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Full Metal Jacket (1987)

January 27th, 2007 · 3 Comments


A group of Marines begin basic training. Pvt. Joker (Matthew Modine) and Pvt. Cowboy (Arliss Howard) get the attention of Senior Drill Instructor Gunnery Sergeant Hartman (Lee Ermey, in the performance of his career) when Joker tries his comedy routine out on the abrasive DI. But Hartman’s barrage of verbal abuse is directed mainly at Pvt. Gomer Pyle (Vincent D’Onofrio).

Pyle is an overweight dim wit and the squad’s worst soldier. When Joker stands up to Hartman, he’s suddenly given the task of forging Pyle into a Marine. No miracle worker, Joker receives help from the rest of the squad, who dole out some brutal capital punishment in the hopes Pyle will get himself squared away. They succeed all too well.

Now in Vietnam in 1968, Joker is a combat correspondent assigned to a Marines public affairs unit. Covering the war for Stars and Stripes with a photographer twit named Rafterman (Kevyn Major Howard), Joker’s ironic detachment to the war is summed up by a peace symbol he wears on his vest and a helmet with “Born To Kill” written on it.


As the Tet Offensive rages, Joker and Rafterman are sent to join Marines sweeping the city of Hue. Joker is reunited with Cowboy, whose squad includes Animal Mother (Adam Baldwin), an M60 machine gunner whose only real authority is to himself. The platoon falls under Cowboy’s command as they make their way toward the Perfume River. They get lost, and encounter a sniper, who starts carving them up one by one.

Director Stanley Kubrick wanted to collaborate on a project with Michael Herr, a novelist who covered the Vietnam War for Esquire Magazine and wrote the narration for Apocalypse Now. Herr sent Kubrick a copy of the 1979 novel The Short Timers by Gustav Hasford, which he was a fan of. Kubrick purchased the film rights in 1983 and adapted the screenplay with Herr, who filtered some of his own experiences in Vietnam through Hasford’s story.

There’s much here to admire. Improvising his lines, Lee Ermey is the most memorable drill instructor ever put on film. He’s genius, and his scenes with Vincent D’Onofrio are the chief reason to see this. Joker cracking wise in Vietnam – with choreographed dialogue – is less believable. His sarcasm vanishes in the terror of combat, which Kubrick stages with visceral power. And the musical cues – ’60s era rock ‘n roll – are all perfect.


I must have seen Full Metal Jacket twenty times when it was originally released on VHS, but watching it eighteen years later, this seemed like a two hour assembly of a great war film that hasn’t been finished yet. Hasford’s book divided into three sections -boot camp, psychedelic combat in Hue, and a mission through the jungle – each written in a different style of prose.

This explains a lot about the movie. The drama at boot camp just doesn’t fit with the rapid fire, stylish satire in Vietnam, which feels disconnected from the terrifying combat. Joker mostly stays in the background, and we don’t get any clue who he really is. Hasford’s wildly vivid story is never really forged into a cohesive narrative with the command of Kubrick’s previous black comedies.

Kubrick shot the film in England, using a gasworks in London’s East End – scheduled for demolition – for the ruins of Hue. Anton Furst’s production design is phenomenal, but for the first time in his career, Kubrick was behind the curve, getting beat into theaters by Oliver Stone and Platoon, which not only won an Academy Award for Best Picture, but captured the experience of Vietnam in a way this film just doesn’t seem up for.



Kubrick’s original choice to play Joker was Anthony Michael Hall, but after eight months of negotiations, the actor’s agents passed when a financial arrangement could not be reached to their liking. Hall tried breaking out of teen roles with a pitiful action thriller called Out of Bounds and never starred in a successful film again.



Tags: Military

3 responses so far ↓

  • 1 VDO Vault // Apr 22, 2007 at 6:42 am

    I had not heard that Anthony Michael Hall was Kubrick’s first choice for Pvt. Joker…while I think a lot more people associate AMH with humorous roles, Modine pulls off a very subtle sensitivity and a smartness that I’m not sure that AMH could have.

    You ought to pick up a copy of Modine’s Full Metal Jacket Diary… according to that book Modine (who got D’Onofrio seen by Kubrick) really wanted to play Pyle but he knew that he ‘was’ Joker. And D’Onofrio from what I read of him has elements of Pyle’s personality within himself (in interviews D’Onofrio will repeatedly say that he’s not ‘liked’ by many of the people in his profession and that to some extent keeps him from being considered for certain roles or first in the mind of certain directors, etc). But to me the most compelling parts of ‘Full Metal Jacket’ are the Pyle scenes.

    Nice review
    The Vault

  • 2 IV:XX // Oct 24, 2007 at 8:06 pm

    Good review. I’ve always thought that Modine was chosen precisely because (as with many of Kubrick’s central characters) he could be so flat.

    Take a walk through his characters… Dolores Haze; Barry Lyndon; Private Joker; HAL; Danny Torrance; Dr. Bill Harford – all flat in comparison to the action that revolved around them.

    That’s just my opinion, but I just assumed that Kubrick meant it to be that way to focus attention to the story.

  • 3 kelly // Jan 31, 2008 at 2:18 pm

    this movie is the best

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