Another day, another grim Vietnam war film. Well, of course it is, because war is the worst. But this film really wants you to know that. Like, really really. This film may not leave you with the same thousand yard stare that some of the characters have, but it’ll certainly be quite a distance…
The story is split into two parts. The first half focuses on our main characters Joker (Matthew Modine), Cowboy (Arliss Howard) and Pyle (Vincent D’Onofrio) as they go through a tough and very unforgiving training camp. The latter half of the film follows Joker in Vietnam as a military journalist as he gets caught up in a battle with an enemy sniper out in the battlefield. The training camp half has some funny elements. Seeing the drill instructor constantly find new ways to insult them may be very mean, but damn if it isn’t pretty funny. Even then though, there’s some dark themes about whether people can handle the torture and horrors of war.
And those themes only ramp up in the second half. Joker, as you might imagine, doesn’t take anything too seriously. He’s a journalist. He doesn’t see any action. He wears a peace symbol badge and has ‘born to kill’ written on his helmet. But when he’s thrust into the action and death is all around him, he comes to learn about the real horrors of war, as do we, the audience. War is not pleasant. War is no joke. Death is very real. It’s all shot so realistically and down on the ground level with these soldiers. We too do not know where the sniper is. We don’t know who it is. We’re right there in the firing line with these soldiers and it’s not pretty.
The cast all do an amazing job. Matthew Modine as Joker is our main character and he goes through the most change. From cocky young trainee to hardened veteran, we journey through training and the war zone with him and see everything he sees. Vincent D’Onofrio plays private Pyle, the unfit member of the training camp who receives the most abuse from the drill instructor and his comrades. You feel sorry for him, but he doesn’t help himself. Seeing him slowly lose his mind to the training is very scary. It’s even scarier because the performance is so real and convincing! And the man that caused all this trouble? R. Lee Ermey as Gunnery Sergeant Hartman. He’s one scary guy, constantly shouting abuse and coming up with new insults every second. I don’t think he uses his indoor voice once at all during the film and manages to keep talking and insulting the soldiers for one really really long take as he walks through the bunks. He’s really great.
Stanley Kubrick is a master of filmmaking. There’s no doubt about that. All his trademarks are here. Characters slowly losing their minds, characters going through extreme emotional torture, long slow tracking shots and crazy practical effects. I wouldn’t say it was his best work, but it’s an amazing war film and a stellar exploration of a soldier’s psyche and the toll war has upon them.
This is up there with the great war films of all time. The performances, the story, the themes. It’s very dark yes, but then isn’t that what a war film should be? This is one of those that makes you stop and think and take a moment to remember just how terrible war can be. But also, in some weird way, it’s a very enjoyable film too!
JACK’S SCORE: 4/5