This is an installment for a series on this blog where Joe Brown, Regional Editor for RiverTown Multimedia, and I have a back-and-forth review of a movie. We will take turns selecting a movie — any movie we want — and review it here. For this installment, I picked “Full Metal Jacket.”
The Movie: “Full Metal Jacket”
Starring: Matthew Modine, R. Lee Ermey, Vincent D’Onofrio
Director: Stanley Kubrick
Plot Summary: (From IMDB) A pragmatic U.S. Marine observes the dehumanizing effects the Vietnam War has on his fellow recruits from their brutal boot camp training to the bloody street fighting in Hue.
Rotten Tomatoes Rating: 93 percent
Froemming: Last week we saw the swingin’ 1960s party life with “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.” I decided this week to take a cue from one of the character’s uniform in the film we are about to talk about for Classic Movie Month by taking a look at the flip side of the good old days of the era by venturing into the nation’s scarred psyche of the Vietnam War. And what better way of doing that than with Stanley Kubrick’s (REDACTED) frightening “Full Metal Jacket.”
This is my crappy version of Pvt. Joker’s peace button/Born To Kill getup.
Here is my history with this film: In the late 1990s, my best friend was inspired by this film to sign up for the military. A few years later, I finally sat down and watched this movie. And I realized my best friend must be crazy, because this is more of a “scared straight” scenario for not signing up than an inspirational film for people to serve their country.
Also, when Brown and I worked at our college newspaper, we came across this video that we still play today. (VERY NSFW)
And when it comes to movies about the war in Vietnam, this one is my favorite. Because Kubrick makes war hell from basic training to heading overseas.
To our readers who have served, you are stronger than I will ever be, because even more than a decade since I’ve last seen it, this movie still scared the bejesus out of me at the idea of being in the military.
Now, Joe (REDACTED) (REDACTED) (REDACTED) (REDACTED) (REDACTED) Brown, you Communist (REDACTED) (REDACTED) (REDACTED) (REDACTED) (REDACTED), what are your first thoughts on this jarring classic?
Brown: This is still a movie that’s relatively fresh to me. I’ve seen it a handful of times at this point but didn’t watch it until may be five years ago.
So it’s still got that movie thing where I keep seeing new things from it that make it an even more enthralling/frightening experience, some of which I’ll get to later.
But you’re right, this is a documentary into how I couldn’t hack it in the Marines. Like Gomer Pyle, I can’t do a pull-up. Haven’t been able to do one since middle school. Stupid food tasting so good.
It’s also a movie that I still have trouble categorizing. Is it a war horror movie? Or is it a dark comedy? Between the first 45 minutes (which for my money is the best start to a movie ever) to the music choices and the closing would lean me toward the latter.
But we’ll get to all of that. I’ll go find the clippers so we can shave our heads and get started down this dark, twisted path.
Froemming: I agree it can be seen as a dark comedy, almost a bleak comedy, but it isn’t as outright about it than Kubrick’s “Dr. Strangelove,” which is a movie we should do some time.
OK, we are sent back to sometime in the late 1960s in Parris Island, S.C. where we are introduced to our soldiers as their heads are being shaved and “Hello Vietnam” acts as the soundtrack. The soldiers look miserable, and I don’t blame them knowing what the next 45-minutes has in store for them.
And that next 45 minutes is pure R. Lee Ermey as Gunnery Sgt. Hartman, a man who is way older than I am today (74) that I know could still beat the living daylights out of me. He is in charge of breaking down these kids and rebuilding them into unstoppable killing machines. Which is probably the most frightening parts of this whole movie. Note to self: Never act like Hartman to my employees.
Brown: Oh yeah, if the Marines had a PR department, I think Gunnery Sgt. Hartman would have had a stern talking to… before he said something crude to the suit.
Froemming: He’d probably scare the bejesus out of any higher up.
Brown: I just replayed the first six minutes of Hartman dressing down the recruits and the man is brilliant. The whole thing is insanely quotable … if you have a dark sense of humor like us Joes.
My quick question to you, Froemming: Favorite quote from Hartman in this sequence. Mine is him telling Pvt. Pyle that he’s so ugly he could be a modern-art masterpiece.
Froemming: “Five-foot-nine, I didn’t know they stacked (REDACTED) that high!”
Brown: And to think that Emery started this film as an advisor until Kubrick saw him in action. And he gets a damn Golden Globe nomination out of being himself.
Here we meet two characters that eat up the bulk of this 45 minutes with Hartman, Pvt. Joker (Modine), the resident smartass at basic training, and Pvt. Pyle, the bumbling oaf who you just think is going to bail out on basic in the middle of the night.
You get the typical basic training scenes: Climbing drills, pull-ups, monkey bars, making the bed and lots of running and singing.
The running and singing is not quite as wholesome as Sgt. Seymour Skinner makes it.
Froemming: It rough going for everyone, but Pyle in specific is really not catching on. He seems a little slow in the head, and despite burning all those calories running and singing and climbing up and down walls and ropes, he doesn’t lose any weight. And each time he fails, Hartman humiliates him by having him suck on his thumb like a baby and walk with his pants down.
Brown: Pyle sucks on his thumb a couple times. I kind of wish we’d seen what he did to warrant this form of punishment.
Froemming: I think it is everytime he angers Hartman, who is pissed 99.9 percent of his whole life.
Joker, meanwhile, is promoted to squad leader for having the gumption to take a minor stand against Hartman on believing in the Virgin Mary. Also, 99.9 percent of the clips here are NSFW.
Unfortunately for Joker, his promotion means he is in charge of getting Pyle up to speed.
And through being a little compassionate, Joker does get Pyle to improve. But, things go awry when Pyle forgets to lock his foot locker and Hartman discovers a jelly donut he snuck in.
Look, I love donuts as much as anyone else, but I would have gone out of my way to escape standing out to a maniac like Hartman.
Brown: My issue is the jelly donut. Not a fan. Custard-filled, sure.
And yeah, if I know I’m not allowed to have donuts because I’m under a weight restriction like Pyle, I’m scarfing that thing down before I return to the barracks. But, Pyle isn’t the smartest fella.
But, he doesn’t get punished. Hartman decides that from now on, whenever Pyle screws up, the platoon will be punished because they are not motivating him enough. Just from high school football, there is few things that make you feel worse than watching people get punished because of your mistake.
Having enough of Pyle’s (REDACTED), the recruits dish out soap justice. And it’s all sorts of (REDACTED) up.
Froemming: Think of less of punishing Pyle for making their lives suck even more and more of a team-building exercise to motivate Pyle into not making their lives more of a living hell!
Damn, I should have gone into PR!
Here Joker hesitates because he feels bad about slapping Pyle with a bar of soap in a sock (no bruising), then he goes to town on the poor bastard.
Brown: It’s a reoccurring theme of this movie: For all of Joker’s big talk, dude just isn’t a killer. Thanks to peer pressure, he hits Pyle. Then hits him again and again and again because frustration sets in.
Froemming: Look, if someone’s mistakes meant I had to do push ups, I’d understand the urge to whack them with a bar of soap.
This moment, when even Joker turns on Pyle, is the start of Pyle’s downward spiral into madness. He now has what is mentioned later as the thousand-yard stare whenever we see him. He begins talking to his rifle like Milton from “Office Space,” to the point I thought he was going to burn the building down if Hartman stole his red Swingline stapler.
He is doing much better, he is much more disciplined (Hartman is, ironically because of what happens later on, impressed with his shooting skills), but part of Pyle’s humanity has been eliminated.
All because of a (REDACTED) jelly donut.
Brown: Like Hartman eludes to, a Marinie either defends its country or else they go off the deep end like Charles Whitman (The UT tower shooter) and Lee Harvey Oswald (JFK’s assassin). Hartman even takes glee in how skilled those maniacs were. His goal is to turn these boys into killers.
And well, that’s what Pyle becomes. And Vincent D’Onofrio’s look and mannerisms are downright harrowing.
I’m a little confused about how a guy who was that broken down made it all the way through boot camp before committing murder. But Pyle is now a madman; it shouldn’t make sense to me.
Froemming: I have friends who served and I heard stories about people going nuts. Maybe not Pyle nuts, but they break down and get violent. I don’t know if it is super common, but it happens. And when you think of Vietnam, and how unpopular it was and people getting drafted, I am sure Pyle is one of those nuts who slipped through the cracks.
Also, a quick aside: When I first saw this movie, I was watching a lot of “Law & Order: Criminal Intent” and didn’t put two-and-two together that D’Onofrio was the star of that and Pyle in this movie until the end credits rolled.
Brown: Before Pyle’s downfall, we have to mention when they have their jobs picked. While most everyone is assigned infantry, Joker gets assigned to basic military journalism. Hartman rips on him, naturally. As a journalist, I felt shame.
Now, last night in basic, Pyle goes from teetering on the edge to swan-diving off the edge.
Froemming: It is worse than any horror movie what becomes of Pyle. Joker is on guard that night (I am sure there is an official thing it is called my friends who served will mock me for not knowing) and heads to the head, where Pyle is loading his weapon with live ammunition and babbling to himself. The look in his eye, holy (REDACTED) D’Onofrio deserved an Oscar for that. Still creeps me out.
Joker tries talking Pyle down, but talking to a crazy person is useless. Pyle is beyond reasoning now. He is gasoline now, and all it needs is a match.
Enter human flamethrower Hartman.
And his last words before Pyle blows him away are amazing: “What is your major malfunction, numbnuts? Didn’t mommy and daddy show you enough attention when you were a child?”
Hartman died as he lived: Mocking people.
Brown: And I don’t know if Hartman’s constant belittling being done stopped him or remembering that Joker was a friend, Pyle’s rampage ends there … after he puts a bullet through his brain.
It’s a haunting sequence of events … that fades to black and leads to a Vietnamese hooker walking over to Joker and a new character, Rafterman, in Vietnam to Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boots Are Made For Walkin’.”
… Kind of a jarring jump from a shocking, heavy moment to a laughter.
Froemming: Like Joker’s Born To Kill/peace button, the duality of this whole movie is jarring.
Also, it is weird that the hooker’s few lines in this movie has melted into pop culture, from hip-hop samples to parodied in shows and film.
Now it is 1968, and during a meeting with the newsroom at Stars and Stripes, Joker brings up rumors that the NVA might be planning a secret attack during the Tet holiday. Tragically being in the wrong, his editor laughs it off because Tet is like every American holiday rolled into one!
Brown: So, you know, fireworks, booze, debauchery, the whole nine yards.
During the newsroom meeting, Joker mentions that all they do is write briefs and take handshake shots. … Yep, welcome to journalism, guy.
Froemming: It truly is the most realistic depiction of journalism I have seen on film.
Brown: Joker is also made fun of for not being in the (REDACTED) and not having the thousand-yard stare.
There’s two ways to obtain a thousand-yard stare, folks: Go to war or watch three seasons of “Fuller House.”
As night falls, it turns out the rumors were true and the Tet Offensive is on. The Marine base is under fire (well, literal fire is involved) and the Marines are able to hold their ground. But as a whole, the troops across the country are hurting.
Wanting to really get into the (REDACTED), Joker and Rafterman make their way to Phu Bai.
Froemming: Well, Rafterman learns real quick the (REDACTED) is not glamorous at all. When they are in a helicopter, a soldier is gunning down Vietnamese people. He says the ones that run are VC, and the ones who don’t are well-discipline VC. He is just killing them for fun, and it makes Rafterman literally sick.
Brown: Anyone who is a video game player has gotten on a turret and said “Get some” at one point in their life. You’re lying if you think otherwise.
Another true-to-life journalism moment: The guy gunning down all these Vietnamese people tells Joker and Rafterman “You should do a story about me!”
I hear that at least once a week out in public.
Froemming: These two catch up with Lusthog Squad, where Joker’s old buddy Cowboy is with. I had to think hard to remember Cowboy at the beginning, because with the exception of Joker and Pyle, all the other soldiers just blur into one. And that is on purpose. Kubrick used a special lense filming the basic training part of the film so everyone was in focus, thus making them all blend together and no one stands out.
Yes, I deep-dived IMDB’s “Did You Know?” area for this movie.
Cowboy was berated by Hartman for being from Texas, a series of quotes I will not repeat because I wish to remain employed.
Also, Cowboy is one of the few nerd/redneck combinations I have seen in a movie.
Brown: Glad to know some of our research isn’t just a random pop culture we lump in like Nic Cage punching a bear…
In the Lusthog Squad, we see what Pvt. Pyle could have become in Animal Lover, who has that same deranged look on his face as our favorite former fatbody in training. Naturally, he gets the biggest gun and the largest body count.
Following a group of tanks into the Battle of Hue, the platoon commander, Mr. Touchdown, is killed. I couldn’t tell if it was from a bullet or a mine. But either way, not good. Now, Cowboy is the squad leader.
Froemming: It looked like a mine, there are boobytraps all around. And I noted when the war scenes escalated, Kubrick used shaky cam to follow our soldiers around, creating more panic and paranoia, a pretty solid film trick if you ask me. This guy will become big someday, I’m calling it now.
Just prior to this, the movie played “Surfin’ Bird” by the Trashmen and I was expecting Peter Griffin to pop out and scream the lyrics at Joker.
Brown: We were all waiting for that, Froemming.
Froemming: Cowboy gets the squad lost, proving that even people who wear glasses can be stupid. He sends his crew to search the area and poor Eightball gets shot by a sniper, who is now trying to get the troops out one-by-one to slaughter. The bait is Eightball.
It’s an uncomfortable moment having to choose between saving the squad and leaving two guys to suffer. It’s an unpopular choice. Or, you risk life and try to rescue your troops/stop the sniper.
Animal Mother can’t watch as two of the troops are used as bait so he goes in guns ablazin’. The choice was made for Cowboy. Good leadership, pal.
Froemming: Animal Mother isn’t going to listen to a nerd, especially a stupid nerd who got everyone lost. Through an iron will and pure dumb luck, Animal Mother is able to figure out where the sniper is, in general. He says it is only one and they can take the SOB out, and not be cowards like Cowboy wants.
So, after being humiliated, Cowboy agrees to Animal Mother. Hartman would be shocked by this lack of leadership, but he mocked a man into insanity and paid the price.
The problem now is the gang is only somewhat shielded by gunfire. The sniper uses a hole in the wall to take out Cowboy, which to be honest, is some pretty solid shooting on the enemy’s part.
Brown: From here’s it’s basically a free-for-all. And the sequence is shot pretty frantically with smoke and fire all over and the camera following this platoon as they make a dash to this abandoned factory. Eerie music also gives it this horror movie feel to see if a lone sniper can continue to eliminate more of America’s finest.
With the group split up, Joker finally sees the sniper, who is nothing more than what looks like a teenager or young adult woman with pigtails.
Have we mentioned that the Vietnam War was (REDACTED) up?
Joker has his chance to finally get a kill in this war. He pulled the trigger and *click*. He’s out.
Froemming: Well, Rafterman does get his kill in, kinda, he shoots the sniper before she could kill Joker. And everyone catches up to them to see who the person was that took out their buddies. Just a lone sniper. A lot of damage from one person. Animal Mother says to leave her to die, but Joker says they can’t. Well, is that you John Wayne? Is this me? Yup, Joker very, very hesitantly shoots the woman like he is putting down a horse in the Old West.
Brown: I didn’t realize it until this viewing, but there’s this shot of Rafterman after he incapacitate the sniper. He has the same dead, thousand-yard stare that Pyle and Animal Lover have. To see that as Joker is debating to perform the mercy kill is bone-chilling.
Yes, like Hartman told the recruits, they are training killers. But Joker has seen this transformation before and you see him struggle with the decision because A. he’s not a killer and B. he doesn’t want to become Pyle or Animal Lover or even Rafterman. There’s no turning back.
But, he goes through with it. And Joker finally gets his thousand-yard stare. Yay?
Froemming: To add to the insanity, the group marches off singing the theme song the the Mickey Mouse Club, reminding me (like Kurt Vonnegut does in “Slaughterhouse Five”) that these men are just barely out of their childhood.
Brown, you (REDACTED) (REDACTED) (REDACTED) (REDACTED) (REDACTED), why don’t we march our butts down to (REDACTED) (REDACTED) (REDACTED) (REDACTED) (REDACTED) recommendations!
Brown: Quit yelling at me.
WOULD YOU RECOMMEND?
Froemming: Oh yeah, this is much better than I remember it being. It is a war movie that doesn’t shove the filmmaker’s political views into it. It just shows that war is hell and the Joes have trouble joking about such a subject.
Brown: Yep. This movie gets better and better every time I watch it. Sorry this review isn’t as funny as other ones. Hard to laugh at war. Though, to be fair, Kubrick found some ways to get laughs out of it. I still view this as a dark comedy. Macabre may be the better word.