Friday, March 11, 2016

Full Metal Jacket

The boot camp movie to end all boot camp movies, Full Metal Jacket (1987) is the penultimate film of Stanley Kubrick, and it chronicles a group of Marine Corps recruits from Paris Island to Vietnam. What's impressive about Full Metal Jacket is how it arrived less than a decade after Bill Murray's hilarious turn in Stripes. Think of how many really scary Frankenstein movies have been made since Mel Brooks made Young Frankenstein.

Plot-wise, the closest comparison I can come up with is Samuel Fuller's The Big Red One, which followed a WW2 rifle squad from North Africa to Czechoslovakia. Both movies don't contain one big narratives so much as little vignettes. Fuller, who based his movie off his own wartime experiences, looked back on his time fighting with an element of nostalgia, grittiness, and purpose. Kubrick, while not necessarily having made a pro- or anti-war film, crafts a dark, delirious, ironic, surreal, and at times insane and dark experience.

If there's one theme that unites Kubrick's work, it's dehumanization. Full Metal Jacket depicts how a bunch of raw recruits are brutalized and shaped into killing machines by both basic training and combat. The movie can be split into two segments: the Paris Island training and the fighting in Vietnam.

Kubrick does nothing to comfort the viewer. The movie opens with the recruits getting their heads shaved and receiving a blistering welcome to the Corps by Gunnery Sgt. Hartman (R. Lee Ermey), dropping us right into a hostile and rigid environment with no warning or explanation. Of the recruits, the ones we focus on are Joker (Matthew Modine), Gomer Pyle (Vincent D'Onofrio) and Cowboy (Arliss Howard). All the recruits receive nicknames and are regarded as subhuman maggots until they graduate.

The boot camp scenes are the most famous sequences of the film. Kubrick doesn't show the characters talking about their lives back home, discussing what their hopes and fears are, or anything that would really make us grow close to them. They belong to the Corps; all else is irrelevant. They have no small talk, and their personalities are buried by the brutality of training. Hartman, who is verbally but colorfully abusive to the point of being terrifying and funny, humiliates them regularly, especially Gomer Pyle. He gives lectures about how Lee Harvey Oswald learned to shoot in the Marines and has the recruits intertwine sex and violence by having them give their rifles female names.

When the movie gets to Vietnam, there's some background noise about the Tet Offensive, the propaganda of the U.S. Army, but there's no big objective or event the film builds to. It's one damn incident after another as these Marines go around Vietnam, encountering one thing after another. A gung-ho door gunner, an encounter with a prostitute, a firefight in the city, interviews with a roving news crew, what do they have to do with each other? Not a thing. War is a random, directionless endeavor, at least in Vietnam, so it's fitting Full Metal Jacket captures that aspect of it.

Some parts are funny in a satirical way, like the Stars and Stripes who orders the change in terminology from "Search and Destroy" to "Sweep and Clear." Other moments are shocking and horrific, like when people get blown apart. Kubrick loves using slow motion on the violence, so we can see and feel every gunshot wound.

The unifying thread, if any, is the transformation of Joker, the closest character to a protagonist. He mouths off in basic and as a reporter for Stars and Stripes, wears a peace sign on his shirt and the phrase "Born to Kill" on his helmet, and tries his best to help Gomer Pyle, who becomes increasingly deranged and isolated from the unit. But the violence, death, and insanity take their toll until he becomes an emotionless killer too, marked by what he's seen and done. It's a gradual change, one Kubrick doesn't spell out or underline. By the end, as he marches with the others as they sing the Mickey Mouse song together, his assimilation is complete; the city burns around them at night, and it's a haunting final image to end on.

Saturday, March 5, 2016

Ride the High Country

When I say Ride the High Country (1962) resembles the kind of Westerns John Ford made, I don't necessarily mean that as a compliment, not when the director is Sam Peckinpah. Still, this is an early picture from the man who would go on to make The Wild Bunch and Straw Dogs, so maybe I should be a little more forgiving.

Fans of Peckinpah will recognize many ideas and themes that would run through much of work: rugged men in rugged country, old professionals reflecting on their lives, the passing of the Old West into modernity, male bonding, and a code of honor, duty, and loyalty. Maybe it's not as good as his later masterpieces, but it's a solid effort nonetheless.

Ride the High Country tells the story of a couple of old friends and aging lawmen. Steve Judd (Joel McCrea) recruits his longtime friend Gil Westrum (Randolph Scott, cue the angelic choir) for a job escorting a company's gold haul out of the mountains. Neither man has much to show for their chosen profession, and when the movie opens, Westrum is working at a carnival booth shooting gallery, complete in a silly costume and fake beard, before Judd recruits him for the job.

Westrum, however, has designs on stealing the gold and brings along the upstart Heck Longtree (Ron Starr) to help him. Things get even more complicated when they get involved with the sheltered Elsa (Marietta Hartley), her religious father (R.G. Armstrong), and her "fiancé" Billy Hammond (James Drury) and his brothers (among them a young Warren Oates).

Peckinpah courted controversy throughout his career for his depictions of graphic violence, and while he's not as explicit nor as bloody as he would later get, Ride the High Country has its share of taboo material. The wedding between Elsa and Billy is conducted in a mining town brothel by a drunk judge, and things get ugly when Billy's brothers try to force themselves in on the "fun." Apparently the Hammond boys share everything. During a later shootout, one villain collapses after being hit, clearly in shock and pain before succumbing to his wounds, far from a clean or pretty death.

As a filmmaker, Peckinpah eschews the romanticism of the Old West and shows the morality is not always rewarded. Mostly there are bad people, and some people who aren't as bad. The mining town is a cold, ramshackle place, filled with filthy tents and filthy people. Judd, while respected in his prime, has fallen on hard times, has holes in his boots and clothes. Being just and noble, always taking the moral, has not been financially rewarding for a man who devoted his life to upholding the law, but still, Judd remains stalwart and committed, even as Westrum drops some not-so-subtle hints he's owed more for all he's given.

Technically, the look and feel of the film is a bit old-fashioned. Peckinpah's direction isn't as intense or flamboyant as his later work, but it's serviceable. The action scenes are kind of tame, but the wide shots of the landscape - mountains, lakes, forests, - are beautiful. I got the sense Peckinpah was held back a bit and couldn't cut loose as much as we wanted.

Performances, for the most part, are terrific, with Scott and McCrea carrying the show. Even when they're just riding on trotting horses and reminiscing about the old days, I could listen to them talk all day. Considering this is Scott's final role and one of McCrea's last, it adds a poignant touch as they realize the world is changing and the Old West will soon be gone.

Hartley, in her debut, is appropriately naive and feisty while the Hammonds are a scuzzy but fun bunch. The only weak links are Armstrong, who is limited to a couple of scenes where he has to oversell the Puritanical aspect of his character, and Starr, who just isn't convincingly tough enough to hang with these weathered old gunslingers and spends too much time mooning over Elsa.