'Full Metal Jacket,' produced, directed and co-written by Stanley Kubrick, is not an easy film to watch, but from the first frame to the last, it is a riveting one.
The movie comes at a boom time for films about the Vietnam War, but Kubrick, as he has done with so many movies ('A Clockwork Orange,' 'Lolita,' 'Dr. Strangelove,' '2001: A Space Odyssey'), brings something so totally different to each project that they defy categorization.
This film makes you uncomfortable: It is mean and cruel. The characters are not like anyone you're likely to meet at the office or supermarket. They are the creations of war.
The film is divided into two parts. The first explores the rigors of Marine boot camp and the way it desensitizes young recruits; the second covers the Tet Offensive in Vietnam admist the ruins of the city of Hue.
Oddly, there is little dialogue in much of the first half -- other than the barks and barbs of Gunnery Sgt. Hartman, viciously and accurately portrayed by Lee Ermey, a real-life leatherneck who spent three years in Vietnam.
We learn very little about these young men -- the narrator and young war correspondent, Pvt. Joker, played by Matthew Modine ('Birdy,' 'Streamers'); Cowboy, played by Arliss Howard; Rafterman, played by Kevyn Major Howard; Eightball, played by Dorian Harewood -- because when they talk, it's either a cynical retort or an answer to some insult from their sergeant.
Even the comic aspects of boot camp -- the raunchy songs, the weird nicknames, the elaborate insults -- don't seem so funny. Just when you want to laugh, you can't. Everything is too hard, too sharp.
The first half's explosive and violent ending sets the stage for the second portion, shot in a hellish Vietnam of crumbling, burning buildings. Here, the dialogue is even more spare and it's tough to figure out whether the soldiers have become hard-edged from their training or have always been that way.
Pvt. Joker follows Cowboy and the men of his squad to the battle front. This is a group of truly seasoned killers and one of them is just downright scary. While they witness soldiers and civilians die in battle with the North Vietnamese, they also hate and are hated by the South Vietnamese.
Finally, the men play a cruel cat-and-mouse game with a lone sniper. The finale is a bitter one.
Adding to the tension and coldness is the screenplay, written by Kubrick, Michael Herr and Gustav Hasford, whose book, 'The Short Timers,' forms the basis for the movie.
Herr also wrote the widely acclaimed book on the Vietnam War, 'Dispatches,' and contributed to the production of 'Apocalypse Now.'
Some popular songs of the era -- 'Chapel of Love,' 'These Boots Are Made For Walking' -- give an eerie focus to the violence on screen.
It is clear from the sounds, dialogue and scenes that Kubrick thinks war not only is hell, but is heartless, mean-spirited and cynical.
There is nothing uplifting about 'Full Metal Jacket,' but it packs a wallop -- even if you don't like the way the punch is thrown. The hard edge is a good outline for a movie about a generation's war whose horror we are still trying to fathom 20 years later.
This film is rated R.