While a lot of fans consider “Full Metal Jacket” one of the best war movies of all time, if not the best, I have never been fully able to reconcile the more routine action of its second half with the brilliant intensity and black humor of its first half. Thus, I look at the film both fondly and regretfully as a great could-have-been. Whatever the case, Warner Bros. have done up the film well in a two-disc Blu-ray Book presentation that includes not only remastered picture and sound but new extras.
When I first came to “Full Metal Jacket” at its theatrical première in 1987, I did so with great expectations. I was and remain a devoted Kubrick fan. Kubrick is one of those great filmmakers who made so few films that almost anyone can have seen most or all of them and come away with a composite opinion. I started in 1957 with “Paths of Glory” (having missed at the time his several earlier films), and followed him through classics like “Spartacus,” “Lolita,” “Dr. Strangelove,” “2001,” “A Clockwork Orange,” “Barry Lyndon,” and “The Shining.” For Kubrick to be tackling the subject of Vietnam seemed a no-brainer. It would be another classic, plain and simple.
But “Full Metal Jacket” and his final picture, “Eyes Wide Shut,” were far more problematical for me than even “Barry Lyndon” had been. For instance, in “Barry Lyndon” Kubrick had subordinated the plot and characters to his own personal themes and artistic vision, much as he had done in “2001” (and virtually all of his movies, for that matter), yet it didn’t bother me. There was enough going on elsewhere in “Lyndon” to satisfy me. Yet with “Full Metal Jacket” I left the theater vaguely dissatisfied. I had the feeling I had enjoyed only half a movie.
Yes, many people consider “Full Metal Jacket” the best war movie ever made, and they may be right. Still, one has to understand that it is technically not a war movie as such, but an antiwar movie. That is, the film does not approach its subject matter with the intent to glorify war or even to present war objectively. Kubrick clearly wants his audience to know that war is more than hell (a trite and glorifying phrase, in any case); that war is a brutal, dehumanizing experience, and that those folks who start such endeavors are as loony as some of the characters the director portrays in his film. In this regard, Kubrick’s slant on the events of war is more akin to Francis Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now” than it is to more traditional things like “Saving Private Ryan,” “The Sands of Iwo Jima,” “A Walk in the Sun,” or even “The Thin Red Line” or “Platoon.”
Kubrick based his screenplay on the novel “The Short-Timers” by Gustav Hasford. The director begins things during an eight-week Marine boot camp at Parris Island, South Carolina. Here we meet the characters of the story (many of whom we will later follow into combat) getting their first military haircuts. The shaved heads are an appropriate representation of the conformity the Marine Corps will impose upon them as they become mere look-alike pawns in the chess game of war.
First among the characters is Private Joker (Matthew Modine), “Joker” being the nickname his Senior Drill Instructor, Gunnery Sergeant Hartman (Lee Ermey, before the R.) gives him the first day of training. Modine is fine, but it is Ermey’s Hartman–one mean, foulmouthed son of a bitch–who steals the first half of the show. Ermey, a former real-life Staff Sergeant in the Marines, effectively portrays a character who is every young recruit’s worst nightmare. “The more you hate me,” he tells his men, “the more you will learn. I am hard, but I am fair…. You are equally worthless.” Only I left out the profanities, which would have made the quotation three times longer.
Hartman takes a special pleasure in tormenting a slow-witted, overweight recruit named Leonard Lawrence, nicknamed “Gomer Pyle” (Vincent D’Onofrio, who gained an enormous amount of weight for the role, some eighty pounds he says) and turning a sweet, simple, naive young man into a virtual monster. This is probably the single most striking metaphor in the film for Kubrick’s notion of how the military changes ordinary people into killing machines. The climax of the movie’s first half recalls the director’s previous picture, “The Shining,” only the horror is even more real.
Part two of “Full Metal Jacket” follows the young soldiers into combat in Vietnam during the Tet offensive of 1968. The Marines assign Joker to the journalism pool, where he is to write pro-American stories for “Stars and Stripes.” This doesn’t sit too well with his rebellious spirit (he wears the slogan “Born to kill” on his helmet and a peace symbol on his vest, his way of suggesting the duality of Man), but it keeps him out of harm’s way most of the time. That is, until he’s ordered into action. Among his cohorts are “Animal Mother” (Adam Baldwin), a gung-ho tough guy in the field; “Eightball” (Dorian Harewood) and “Cowboy” (Arliss Howard), fellow squad members; and “Rafterman” (Kevin Major Howard), Joker’s best buddy. Note that the use of nicknames tends to rob the characters further of their personal identities.
Kubrick constantly punctuates his movie with pop music of the era, music that does double duty establishing the time setting and creating a mood. The director filmed the movie in England, for the Vietnam segment importing truckloads of palm trees. The bombed-out city of Hue bears a remarkable and prescient resemblance to war-torn areas of the Middle East today.
The climactic scene in part two involves a sniper suckering the men of Joker’s squad into trying to rescue a fallen comrade and themselves getting killed. It’s a familiar situation, popularized in Erich Maria Remarque’s antiwar novel “All Quiet on the Western Front” a half a century earlier, but it continues to carry a punch.
All the same, the second half’s war drama isn’t as compelling as the first-half’s boot-camp training, perhaps because the second half is more conventional, more predictable. (Although, to be fair, some viewers may get annoyed by the constant screaming of expletives in the movie’s first half and prefer the relative quiet of the battlefield.) By the time the movie ends, Kubrick has made his point, if in a hyperbolic sort of way. No matter how compassionate your soul, war will desensitize you in the end.
For the movie’s first release (on DVD), Warner Bros. stuck by Kubrick’s request that his films be transferred to video in their original camera negative ratios, mostly 1.37.1. With later video presentations, however, the studio went with the movies’ theatrical ratios, mainly 1.85:1 (or, actually, 1.78:1 to fill up a widescreen television). With “Full Metal Jacket,” however, the problem became a reduced video quality; maybe matting the top and bottom of the frame and blowing up the middle had made minor defects in the print more noticeable. Whatever, with the HD DVD and first Blu-ray that came out, I could hardly tell if the movie was in high definition (1080p) or was a good, high-bit-rate standard-def transfer. Fortunately, this newer VC-1, BD50 remastering, made more recently, improved the PQ.
Colors are rich and natural, never too dark, never light or faded, and black levels are as strong as one would expect. Facial features look especially realistic, lifelike. Definition is still not the image’s strong suit, largely I suspect because Kubrick fancied natural lighting, which tended to soften a lot of shots. A light grain permeates much of the film and provides a smooth, film-like veneer.
On the first Blu-ray edition, WB provided only lossless Dolby Digital 5.1, which sounded fairly ordinary. With the newer editions, including this one, they went with lossless PCM 5.1. There is still not a very wide stereo spread, nor is there much surround activity. However, what we do get from the rear and side speakers is quite good, adding a truthful quality to ambient effects and helping the indoor and outdoor scenes appear faithful to their environment. What’s more, there is a fine, quick transient response, a strong deep bass, and a transparent midrange, so dialogue and combat effects sound better than ever.
The 25th Anniversary Blu-ray Book edition contains a good collection of extras. First up is an audio commentary by stars Adam Baldwin, Vincent D’Onofrio, and R. Lee Ermey, and critic/screenwriter Jay Cocks, which they made in 2007. Next is a thirty-minute featurette, “Full Metal Jacket: Between Good and Evil,” a behind-the-scenes, making-of affair also made in 2007, with the participation of many of the stars and filmmakers.
Things conclude on the Blu-ray disc with thirty-nine scene selections; a full-screen (1.33:1) theatrical trailer; English, French, Spanish, German, and Italian spoken languages; English, French, Spanish, German, Italian, Dutch, Portuguese, Danish, Finnish, Swedish, and Norwegian subtitles; and English, German, and Italian captions for the hearing impaired.
In addition, the set includes an hour-long documentary on a separate disc, a standard-definition DVD. The documentary is called “Stanley Kubrick’s Boxes” by writer and documentary filmmaker Jon Ronson. Several years after Kubrick’s death, his widow asked Ronson to look though the hundreds of boxes, maybe a thousand of them, that Kubrick had left behind, boxes filled with all sorts of footage, home movies, photographs, papers, and such that the director had collected throughout his career. But there are no outtakes among the stuff Ronson uncovered because Kubrick incinerated all of it. Still, there’s enough material to create a fascinating background on the man.
Lastly, since this is a Blu-ray Book presentation, we get a forty-eight page, hardbound book of color pictures and text, with the two discs fastened to the inside front and back covers.
Kubrick showed his usual meticulous care in filming “Full Metal Jacket,” sometimes to the point of the movie and its characters seeming almost artificial. Nevertheless, the director surely gets his antiwar sentiments across, and no one can accuse the film or the filmmaker of being dull. The opening forty-five minutes are riveting and live on in memory long after the second-half battle sequences have faded away. “Full Metal Jacket” may not be the best film Kubrick ever made, but it’s still Kubrick, meaning it’s better than almost anything else in cinema.