If you saw Full Metal Jacket years ago, or you’ve only watched a few key scenes on YouTube, you probably love the movie. Or, you think you do, anyway.
If it’s been a while since you’ve seen it, it may come as some surprise that Full Metal Jacket is part of a sub-set of films that include an iconic first portion, followed by a middling or flawed remainder that nobody really remembers because oh my God that first part! Other examples might include Stripes or Superbad, not that those films are anything like FMJ. Nor are they part of the Warner Bros. 50 Film Collection.
The first 45 minutes of Full Metal Jacket is virtually an extended montage scene, save for two voiceovers by Private Joker (Matthew Modine), which provide some cover exposition to allow the audience to understand how much time has passed. Those 45 minutes are absolutely riveting, as Drill Sergeant Hartman (R. Lee Ermey) whips young Marines into shape in preparation for the horrors of Vietnam.
Ermey, who should have won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his performance, is absolutely hypnotic, terrifying, and real in this role. Ermey was originally the technical advisor on the film, but the ever-brilliant Kubrick eventually realized that he had struck gold, pivoting to cast Ermey as the gunnery sergeant.
That outstanding first portion of the film includes an exploration of the limits of human psychological endurance, and an open question of whether trauma is, in fact, necessary to produce an effective fighting force. In some ways, this segment of the movie is Whiplash through the other end of the telescope.
Kubrick, smartly without passing final judgment, focuses the audience on the darker hues humans being pushed to the brink of insanity in the name of “improvement.” Spoiler: they go careening over that brink with deadly consequences. In Whiplash, we only get an oblique view of that outcome, instead focusing ultimately on the best-case scenario, thus making the “is it worth it?” question much more difficult to answer.
Here, Vincent D’Onofrio’s performance as Private Pyle is haunting and, again, unforgettable. Unfortunately, the Parris Island segment of FMJ ends a little less than halfway through the film. There’s still another hour or so to go.
It isn’t that the second portion is bad. It’s not. It just isn’t that first 45 minutes. Part two is almost as forgettable as part one is memorable. After a time-jump to Vietnam and a couple of scenes that lead up to the Tet Offensive, Full Metal Jacket becomes a surprisingly ordinary “war is hell” slog through what appears to be a very finite area of terrain.
The characters we meet in Vietnam are often cartoonish, bordering on caricature. The battle scenes are passable, but they aren’t Kubrick’s strong suit. They also seem primitive by today’s standards. And the ethical questions raised are much less subtle—and less interesting—than those that arise in the Parris Island portion.
It’s also tough to stay immersed in the story when there are some glaring and jarring moments that are a combination of unconvincing practical effects and even less-convincing military tactics. For example, I don’t claim to be anything of an expert, but I would suppose that the best way to take out a sniper isn’t indiscriminately spraying the exterior wall of a large building with machine-gun fire. Yet, thanks to the practical effects in FMJ, that’s what we see.
Sure, you could say “fog of war,” or “it was 1987!” to provide a rationale for why scenes look a certain way, but they come off as odd. These excuses are especially hollow, given how well-shot and well-directed the film is overall (especially everything in the training barracks), and the other visual masterpieces we’ve seen Kubrick create.
Full Metal Jacket is certainly a must-watch, but that quality is not consistent throughout its runtime. That’s no sin, but, given the incredibly high bar Kubrick sets, that relegates FMJ to middling status amongst his incredibly impressive body of work.