Full Metal Jacket is a movie of two halves. The first is an intense, engrossing look at the training the soldiers had to endure before being shipped over to Vietnam. The second half takes a clear look at some of the experiences of those men. Surprisingly for some, the first half clearly outshines the second.
This is because the first half shows a brutal realism to the training which is rarely focused upon. Other films have touched upon and included the Drill Sergeant, barking orders and degrading the new recruits, only to build them into killing machines, but none are as effective as Full Metal Jacket. This is in no small part because of the R Lee Emery, who gives the performance of his career and presents a role which would define him for the rest of his life.
Emery combines fear with touches of humour, as you watch him strip men to pieces with wit and clever insults. Some of the comments that come from Emery’s Sergeant Hartman have become pop culture references and taken on a life of their own but none can deliver them with such authenticity as Emery does here (a lot of which would come from the fact that Emery had experience of this very role from his real life in the military). You feel for the men as they have their will broken but every scene Hartman is involved in is an entertaining one.
Its not just the brutal treatment from the Sergeant. The first half focuses so much on the training and the way these men were turned into fighting machines. There is a very clever juxtaposition between Matthew Modine’s Private Joker and Vincent D’Onofrio’s Private Pyle. Its a small story arc within the wider movie but the most interesting of the film and one that has become etched into movie history.
Full Metal Jacket is supposed to be about the full experience of the soldiers though so the movie takes us to the fighting on the streets of Vietnam. Here is where the movie drops and the interest lulls. There is little new or original with these aspects and the film becomes very episodic. It feels like snap-shots of a soldier’s experience rather than a wider story that is being told. These moments still hold some interest but can’t live up to the training experience from the the first half.
Add to that a low-stakes ending. War movies feel like they build to a huge moment or key set-piece but the episodic nature of Full Metal Jacket means that it ends with a much more low-key whimper. You are waiting for the big moment to reveal itself but it finds an ending in the ordinary and mundane, which you could argue adds to aspects of the movie’s realism.
Overall, Full Metal Jacket presents two sides to the Vietnam war, The training aspect and the experience of the soldiers with the drill sergeants is one that very few films have done as well or have become as iconic. The second half is more familiar and loses its momentum and interest as we fall into episodic story-telling and a low-key finale.
Rating – 4
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