A young U.S. Marine in Vietnam named Gustav Hasford began writing a novel and it was ultimately published in 1979 and called “The Short Timers.” It is a brief novel of only 154 pages in its first edition hardcover, but it packs as powerful a punch as any writing of that era. Along with Larry Heinemann’s “Close Quarters,” the books are considered outstanding examples of writers coming out of the Vietnam conflict with a fresh voice in American literature. “The Short Timers” is the result of raw talent and passion and isn’t quite the more refined work that is “Close Quarters” (which I believe is the single best novel to come out of the war). “The Short Timers” was bought by Hollywood and turned into “Full Metal Jacket” on the screen and directed by Stanley Kubrick. You’ll easily remember the drill sergeant and his profanity-laced dialogue long after you see the film.
‘Full Metal Jacket’
(1987; 116 minutes; rated R; directed by Stanley Kubrick and starring Matthew Modine, R. Lee Ermey and Vincent D’Onofrio)
(NOTE: I expanded this review with additional opinion, some more trivia and the updating of links on April 13, 2017.)
It’s easy to name films where the headline star dominates to the point no other actor in it has much of a chance to make as big of a mark. Just take the 1993 films “Scent of a Woman” and “Malcolm X.” Al Pacino and Denzel Washington respectively were overpowering lead actors who simply owned their films and I still believe Washington was better and deserved the Oscar over Pacino, but that’s splitting some cinematic hair.
However, it is a much rarer film that has a character so over-the-top that he or she jumps out, is quoted for years after and embodies the part through his or her soul. Today I’m looking at one of those kind of films: “Full Metal Jacket” and its most iconic character, “Gunnery Sgt. Hartman,” played to profane, violent perfection by R. Lee Ermey. Once you see this one, you’ll never forget him. Outstanding!
I’m not saying that no other actors do good, if not exceptional, work here (just the opposite), but Ermey is just so great that it is almost unconscionable that he wasn’t nominated for an Oscar (he did get a nomination for a Golden Globe, though). Ermey just doesn’t just talk the talk here, he walks the walk because he spent 11 years in the U.S. Marine Corps (he was a sergeant and ultimately given the honorary rank of Gunnery Sergeant by the Corps, according to IMDb.com).
The effort is all the more impressive because it comprises less than half the motion picture, which is more of an indictment of war on a larger scale and told through the story of one soldier from boot camp at Parris Island, S.C., to the Tet Offensive in 1968. The film is in two parts: training and then combat in Vietnam. Only two soldiers are common to both (Matthew Modine as “James T. ‘Joker’ Davis” and Arliss Howard as “Robert ‘Cowboy’ Evans”) but both lag behind Ermey’s effort.
“Full Metal Jacket” begins at boot camp with a squad of recruits who meet just about the meanest, toughest and most profane human being on earth: Ermey. This character makes Clint Eastwood’s “Gunnery Sgt. Highway” in “Hearbreak Ridge” look like a rank amateur. Actually, Ermey’s the embodiment of a drill sergeant and punctuates his obscenities not with another but with his fist. Ermy is reputed to have needed very few takes for his scenes and this is impressive since his entire time on screen is just an ongoing monologue designed to harangue his charges. The best part? He’s not some Hollywood hotshot pretending – his profanity is almost profound. He puts particular attention on one recruit (Vincent D’Onofrio as “Leonard ‘Gomer Pyle’ Lawrence”) who is not only a doomed character but spells doom for Ermey, too.
Next, “Full Metal Jacket” turns to Vietnam where Modine is stationed as a combat correspondent for the Corps. He is ultimately assigned to the action in Hue and meets up with his buddy from boot camp, Howard, and his group of men, the “Lusthog Squad.” This group of soldiers brings the film to its conclusion with the remaining men singing the “Mickey Mouse March.”
I’m not giving too many details here in case you want to watch it again. So here’s a look at the actors and their work:
- As already noted, Ermey is the star of the show. You just know that he was in the Marines from the first sound of his voice to the last. Ermey, who was in the seminal Vietnam film “Apocalypse Now” (he was also a technical adviser), played a similar kind of drill sergeant a decade earlier in “The Boys in Company C.” Ermey has done varied work in his career from drama (“Mississippi Burning”) to comedy (“Saving Silverman”) and even voiced in animated films (the “Toy Story” franchise). However, none are as iconic or instantly recognizable as his “Sgt. Hartman” role.
- Modine gives a so-so effort here as the skeptical, sarcastic soldier not sold on the war but who is going along with it anyway. Modine is best as the bald-headed recruit dealing with Ermey and he only elevates his character at the end while dealing with a sniper. Modine was much better in his first film, “Vision Quest,” and a little more bland in “Married to the Mob” (click here for my review), which came the next year after “Full Metal Jacket” and reportedly he was still dealing with the rough-and-tumble work he had to put into “Full Metal Jacket” when he did “Married to the Mob.”
- D’Onofrio does really wonderful work here as he morphs his character from dense, grinning idiot who is forced to drill while sucking his thumb for infractions to an evil-eyed, possessed recruit who goes over the line. It’s tremendous performance only surpassed by Ermey. D’Onofrio is most recognized from his role on TV’s “Law & Order: Criminal Intent” and has also been in “Adventures in Babysitting” (click here for my review) as well as “The Break-Up.” More recently he was solid in “Jurassic World” (click here for my review).
- Howard offers up the most low-key effort of the great work by actors here. As “Pvt. Cowboy” he helps link the story from beginning to the end. Howard was also in “Moneyball” with Brad Pitt as well as “Ruby.”
- Dorian Harewood plays “Eightball,” who is a corporal in the “Lusthog Squad.” He’s got the cynicism down pat here and he’s smooth, sarcastic and builds confidence easily. Harewood has also been in “Gothika” and “The Falcon and the Snowman.” He certainly wasn’t as good – but it was a wasted character anyway – in “Looker” (click here for my review).
- In a film of great lines, one of the most effective is by Tim Colceri, who plays an unnamed door gunner of a helicopter. He revels in shooting not just enemy soldiers but also civilians and water buffaloes. When asked if he shoots women and children, he says, “Sometimes.” When asked how he could shoot women and children, he snarkily replies, “Easy, you don’t lead ’em as much.” It’s that kind of character in that kind of movie. Colceri was also in “Erasers” and “Ultimate Target.”
- Adam Baldwin tries to be tough, distant and somewhat psychotic as “Animal Mother” in the “Lusthog Squad.” He does a forgettable job, though, and just about any other actor could have done better. However, that’s a cross all Baldwin brothers actors have to bear – general incompetence. Baldwin was also in “Independence Day” and “The Patriot.”
There are additional actors whose work is of note here, but I don’t have the time to spend outlining each one. From the rest of the “Lusthog Squad” to the combat correspondents and photographers with Modine before the Tet Offensive begins, they form a solid foundation for the film.
“Full Metal Jacket” was the 23rd ranked film at the domestic box office in 1987 with $ 46.3 million in ticket sales, according to Box Office Mojo. It was made on a budget of $30 million budget, according to Wiki. It was just behind the wonderful “Planes, Trains and Automobiles” (21st with $49.5 million) and just ahead of “Wall Street” (26th with $43.8 million). The No. 1 film of the year was “3 Men and a Baby” with $167.7 million. Other films from that year I’ve reviewed are:
- “Adventures in Babysitting” (great fun) – click here for my review
- “Back to the Beach” (totally great) – click here for my review
- “Can’t Buy Me Love” (OK teen flick) – click here for my review
- “The Fourth Protocol” (solid) – click here for my review
- “Hiding Out” (very good) – click here for my review
- “Innerspace” (excellent) – click here for my review
- “The Lost Boys” (excellent vampire flick) – click here to read my review
- “Mannequin” (very funny) – click here for my review
- “Maid to Order” (not bad) – click here for my review
- “Near Dark” (excellent) – click here for my review
- “No Man’s Land” (watchable) – click here for my review
- “A Prayer for the Dying” (awful) – click here for my review
- “Predator” (great) – click here for my review
- “The Running Man” (really good) – click here for my review
- “Summer School” (good) – click here for my review
Assorted cast notes (via IMDb.com):
- The novel’s author, Hasford, as well as another wonderful writer out of Vietnam, Michael Herr, who wrote “Dispatches,” shared an Oscar nomination for writing “Full Metal Jacket” as an adapted screenplay with Kubrick. The scene with the door gunner was taken directly from Herr’s book.
- D’Onofrio reportedly gained 70 pounds for his character and it took nine months and a personal trainer to lose it.
- Directly from IMDb.com: “One of the scenes cut from the movie was a scene that showed a group of soldiers playing soccer. The scene was cut because a shot revealed they were not using a soccer ball, but a human head.” In today’s film world, it would have been included and even be part of the trailer (that’s my comment; not IMDb.com’s).
- Click here for a link of a big page on IMDb.com with a bunch more great trivia tidbits about “Full Metal Jacket.”
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