Note: all framegrabs were sourced from the 4K UHD disc. Click any image to enlarge.
****/**** Image A- Sound B Extras B-
starring Matthew Modine, Adam Baldwin, Vincent D'Onofrio, Lee Ermey
screenplay by Stanley Kubrick, Michael Herr, Gustav Hasford, based on Hasford's novel The Short-Timers
directed by Stanley Kubrick
by Bryant Frazer It's obvious from the beginning that Stanley Kubrick loves R. Lee Ermey. Loves him. Though Ermey is only the fourth-billed actor in Full Metal Jacket, Gunnery Sergeant Hartman may as well be the star of the show. He's described in Gustav Hasford's source novel as "an obscene little ogre in immaculate khaki." His barked insults and obscenities dominate the first section of the film--a tour de force showing how Hartman wears down (and, supposedly, toughens up) a barracksful of U.S. Marine draftees, blasting away at their natural aversion to aggression and reprogramming them as soldiers. Kubrick was lucky to find him; a Vietnam War vet and former Marine Corps drill instructor, Ermey brings an irresistible combination of outrageousness and authenticity to the part. Hartman could have come across as an unlikely caricature but for Ermey's ferociousness.
When I say Kubrick loves him, it's not just because his shouty screen presence is ridiculously entertaining. Ermey touches something primal about the character, who is never caught taking overt pleasure in his exercise of authority. Instead, he finds a duty in cruelty. What I mean is that Hartman is sadistic though not necessarily a sadist. He is there to break the humanistic spirit of young men so that they may become more efficient killers, and his methodology is as ugly as the task before him. Francois Truffaut famously argued that there's no such thing as an anti-war film. He meant, I think, that dramatizing acts of war for the big screen has the effect of valorizing them, despite any critical context. I'm not sure I agree with him, but Full Metal Jacket is a case in point. See, for example, this recent article in TASK & PURPOSE, where deputy editor James Clark credits his decision to join the Marines partly to Full Metal Jacket: "As a kid who grew up relatively coddled in a Bay Area, California suburb, it...felt a little bit like a dare: Could I deal with that?"
The young men figuring out how to deal with Hartman's theatrical scorn include Matthew Modine's smart-ass journalist wannabe (Hartman calls him Private Joker), Arliss Howard's gentle Texan (saddled with the nickname Private Cowboy), and Vincent D'Onofrio's soft, heavy Leonard Lawrence (dubbed Private Gomer Pyle). They are young men in the process of becoming themselves, absorbing Ermey's blows and building their psychic toughness while struggling to retain as much spirit as they can. Inasmuch as toxic masculinity serves as one of Kubrick's great topics, Hartman follows in the footsteps of such unsavoury characters as Malcolm McDowell's terrifying Alex the droog, who spends a good portion of A Clockwork Orange glowering past his eyebrows and threatening to seduce and/or murder the assembled cinema audience, and Jack Nicholson's snowbound Jack Torrance, whose more gleefully unhinged variant of the same glare announces that he has become the bogeyman and that he likes it that way. When D'Onofrio's Private Pyle, perched on a toilet and bathed in moonlight, curses the camera with that same look--lighting cameraman Douglas Milsome called it the "Kubrick crazy stare"--and announces his rifle is loaded with live ammo ("Five-six-two millimetre... Full metal jacket"), the sense of dread is suffocating.
In military parlance, a full metal jacket is an outer shell of hard metal encasing a bullet whose core is made of softer material. Kubrick's film, based on Gustav Hasford's novel The Short-Timers, makes that shell a metaphor for the hardened exterior that Hartman's abuse and degradation supposedly provide his recruits. Many of Kubrick's movies are disquisitions on the evolution and de-evolution of humanity, our capacity for violence, and the knowable and unknowable factors that drive us mad. Kubrick once noted to an interviewer, "War acts as a kind of hothouse for forced, quick breeding of attitudes and feelings," a phenomenon that's fully explored in this film. Hartman is the agent of change, altering young men's feelings about themselves, their bunkmates, and their most necessary companions: guns and ammo. The sexual subtext of Dr. Strangelove was a font of mockery--choosing cartoonish character names like Merkin Muffley, Buck Turgidson, and Lionel Mandrake (the latter root a reputed aphrodisiac) Kubrick derided these men's moral and intellectual rationale for war--but the incessant locker-room banter that Hartman's marines engage in is even more risible. Dick jokes and sexual references are the order of the day. Hartman professes amazement at Private Cowboy's origins, loudly opining that Texas produces only "steers and queers." "I'll bet you would fuck a person in the ass," he hoots, "and not even have the goddamn common courtesy to give him a reach-around." This is absurd, of course: audiences laugh at it because Hartman's vitriol, his performative offense, is so over-the-top. It's funny to see this wiry old fuck criticizing virile young marines for what he imagines is their poor bedroom etiquette. But also they laugh, I suspect, because his utterly confident conflation of battlefield violence and sexual excitation makes them jumpy. Everything about Hartman is nerve-racking.
Kubrick later presents the recruits marching around outdoors in their underwear, steadying their rifles with one hand and clutching their crotches with the other while chanting, "This is my rifle, this is my gun/this is for fighting, this is for fun," and we're all but desensitized even to this spectacle: grown men fixating on their genitals like children going through that phase where they can't stop touching themselves. Hartman's training regimen is a weirdly emasculating cocktail of macho posturing, misogyny, and gay panic; it's a multi-stage bonding exercise where physical and mental degradation are presumed to build military-grade potency. Hartman is a blunt instrument, clubbing individuals into "indestructible men, men without fear," and yet he, too, has poetry in his soul. "Your rifle is only a tool," Hartman tells his men in a small moment of moral clarity. "It is a hard heart that kills."
The tragedy of Full Metal Jacket's first section is the result, maybe, of Hartman's miscalculation. He directs his most poisonous contempt at Leonard, at one point threatening, "I will gouge out your eyeballs and skull-fuck you." (The unfortunate mental image has occupied a corner of my brain for the last 33 years.) Even Private Pyle eventually discovers the marksman within, embracing the precise physical ritual of disassembling, cleaning, and reassembling his rifle to Hartman's simultaneous astonishment and approval. Yet Private Pyle wasn't made for this. When he's discovered brandishing his loaded M-14 in the middle of the night, Hartman reacts with his typical aggression rather than anything resembling fear. His first response is his usual confident bluster: "What is this Mickey Mouse shit?" Then he demands, addressing Pyle like the broken machine he must believe him to be, "What is your major malfunction?" The machine responds by shooting Hartman in the chest at close range. Something went very wrong for poor Leonard. Though he reached his potential as a marine, he lost not just his innocence but his pride and his dignity, too. His humanity. Unequipped to absorb the abuse heaped upon him, he emerges from training dull and zombie-like. Leonard reminds me a bit of HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey, reconciling a conflict in his programming by eliminating his human masters, but his story is more poignant than that. More like the monster turning on Dr. Frankenstein, stilling Hartman's infernal bark before extricating himself from his world of shit. Incredibly, given how unforgettably chilling his performance is, this was D'Onofrio's first role in a feature film.
Leonard's murder-suicide brings Full Metal Jacket to such a sickening climax that it's hard to imagine how the next 50 minutes or so could top it. Spoiler alert: they don't. The rest of the movie takes place in Vietnam, and despite Kubrick's typically otherworldly, something's-wrong-with-this-picture narrative quality, his war zone, with its carefully-lit fires and immaculately-timed pyrotechnic displays, is a shadow of more vivid hellscapes previously conjured, for better or worse, by Apocalypse Now, The Deer Hunter, and Platoon. Our guide to the territory is Private Joker, now a combat correspondent who asserts his self-awareness by scrawling "Born to Kill" on his helmet and pinning a peace sign to his uniform. The former gesture is a bit on the nose, given that the first section of Full Metal Jacket is all about what it takes to turn draftees into soldiers; the latter is arguably juvenile, or at least naive about what it means to be a soldier on active duty in hostile territory. Joker is still essentially a kid and has a kid's philosophy, leveraging his status as a journalist to remain aloof from the messier matters of living and dying.
There is a great scene where Joker, on hand to cover a mass killing by the Northern Vietnamese Army, is confronted by a superior officer who seems angered and disgusted by the display. Joker explains that he's trying to express the duality of man: "The Jungian thing, sir." The colonel remains unimpressed. Although his ensuing lecture is delivered from the specifically racist point-of-view of a self-presumed white saviour ("Inside every gook there is an American trying to get out"), it's equally clear that Joker's posture is untenable. You can't sit on the fence if you're being shot at. Joker is clearly a surrogate for the audience as well as for Kubrick and Hasford--all of us sophisticated enough to understand the capacity for violence and tenderness to coexist in the human soul, etc. etc. etc.--but this scene pegs him as a bit of a self-regarding asshole. Then again, the colonel reveals his own narrow, jingoistic agenda when he insists, "We've got to try to keep our heads until this peace craze blows over." Nobody wins the argument. It's a conversation between the generations--between naivete and cynicism, youthful idealism and career-minded practicality--that illustrates the absence of moral high ground on the battlefield. War is not kind, it is brutish--and the road out of war is paved with the bones of good men.
Again: these soldiers are little more than children. It's hard to blame Private Joker for asserting his humanity, no matter how pointlessly. Contrast Joker's attempted resistance with Animal Mother's full-throated embrace of combat. Where Joker is still living in part inside his philosophy books, the burly Animal Mother (Adam Baldwin) understands that the Americans and the Vietnamese soldiers are all cannon fodder. He feels dangerous to us partly because he appears to have no scruples and partly because he's a tough guy whose respect for authority feels conditional. You get the sense that boot camp amplified his personality rather than normalizing it, and while he's not much for abstract concepts, his political commentary is considerably sharper than Joker's. When the squad is interviewed for the evening news, Joker expresses his feelings about his mission in Vietnam through gallows irony: "I wanted to meet interesting and stimulating people of an ancient culture and kill them." He's still wrapped up in himself. Animal Mother's skepticism is more worldly. "If you ask me," he tells reporters, "we're shooting the wrong gooks." (Though his language is racist, he's not wrong. The U.S. opted to fight a ground war against insurgents in South Vietnam instead of directly attacking the communist leadership in the North because it feared a U.S. invasion of North Vietnam would trigger a war with China, which was protecting its own interests in the region. But the fighting in the South devastated the lives of the people it purported to liberate. In 1975, a U.S. Senate subcommittee estimated 415,000 South Vietnamese civilians were killed during the war, a degree of suffering that must have been apparent to marines on the ground.)
Speaking of racism, Kubrick introduces us to Vietnam by tracking the camera up close behind a local prostitute (Papillon Soo Soo) who's coming on to Joker and his photographer buddy, Rafterman (Kevyn Major Howard), by insisting, notoriously, "Me so horny. Me love you long time." On the heels of Pyle's washroom suicide, we're suddenly confronted with this streetwalker who yanks us through the portal from Parris Island to Da Nang. You're not in Kansas anymore, she says. "You got girlfriend Vietnam? You party?" The scene is uncomfortable for sure; even as a teenager, I squirmed through it, regardless of never having shared the widely-held view that Full Metal Jacket belittles sex workers or suggests that Vietnamese women are hyper-sexual creatures. (In reality, there were as many as a half a million prostitutes in South Vietnam by 1973, according to the leftist historian Gabriel Kolko's Vietnam: Anatomy of a Peace, making the scene at least historically defensible.) Rather, Kubrick presents her as a capitalist in an occupied country with a sales pitch that takes advantage of conditions on the ground. "Me so horny." Well, she's not. Her spiel is funny because it's mechanical and cynical and also because the image of the sexed-up Asian woman is just enticing enough to seduce young American knuckleheads who fixate on their dicks when they're not fixing their guns. Kubrick's use of pidgin-English to code her as stereotypically "Other," combined with Soo's cartoonish performance, may be problematic, though I read it as indicative of her low level of engagement with her marks. It is a crude come-on; she hasn't bothered to learn the correct syntax because she knows her marks don't give a shit. They probably like it better if they get to pretend she's dumb. Further, the choice of "These Boots Are Made for Walkin'" as underscore is a brilliant stroke: The song's lyrics may seem to reference the woman's high-heeled hooker garb, but in context they also promise a disastrous outcome for the Americans: "You've been messin' where you shouldn't have been messin'."
On the other hand, it's not like Kubrick has taken pains elsewhere to illustrate the humanity of the South Vietnamese. The locals the marines interact with are exclusively prostitutes, pimps, killers, and thieves, which may or may not be an accurate reflection of the U.S. experience in Vietnam but is a clear directorial choice by Kubrick. "Me so horny" was turned into a punchline when 2 Live Crew repurposed it, free of any mitigating context, as the hook for a smash-hit single by the same name. That song, and the accompanying moral crusade against it, made Luke Campbell a millionaire; perhaps inadvertently, it was the tipping point that made "me so horny" an especially ugly pop culture mainstay, condemning generations of Asian-American women to insipid schoolyard taunts, racial harassment, and sexual bullying by the type of people who are mean enough to get off on crass racist stereotypes or stupid enough to believe in them--in other words, a lot of us. I don't think this is entirely 2 Live Crew's fault, but they're certainly not blameless in the matter, and neither is Kubrick. I've never quite shaken the feeling that this scene was conceived to act as a kind of palate cleanser after the Parris Island sequence: bring on the hooker with a funny accent and an exaggerated, sex-cartoonish performance for comic relief! At the very least, it seems like a miscalculation, and I can't imagine Kubrick would have conceived it this way had he fully understood how racists would appropriate it; remember that Kubrick was so disturbed by the idea that A Clockwork Orange might inspire copycat violence that he pulled it from distribution in the UK. At any rate, the scene's enduring status as a touchstone for ignorant, garden-variety bigotry leaves an ugly stain on the film's reputation.
Like everything else in Full Metal Jacket, the hooker is presented to us as she's seen by the soldiers she propositions. There is no omniscient third-party POV on the action, only the subjective perspective of Joker himself. The film's final section introduces Private Joker to combat, as he's embedded with a squad trying to traverse a bombed-out town centre watched over by a hidden sniper who starts picking off our boys one at a time. (Kubrick can't resist an ominous flourish here; unless I'm forgetting something, brief first-person shots from the sniper's POV are the only moments in the film not leashed to the perspective of an American soldier.) It takes a while for the marines to circle around on the shooter, who turns out to be a young woman (Ngoc Lee) with delicate features and righteous fire in her eyes. Mortally wounded, she falls to the ground and lies on her back, writhing and speaking in Vietnamese. The soldiers assume she's praying; I always figured she was cursing them or, maybe, promising that the Viet Cong would remain after they were long gone. (Multilingual Redditor llgrrl and blogger Minh both report only that she says đau quá: "It hurts so bad.")
In terms of technique, Full Metal Jacket is Kubrick-chilly throughout its running time, with the director's trademark gliding camera (credit Steadicam operators John Ward and Jean-Marc Bringuier) tracking coolly alongside Sergeant Hartman as he inspects his men, following the Da Nang prostitute at ass-level before she gives Joker and his photographer buddy Rafterman a different kind of inspection, and eventually racing alongside and among soldiers under fire. It's all very crisp and utterly impressive, though the mayhem feels carefully controlled rather than truly chaotic. One could argue that this is the point: Just as the tantalizing near-realism of Kubrick's ersatz New York City in Eyes Wide Shut hints at a dream of erotic frustration, the eerily unlived-in ruins of Full Metal Jacket--in actuality an abandoned industrial gasworks outside London that had previously appeared in For Your Eyes Only and Michael Radford's Orwell adaptation Nineteen Eighty-Four--suggest a different kind of turgid fantasy. The blasted-out environs are mildly suggestive of Huế but largely anonymous; they could as easily be in Iraq or Afghanistan, representing any ruined city ravaged by any of America's endless wars abroad. While Kubrick's shooting style is mostly naturalistic, the slow-motion shot revealing that the sniper is a woman is accented by an unconventional technique: Kubrick's lighting cameraman, Douglas Milsome, put the camera's shutter slightly out of sync with the stutter-stop motion of the film sprockets, meaning frames were partly exposed as the film moved through the gate, rather than while it was held motionless behind the shutter. The combination of slightly smeared vertical light and flames flickering in slow-motion is a vivid expression of the men's surprise at the presence of an angry woman in a combat zone.
Here, finally, is the logical endpoint of the guns-and-gonads fixation Full Metal Jacket hangs on the American soldier, the culmination of the endless sex jokes, chauvinism, and casual misogyny that marched in lockstep with them during their training. The sniper spitting bullets from her perch overhead, a maybe-virgin hot with rage over the invasion of her country, is an inverted reflection of the streetwalker exploiting an occupying army full of men who've just moved out of Mom's house. Confronted by a woman who's not offering a transaction, who wants nothing whatsofuckingever from them except perhaps their suffering, the marines have no idea what to do with her. There's a long moment--it's not that long on screen, but in my memory it fills a terrifying near-eternity--where the ring of men stands dumbly over the dying woman like the last dregs of a frat party, seemingly unsure whether they should kill her, rape her, or administer first aid. After advocating for a mercy killing, Joker shoots the woman, ending her life and his passive resistance in the same gesture. The others congratulate him on his first kill in the most basic terms possible: "Hardcore, man. Fucking hardcore." From there, the squad wanders off into the sunset, Joker's Jungian dilemma unresolved but his fighting spirit somehow renewed: "I am in a world of shit, but I am alive and I am not afraid." The soldiers sing "The Mickey Mouse Club"'s theme song as the film fades to black, but as Kubrick's director credit appears on screen, "Paint It Black" erupts on the soundtrack and Mick Jagger sings the words Joker is afraid to speak aloud: I look inside myself / and see my heart is black.
THE 4K UHD DISC
Warner Home Video reloads Full Metal Jacket for one more home-video go-round in a crisp and mostly definitive UHD BD edition (it comes packed with a bonus Blu-ray Disc and a code for a digital download) that renders the movie more pristinely than any release print from 1987. Like previous BD transfers, the picture here is framed at the 1.76:1 aspect ratio that takes up the entirety of an HDTV screen. (The film was exhibited theatrically at 1.85:1 or 1.66:1, depending on the territory, and 1.76:1 is a completely reasonable compromise as Kubrick was known to have disliked letterbox bars back in the early days of home video.) Colours seem accurate enough, though they've clearly been fussed over this time around--the green cast that had crept into HD transfers of the film is mostly gone, returning the intense Kubrick-blue moonlight to two key scenes in the barracks that signal points of no return for poor Private Pyle. In HDR and Dolby Vision, the light blasting into the barracks through the large windows is so bright as to leave an after-image on your retina, while exteriors gain so much texture and detail they sometimes feel three-dimensional. The various fires raging in the film's final scenes of urban warfare are rendered in crisp shades of red-hot that lend an especially hellish, almost hallucinatory feeling unique to this version. Given some of Kubrick's decidedly old-school directorial preferences, I wonder what he would have made of 4K HDR's awesome clarity. I assume he'd either embrace the format for its ability to see further into a film negative than ever before or reject it utterly for imposing on his visuals a level of intensity he couldn't have anticipated.
I detected no evidence of edge-sharpening (none of those nasty halos around high-contrast picture elements), thankfully, but there are glitches. In the tracking shot introducing R. Lee Ermey's character as he gets shouty with his recruits, the top of the screen crawls with what I can only describe as a mushy-looking pseudo-grain, complete with splotches of orange-ish colour that must be either chroma noise or analog print damage. I assume this is partly due to how the extended dynamics of HDR render heavy film grain; in the much softer Blu-ray transfer, grain is all but invisible. Some blocky artifacting is visible in the background of shots, chiefly in the sky, a flaw I've gotten used to on DVD and BD, although the higher bandwidth of UHD transfers can sometimes mitigate it. Most nettlesome is a moment around 70 minutes in when one of the marines is seated on the ground next to a dead Vietnamese soldier. In original theatrical prints, the actor playing the soldier was obviously breathing. That was genuinely distracting, so at some point in the film's home-video lifespan, Warner attempted a fix, making a splitscreen of two shots in order to still the soldier's movement. This solution worked pretty well in the largely textureless Blu-ray version, but it's just plain ugly in UHD, where the highly unnatural grain patterns draw attention to the supposed fix. (For the record, the video bitrate on this disc averages 62.6 Mbps and tops out during this sequence at an impressive 118 Mbps.) It's not surprising that Warner Bros. would be unafraid to digitally alter Kubrick's work--look at the disaster the studio's digital Sharpies made of Eyes Wide Shut's orgy scene after the MPAA returned an NC-17 rating--but this new 4K transfer would have been better off had the studio reverted this particular decision. Despite my not-insignificant cavils, this transfer is mostly glorious--an almost picture-perfect reflection of the film Kubrick made.
I wish I could say as much about the audio. Unfortunately, the hero track here is a 5.1 DTS-HD MA surround mix, with Kubrick's original monaural relegated to lossy Dolby Digital. I gave the surround sound the benefit of the doubt and took no pleasure in finding it inappropriate on both technical and aesthetic grounds. Most importantly, the conventionally immersive war-movie surround effects dilute the film's unnerving, sometimes uncanny visual qualities. The use of surrounds to add whiz-bang impact to the sound effects and music in the battle scenes is additionally valorizing in a way Kubrick surely didn't intend. Further, the 5.1 sounds thinner and brighter than the mono, which has the effect of amplifying the occasional distortion endemic to the dialogue recordings, making them especially hot in the surround mix. Despite being limited to just 192 kbps, the alternative mono mix is tighter and more effective; in strictly technical terms, it has more "oomph." (To give some credit to Warner Home Video, this disc really does tip the scales for a BD-66, with audio and video consuming 64.6 GB, so the uncompressed mono wouldn't fit on this disc alongside the many other language tracks.)
Extras date back to the 2007 Blu-ray release, which sported the included audio commentary and 30-minute featurette, "Full Metal Jacket: Between Good and Evil". Only the commentary track has been ported to the UHD disc. It features behind-the-scenes anecdotes from actors Adam Baldwin, Vincent D'Onofrio, and Lee Ermey plus Kubrickian analysis by critic and screenwriter Jay Cocks. The endlessly engaging, humble, and well-spoken D'Onofrio dominates the discussion, discussing the weight he gained for the role and recalls blowing out his knee shooting one of the boot-camp scenes. He remembers Kubrick helping him figure out his approach to the role by instructing, "Make sure it's big--Lon Chaney big." Cocks, meanwhile, does his best to keep alive Kubrick's reputation as one of the GOATs, marvelling at the great man's "wonderful artistic isolation" and touting his ability to display "the perpetual moral uncertainty of the world as seen through war." At one point, he declares, "Stanley makes no judgments," an observation that seems tailored to present Kubrick as some great unbiased truth-teller but also badly misrepresents a film that's nearly as full of judgment as the Old Testament.
The standard definition mini-documentary, running 31 minutes, can be found on the bundled BD. It features somewhat more candid recollections from an assembled commentariat that includes several actors from the film along with WB executive John Calley, Kubrick's EP--and brother-in-law--Jan Harlan, and directors Ernest Dickerson and Peter Hyams, among others. (Star Matthew Modine is conspicuously absent from both the commentary and featurette.) Actor Dorian Hartwood, who spent a long, miserable chunk of the film's production writhing around in the East London mud, remembers Kubrick saying Full Metal Jacket was "his answer to Rambo," estimates that he turned in an average of 30 takes for every shot he performed in, and tells the story about the time when he told an interviewer that Kubrick was a "perfectionist" and immediately got a phone call from the man himself, protesting the characterization. It's not revelatory or anything--Vivian Kubrick's hours of behind-the-scenes footage remain mostly unseen after all these years--but it's a notch or two above the typical studio-sponsored mini-doc. Likewise appearing only on the BD is the low-key theatrical trailer (1:28), so out-of-step with typical studio marketing materials that I'm guessing Kubrick cut it himself.
117 minutes; R; UHD: 1.76:1 (2160p/MPEG-H), Dolby Vision/HDR10; BD: 1.76:1 (1080p/MPEG-4); UHD: English 5.1 DTS-HD MA, English DD 1.0, Castellano DD 5.1, French DD 5.1, German DD 5.1, Italian DD 5.1, Japanese DD 2.0, Polish DD 2.0, Spanish DD 5.1; BD: English 5.1 LPCM, English DD 5.1, French DD 5.1, German DD 5.1, Italian DD 5.1, Spanish DD 5.1; UHD: English SDH, French, German SDH, Italian SDH, Spanish, Castellano, Dutch, Mandarin, Cantonese, Korean, Spanish, Latino, Arabic, Czech, Danish, Norwegian, Polish, Romanian, Swedish, Thai subtitles, BD: English, English SDH, French, German, German SDH, Italian, Italian SDH, Portuguese, Spanish, Cantonese, Danish, Dutch, Finnish, Korean, Norwegian, Swedish subtitles; BD-66 + BD-25; Region-free; Warner