far off stare” of a man who has seen too much is a tad forced, but still offers plenty of impact. And even though Full Metal Jacket is only part masterpiece, it is worth watching for the bits and pieces that are truly great.
In the 25th Anniversary Blu-Ray Book treatment, Full Metal Jacket includes extras like commentary from D’Onofrio, Baldwin, and Ermey, along with critic/screenwriter Jay Cocks. There is an interesting behind the scenes featurette, an original theatrical trailer, and a 48-page book with photos by Matthew Modine. But the best part was the biggest surprise: An extra DVD includes a one-hour documentary called Stanley Kubrick’s Boxes. I LOVED this film! After Kubrick’s death in 1999, documentary filmmaker got permission from his Kubrick’s wife and family to take a look inside some of the thousands of carefully organized and catalogued boxes that the director squirreled away in his England home. Boxes contained lost footage, bizarre memos, crank mail from fans/stalkers, and thousands and thousands of photos that he had his nephew take while scouting for filming locations. Absolutely fascinating and an intriguing peek inside the creative workings of one legendary film artist.