Deriving its namesake from the bullet with a high muzzle velocity, Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket (1987) began its gestation with an arranged meeting in England between the director and author Michael Herr in 1980. The latter had written the Vietnam memoir, Dispatches. Initially, Kubrick wanted Herr’s participation on a film about the holocaust. But this idea held little interest for Herr and eventually gave way to his writing the screenplay for a Vietnam War movie instead, particularly after Kubrick became fascinated by Gustav Hasford’s novel, The Short-Timers.
Three years later, Kubrick began research on his movie, slowly eroding Herr’s apprehensions and his original creative vision to suit his own. By 1985, Hasford was brought on board to work on the screenplay. Herr wrote a first draft and Kubrick came up with the title ‘Full Metal Jacket’ after coming across the phrase in a gun catalogue. To his own detriment, Kubrick kept Hasford and Herr a secret from one another. This created problems later on when both men began vying for sole screenwriting credit on the finished film. Eventually, Hasford was shut out of the production.
Kubrick cast his tour of duty veterans from a veritable group of unknowns – screening some 800 video taped auditions. A former Marine Drill Instructor, R. Lee Ermey was initially hired as consultant on the project. When Ermey suggested to Kubrick that he might be perfect casting for the role of Gny. Stg. Hartman, the director initially flinched – telling Ermey he lacked the desired level of viciousness. Undaunted, Ermey shot a test for Kubrick rattling off a fifteen minute diatribe of vulgar insults while being pelted with oranges and tennis balls. The test convinced Kubrick that Ermey was Hartman.
Shot entirely in England, Anton Furst’s production design manages to capture the flavor of Vietnam without ever going to the Far East. Utilizing discarded buildings at Beckton Gasworks, 200 Spanish palms and over 100,000 rubber and plastic tropical plants imported from Hong Kong, the decimated city of Hue became translated into a startling reality. Kubrick also had Furst acquire M41 tanks and a Sikorsky H-34 Choctow helicopter to lend an air of authenticity to the shoot.
Plot wise the film is divided in two: the first half focused on a group of Marine recruits arriving at Parris Island for their basic training where Gunnery Sergeant Hartman (Ermey) relishes in breaking their egos and spirits. The Vietnam War is already underway and Hartman’s purpose is both simplistic and diabolical: produce the next round of cold blooded killers who will not break under the extreme pressures of war.
The physical and psychological dismantling of new recruit Leonard Lawrence (Vincent D’Onofrio) takes up much of the first third of the story. Nicknamed Gomer Pyle by Hartman, the pummeling of Lawrence’s psyche is disquieting to all. In truth, Lawrence is a genuine misfit; slovenly, slow-witted and predisposed to ridicule over his pudgy exterior and seeming inability to follow any rules.
After discovering a jelly donut in Lawrence’s locker, Hartman decides that any further infractions will result in a punishment on the rest of the recruits with Lawrence forced to watch. Hartman further appoints the sensitive Pvt. Joker (Matthew Modine) as custodian and mentor over Lawrence’s behavior. To ensure that Lawrence does not misstep his boundaries, the other recruits decide to flog him one evening as he lies in bed, with the reluctant Joker forced into participating. The assault leaves Lawrence beaten and sobbing in his bunk.
However, the beating has adverse side effects. Lawrence withdraws from the platoon and begins a mental descend into quiet insanity. On the eve before general deployment, Lawrence loses his grip on reality entirely and loads his weapon with live ammunition; murdering Hartman before committing suicide as Joker looks on.
The second half of the narrative is an intensification of the genuine horrors in hand-to-hand combat; Sergeant Joker is assigned a new partner, photographer Rafterman (Kevyn Major Howard). He also alerts his superior Lt. Lockhart (John Terry) of a rumored communist offensive on the base; largely dismissed by Lockhart at the time, though coming to fruition the next day. Joker is then ordered to the marine base at Hue with Rafterman tagging along. The men meet an insane door gunner (Tim Colceri) who indiscriminately murders any Vietnamese person he sees under the deranged logic that they are all Vietcong.
Joker is next directed by Lt. Walter Schinowsky (Ed O’Ross) to a massacre of civilians by the North Vietnamese Army. Amidst this turmoil Joker is also reunited with Cowboy (Arliss Howard) a fellow trainee from boot camp whom he accompanies during the Battle of Hue, along with machine gunner Animal Mother (Adam Baldwin). The boys are assaulted in a vicious battle and picked off one by one – becoming lost in the city ruins.
The survivors uncover a young Vietnamese girl sniper in a bombed out building. The girl manages to wound Joker, but is shot by Rafterman – while begging for her own death. The mercy killing is eventually granted by Animal Mother and performed by Joker. The film concludes with the men marching into the night chanting a fractured interpretation of the Mickey Mouse Club march.
Full Metal Jacket is brimming with Kubrick’s macabre inebriated flair of utter chaos. The film is a wholly uncomfortable, yet thought-provoking visualization of the oft’ quoted comparison between ‘war’ and ‘hell.’
The cast is comprised of transient, though very unique personalities, rather than star powered turns. As the audience we’re not expected to sympathize or even relate to any of these men, but to find ourselves strangely unraveling with their emotionally corrupted psyches. In the final analysis, Full Metal Jacket is a grittier, more perverse anti-war war movie than most. Then again, given Kubrick’s intentional zeal for shock value – one should have expected no less.
Warner Home Video’s reissued DVD exhibits a very smooth and satisfying digital transfer. Colors are bold, vibrant and engaging. Contrast levels are bang on. The obvious patina of film grain appears more naturally rendered this time around, though there are still moments of edge enhancement and pixilization.
Warner's first DVD incarnation was presented in full frame only – as per Kubrick’s wishes…so Warner publicity claimed at the time. It is interesting therefore to note that this new disc features only the theatrical widescreen edition seen in North American theaters. So, which would Kubrick have preferred? Who knows? Certainly not anyone at Warner Bros.
The audio is 5.1 Dolby Digital, though somewhat less aggressive than one might expect. Extras include a newly produced featurette on the making of the film, as well as the previously released audio commentary from Baldwin, D’Onofrio, Ermey and critic Jay Cocks.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)