Full Metal Jacket is a surprisingly unfocused war effort from director Stanley Kubrick that virtually falls off the map after its brilliant opening act. The story is basically divided into two halves; if you can even call the second half a story. It’s a shame that Kubrick didn’t try to drag out the first half longer because that is truly filmmaking at its finest. To see the director in such an undisciplined light is very surprising.
The movie opens with several promising recruits getting their heads shaved before they are shipped off to Parris Island to become Marines. R. Lee Ermey steals this movie with an unforgettable performance as the recruits’ drill instructor Gunnery Sergeant Hartman. The two main recruits of this film are the unsocial, overweight Pvt. Pyle (Vincent D’Onofrio) and his appointed mentor Joker (Matthew Modine).
Pyle has an incredibly rough time in boot camp as Hartman continuously hammers him for his obesity and inability to socialize. However, as time goes on, Pyle’s sessions with Joker begin to pay off and he starts to gain respect from his heartless commander. The performances of Ermey and D’Onofrio are easily the two most compelling in the film. Even though Hartman shows no character arc throughout his time in the film, Ermey brings him to life with a charismatic turn that could even be considered one of the best performances from a Kubrick film. D’Onofrio is also very good, but it is his character that makes his performance so interesting. Pyle shows a great amount of change throughout his time on screen and his transformation is what makes this first half so good.
When the film delves into its latter portion, it loses an incredible amount of steam. We basically start to follow Joker in his new squad, but there is really nothing interesting that happens. While Kubrick does shoot these second half war sequences with remarkable skill, they are dragged out and repeated for so long that it is only a matter of time before this film becomes tedious and boring.
Sometimes a director can be too in love with his style and his direction, and that is exactly what happens in this film. I felt like Kubrick completely abandoned his story in the second half just so he could put his name on a couple of war sequences. These scenes have absolutely no significance or power because we know squat about these characters. It brings in mind comparison to 2009’s The Hurt Locker because although that is primarily an action film, it contains three characters that are able to access our emotions so that we actually care what happens to them on the battlefield. Kubrick doesn’t go for any character development at all in his second half, and by the time the climax rolls around at the end, it feels like a theme that has been seen dozens of times before.
It’s tough for me to say whether I can recommend this film or not. I wish Kubrick would’ve shot the boot camp portion of the film and then just called it quits. The first hour is truly a masterpiece with a memorable performance from R. Lee Ermey, but the second half is so monotonous and drawn out that it’s tough to even sit through. I have a tough time believing that this was one of the last films that Kubrick made because although his unique style is pervasive, the story is so unfocused and the second-half characters so uninteresting that it doesn’t feel like a film that was made by a veteran director.