In a time where Apocalypse Now, The Deer Hunter, and Platoon had already been hailed as masterful portraits of the Vietnam War, Full Metal Jacket was bound to suffer from comparisons to them, even with the one and only Stanley Kubrick directing and co-writing. Judging it on its own, however, it’s certainly unique (at least for a bit) and raw, but surprisingly flawed for something coming from such a genius filmmaker.
Jacket is split into two separate halves, the first of which is set at South Carolina’s Parris Island. There, the cruel, foulmouthed drill instructor Gunnery Sargent Hartman prepares a group of boot camp recruits for battle in ‘Nam by ruthlessly berating and abusing them.
Most (including our central protagonist, a man nicknamed “Joker” by Hartman) adapt to his harsh tactics quickly, but the pudgy, dimwitted “Gomer Pyle” is traumatized so much by this “training” that he eventually snaps. Kubrick builds this up extremely well, and the payoff is so memorably startling that it could’ve been the perfect ending to a different film.
However, Jacket cuts right from that to a comical scene involving an Asian prostitute (the dialogue of which is prominently featured in the 2 Live Crew hit “Me So Horny”), and the effect is jarring. In general, the film’s second half is surprisingly heavy on these jokier moments (including a satirical interview scene that becomes tedious pretty quickly), and just isn’t as freshly compelling as what comes before it.
Nevertheless, it deserves some credit for painting massive combat in a realistically frightening and unpredictable—albeit surprisingly small-scale—light. Without spoiling anything, the climax’s events, despite being rather abrupt, are so bitterly unpatriotic that a major studio releasing the film is unbelievable.
Dehumanization, evident right from the opening “head shaving” montage, is the most prominent theme in Full Metal Jacket, and it shapes all of the characters’ arcs and decisions. Joker’s the only one that tries to resist it, even after partaking in Pyle’s beating and witnessing his subsequent descent into madness. Indeed, his reliance on dry sarcasm and cheerily dark humor showcase a man determined to survive, to not let the system or the war beat him down. A shame, then, that he’s not rounded out more after leaving Hartman’s clutches once and for all.
Perhaps if the film had been allowed to go on longer than a measly 116 minutes, its second and third acts could have lived up to the promise of the first, presenting a more complex narrative that gives Joker the true depth he deserves. All the elements of a great film—flawless direction, striking set designs, powerhouse acting, darkly ironic music—are here, but the screenplay isn’t given enough space to shine nearly as much. Just imagine what 2001: A Space Odyssey would be like if somebody cut that down to under two hours.
Now, Full Metal Jacket isn’t a bad movie by any account. It does have its fare share of genuinely powerful moments, and definitely isn’t the poorest way to witness the carnage of ‘Nam on the big screen*. Just don’t expect the ride it takes you on to be consistently great.
*In fact, I initially thought about giving it a 9/10, but reluctantly changed my mind while writing this review (even after seeing this great analysis—which isn’t spoiler-free, just so you know—on YouTube).