As I wrote in my recent review of 'Jarhead,' it seems there are two kinds of war movies -- those that rub our noses in the grisly reality of combat ('Saving Private Ryan,' 'Platoon') and those that examine everything else around it, whether soldiers suffering the dehumanizing effects of boot camp or the cost of war on those back home ('Tigerland,' 'Gardens of Stone'). So leave it to Stanley Kubrick to again flout convention and fuse the two together in his 1987 Vietnam war movie, 'Full Metal Jacket.' Essentially a two-act play, it's a flawed would-be epic often as frustrating in its incongruity as it is fascinating in its complexity.
I prefer Act One. Meet Gomer (Vincent D'Onofrio), perhaps the most lovable slob of a grunt in movie history -- though of course, since this is a Kubrick film, boot camp won't go so well for poor Gomer. Relentlessly tormented by his fellow soldiers and "leatherlung" drill instructor (R. Lee Ermey, in a performance that became an instant classic), he's always one step away from mental and physical collapse -- and madness. I won't spoil the first act climax (and it's a good one), only to say that his Jack Torrance-esque disintegration will be internalized by Joker (Matthew Modine) who, as Act Two begins, is plunged into the heart and hell of war. Assigned to the front lines of battle as a combat journalist, Joker will attempt to remove himself from the depersonalized mass atrocities he witnesses through the safety of his pen -- until the realities are too ugly to ignore, and his own descent into violence unavoidable.
I know I am not the first viewer to say as much, but 'Full Metal Jacket' leaves me split right down the middle, just like its structure. (I'm sure Kubrick loved reactions like that.) It is just impossible not to take sides, and I found myself far more drawn in by the first half. The plight of poor Gomer (D'Onofrio is terrific, by the way) is often mesmerizing, and is perfectly suited to Kubrick's cold, austere visual style. Kubrick has never been a particularly warm filmmaker, but here he found a perfect thematic foil for his perfectionism -- the military's systemic and unforgiving process of dehumanization, one solider at a time. Kubrick's methodical pace and completely unsentimental worldview rips Gomer literally and figuratively apart, and is an apt microcosm for brutal toll war takes on the human soul. Combined with director of photography Douglas Milsome's sterile visuals and a droning, unsettling score by Vivian Kubrick, the first half of 'Jacket' is its own mini-masterpiece.
Unfortunately, Act Two feels more or less generic, not a facsimile but far too similar to other, better war movies to stand on its own. Part of the problem is that Joker (though Modine gives an earnest, admirable performance) is simply less riveting an antagonist than Gomer. (It is also worth saying that once Ermey leaves the scene, the film never quite recovers from his absence.) Kubrick also seems to be restating the same themes he already so breathtakingly depicted in Act One -- it almost feels like a restaging of the same core concept, only refashioned out of war movie cliches (the grunts, the sniper, the injured screaming and dying all around). I also never felt that Kubrick quite knew how to stage the action, especially the climax, which is too much an exercise in existentialism to be really gripping as a visceral experience.
But make no mistake, all of 'Full Metal Jacket' is still well worth seeing. The second half may not measure up to such a powerful first 45 minutes, but in many ways the film's contrasts and jarring inconsistencies is what still makes it so intriguing almost twenty years later. Flawed, to be sure. But then leave it to Kubrick to make one of the most challenging, unconventionally conventional war movies ever made.
Can I say that I've never been all that impressed with the visual look of 'Full Metal Jacket?' I always thought it was a rather ugly, drab film. Lacking in any bravura sense of style, and with a really grainy, soft, flat look. Unfortunately, even this new HD DVD release doesn't do much to reverse my opinion -- this is by far the weakest HD DVD release I've yet seen.
My biggest problems are the softness of the image and the wonky fleshtones. I don't know what Kubrick intended, so I'm only guessing here, but how come in some scenes everyone looks rather reddish, like a pig? Skintones frequently appear unnatural, as if the tint setting on my TV was wrong (wait, let me adjust my rabbit ears...) The image is also very soft, lacking in sharpness and depth. The master used for both the standard DVD release and this new HD DVD version appears to be the same, and it is weak, lacking the three-dimensional appearance that marks the best high-def.
To be fair, 'Full Metal Jacket' is nearly twenty years old, and was made before the era when CGI took over and made every movie look plastic and perfect. And there are some sequences that impress -- a few of the sunset exteriors boast more vibrant colors, and the film's second half sometimes makes bold use of deep nighttime blues. I also appreciated that fine background details are more apparent on the HD DVD. Still, this disc is far from the one you're going to pull out to showcase your new HD DVD player.
Presented in English Dolby Digital-Plus 5.1 Surround, the audio for 'Full Metal Jacket' is similar to the video -- not a huge improvement over the standard DVD release. Again, this film was made almost twenty years ago, and Kubrick has never been a big exploiter of fanciful surround sound. (He reminds of Woody Allen, who up until recently was still shooting his films in mono!)
The mix is almost entirely front-heavy, especially the first half. Dialogue is well-recorded for a 1987 film, but the technology limitations of the time still come through in the lack of heft to the frequency range. Highs and lows just aren't there to any discernible degree, with that flat, dull sound typical of soundtracks of this era. Kubrick's use of songs on the soundtrack are also weakly rendered, barely sounding like they have been remixed for stereo. I also never sense much in the way of dynamics to the soundtrack, and the Dolby Digital-Plus track does little to help flesh out the sound compared to the standard DVD release.
The only time the soundtrack comes alive at all is during the battle scenes during the film's second half. There are occasional instances of effective surround use, and some interesting atmospheric trickery with Vivian Kubrick's atonal score. Still, it all sounds rather dated -- movement of sounds from channel to channel is pretty obvious, and I never felt truly engulfed in the action. Certainly, this is a far cry from 'Saving Private Ryan' -- but I really didn't expect much anyway.
All of the extra features from the previous standard DVD release of 'Full Metal Jacket' have been ported over to this new HD DVD upgrade, but that's a disappointment -- because there really weren't any. Okay, sure, there is the film's original theatrical teaser trailer (which is shockingly lousy at selling the film) presented in 4x3 fullscreen 480p video and mono, but that's it.
Though Warner has recently announced it will be reissuing four Kubrick classics as new two-disc special editions later this year -- including '2001,' 'Clockwork Orange,' 'The Shining' and an unrated 'Eyes Wide Shut' -- 'Full Metal Jacket' is not one of them. Hopefully someday we'll get a full-fledged special edition of the film, but in the meantime, this will have to do.
I think 'Full Metal Jacket' is far from perfect, and not one of Stanley Kubrick's best films. I also wasn't entirely sold on the film's second half as much as the first, but even if you are only a casual Kubrick, it's opening 45 minutes still rates it a much see. As for this HD DVD release, it doesn't offer much of an upgrade over the standard DVD -- slightly improved video and audio quality, and no new extras. I'd only buy this one if you don't already own the film on disc, or just have money to burn.
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.