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-[Film Reviews]-, English Language Film Industries, Hollywood, United Kingdom & Irish Cinema

‘Full Metal Jacket’ (1987): The Movie with that Drill Sergeant


Directed by: Stanley Kubrick || Produced by: Stanley Kubrick

Screenplay by: Stanley Kubrick, Michael Herr, Gustav Hasford || Starring: Mathew Modine, Adam Baldwin, Vincent D’Onofrio, Lee Ermey, Dorian Harewood, Arliss Howard, Kevyn Major Howard, Ed O’Ross

Music by: Vivian Kubrick || Cinematography: Doublas Milsome || Editing by: Martin Hunter || Country: United States, United Kingdom || Language: English

Running Time: 116 minutes

Stanley Kubrick was a man of many directing talents, as no genre seemed to intimidate him whatsoever by the end of his storied career. From the epic historical drama of Spartacus (1960), to the tongue-in-cheek war satire of Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964), to what is commonly referred to as his crowning achievement in the experimental sci-fi picture 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), to his dystopian drama, A Clockwork Orange (1971), to the now classic adaptation of Stephen King’s horror novel, The Shining (1980), and finally, to his famous Vietnam War film, aptly titled Full Metal Jacket, the man could do it all.


Easily the most famous shot of FMJ.

The latter is every bit as visceral and intense as it sounds, while also containing ample amounts of dark humor to compliment its foreboding visuals. Full Metal Jacket’s (FMJ) primary tone is the sarcastic, brutally honest humor it paints across many of its otherwise serious themes of warfare, bloodshed, and military machismo.

One of the film’s devices that helps channel this black humor is the movie’s protagonist, Joker, played by a memorable Mathew Modine. Joker’s lighthearted approach to the perils of war are a humorist’s attempt to survive the onslaught of both combat and the dehumanizing methods of military indoctrination that precede it. This resilient sense of humor is also an effort to maintain Joker’s sense of identity and morality in the face of a dog-eat-dog world, where morality, personality, and individualism are displaced by close-minded jingoism and the instinctive fight for survival.

The most iconic figure in the whole film is Senior Drill Instructor and Gunnery Sergeant Hartman, played by the former real-life Marine Drill Instructor, R. Lee Ermey. Anyone who has a passing familiarity with war films can recognize the jarring image of Ermey’s Hartman yelling insults in the face of recently shaved Jarheads at the top of his lungs. The shot where Ermey is staring bullets straight into the camera as he points at both Joker and the viewer is without a doubt a hallmark of the Vietnam War subgenre, and has since become the subject of endless artistic references and parodies.

Where Kubrick’s movie shines is in its first act, where the narrative focuses on the dehumanizing process of Marine Corps. training and assimilation. The effects of Hartman’s brutal treatment and degradation of the recruits is made all the more hard-hitting considering the fact that it is plain as day that Ermey knows exactly what he is doing. His interactions with the recruits, particularly Leonard Lawrence (Vincent D’Onofrio), are chilling to the bone. That these Boot Camp scenes are laced with black comedy and ridiculous insults makes the oddball concept of the first hour that much more memorable. It is a weird but effective combination. As derivative as FMJ’s second half can seem, there is nothing in cinema that comes close to matching the iconic features of its first act, no matter how many parodies or copycat war flicks like Jarhead (2005) try to rip it off.

Speaking of that second half, the film loses Ermey and D’Onofrio, and with them, much of its steam as the setting transitions from Boot Camp to Vietnam. It is an unfortunate inevitability that the repetitive nature of FMJ’s more well known first half limited its running time to about half that of a feature-film; one also has to take into account the movie’s loose adaptation of Gustav Hasfords 1979 novel The Short-Timers. Kubrick’s film already expands upon the military indoctrination section of the source material, so it probably would have been damn near impossible to stretch the Boot Camp plot into an entire narrative all by itself. 


FMJ features a colorful cast of characters.

The various pieces of Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket don’t come together as nicely as most other dramatizations of the same time period, but its best features are as good as the iconic imagery of its cohorts. The movie’s black comedy is its greatest weapon. Just like the memorable whining by Bill Paxton in Aliens (1986), Full Metal Jacket’s versatility goes a long way toward imprinting and improving the overall experience. It may not be as straightforward in conveying the same themes that a film like Platoon (1986) does, yet its strengths are every bit as nuanced, if not more so, than Oliver Stone’s blunt war epic.


SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: The first 55 minutes or so of Full Metal Jacket are untouchable by all but the absolute best of the war film genre. Ermey utilizes his experience as a former Marine Corps. Drill Instructor to terrifying effect. It is one of the most iconic roles in all war films to date. The movie is further bolstered by a strong ensemble cast with Matthew Modine, Alec Baldwin, and Vincent D’Onofrio.

However… the film loses much of its force in its second half as the story moves from Boot Camp to Vietnam, and feels standard-issue compared to the endlessly quotable first half, run by Ermy and D’Onofrio.


? Looks like the best part of you ran down the crack of your mamma’s ass and ended up as the brown stain on the mattress! I think you’ve been cheated!

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