By Andy Vetromile
Like so many of the movies on this list, this film’s strength lies in its first half. Stanley Kubrick’s observations about the horrors of human conflict (this bloody commentary on the Vietnam War predates Spielberg’s remarkable Saving Private Ryan by a decade and a half) begins in the seemingly much tamer world of marine boot camp.
A varied cast of men from many walks of life find themselves being sculpted for combat by the in-your-face Gunnery Sergeant Hartman, played with delicious zeal by character actor R. Lee Ermey. Ermey’s deathless performance shouldn’t be surprising, given that he’s a former drill sergeant in real life. It shouldn’t be, but it appears to have caught the Academy unawares: Ermey wasn’t even nominated for supporting actor (though he did score a Golden Globe and a BSFC Award – nice to see someone’s paying attention). This is not to take anything away from those who were nominated, not least Sean Connery’s turn as Jim Malone –I was rooting for him, too – but you have to look at it from Ermey’s position. (And no, I don’t know how Ermey feels about the whole thing…he and I haven’t talked in, gosh…ever. More’s the pity.) Here he is, in his element, essentially playing himself, and the Academy tells him “Hey, R. Lee…can I call you ‘R.’? Great. Listen, R., great job with the Hartman role, but I’m afraid your performance was just a little too reminiscent of the zeitgeist of popular treatments of current trends to really be Oscar-calibre. That, and you remind me of my gym coach, and we still have issues to work out there. We’re giving your spot on the roster to Morgan Freeman, playing a street pimp. Now there’s a man playing within his genre.” (Taken that way, one has to wonder how Morgan Freeman might view the situation. And no, I don’t know how Freeman feels about the whole thing…he and I haven’t talked in, gosh…ever. More’s the pity.)
One of Hollywood’s best-kept secrets, Ermey doesn’t receive nearly as many roles or as much screen time as he deserves (and the man has made a lot of films – even if you know who he is, you’d be surprised to realize he’s been in that, too, oh, and that other thing). One may take comfort in knowing that when someone in Hollywood looks up from their double cappacino-latte long enough to green-light one of his roles, it’s usually spot-on. Few people can boast playing as many roles that were, when you think about it, meant for them. His appearance as a former military man (former in the sense of being dead) in Peter Jackson’s delightful The Frighteners, his vocal talents as Colonel Hapablap on The Simpsons and the little green army man Sergeant in the Toy Story films, and his all-too-brief appearance as the senior County in the also-too-brief The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr. (that they removed that from the schedule in favor of M.A.N.T.I.S. is a rant for another day) shows that he knows how to pick ‘em (or how to get picked…I don’t know the motivations behind all these castings, since the Hollywood elite and I haven’t spoken in, gosh…ever).
I had a point before I started gazing dreamily at headshots of R. Lee Ermey. Something about movies…Kubrick…the ‘nam…ah, yes, Hartman slapping the stew out of Matthew Modine, an impulse anyone who’s seen Bye Bye, Love finds themselves nodding in somber agreement with. Any illusions that it will be easier to eat your popcorn during this segment are quickly laid to rest. The violence here is understated when compared to the last half, but it’s the very subtle nature of the conflicts that make it so hard to watch. As the incompetent Private Leonard “Pyle” Lawrence (Vincent D’Onofrio) earns the scathing disdain of first his drill sergeant and then his platoon (or squad, or…jeeze, somebody ought to fact-check these things), the camp takes on a nightmarish quality. The abuse heaped upon the members of the team is, by turns, humourous and horrifying. Every indignity suffered by the men is a gut-punch for the audience even at their remove, but each is accompanied by Ermey’s corrosive lashings as he belittles them and breaks them down into clay he can mold. Ermey’s running commentary concerning his charges over the film’s first 10 minutes alone is funnier than 90% of the drek that passes as comedy in today’s entertainment industry.
By comparison, the last two reels are all disappointment. I won’t dare to say that the film doesn’t accomplish its goals, or isn’t presented in exactly the way it was intended, but after that terrific start it’s hard to care when the gears shift and the action switches to the hardships of Vietnam. Towering performances by Modine and Ermey established an emotional bond between filmmaker and filmgoer, and those ties are severed pretty quickly. All in context, but we have little reason to care about the fates of the soldiers to whom we’re introduced here. The violence escalates, and it’s clear no one in this conflict is safe. The bloodshed actually becomes boring once the numbness sets in. People die faster and harder than B-list actors at Jessica Fletcher’s high school reunion, and without the fanfare and flashbacks. Again, probably the very substance of what Kubrick wanted his audience to come away with, but you’re distracted from weighty social issues when all you can think is, “Crissakes, is anybody gonna make it out of this film alive?”, a concern that isn’t limited to the people on the screen.
Making good films depends in large part on the ingredients with which one has to work, and R. Lee Ermey is a great start (and a great finish, and…). But even within one meal, not all courses are equal (as Iron Chef proves), so start with the appetizer, include the salad, and make sure you have the soup. But when the main course shows up, tell them you’re already full. Then spend the rest of the evening eating popcorn in front of the remake of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Ermey’s the sheriff, and I’m pretty sure a few people survive that film.