Kubrick’s take on the Vietnam war isn’t so much about that war, but about war in general. His distinctly non-Hollywood approach to the action is unique, as is the shifting tone. Full Metal Jacket is tough for first-time viewers who don’t know what to expect, and the drastic shifts in storytelling are the problem.
It’s not as if changing the film from a comedy that’s character-focused to a movie about what war can do to people is awkward. In fact, even with the jarring shifts, the film still manages to flow. Characters you may have connected with in the first act, particularly R. Lee Ermey in what is undoubtedly his career-defining role, disappear.
Full Metal Jacket doesn’t simply focus on one particular battle either. It follows Matthew Modine as he tours the landscape of the war, meeting new characters in various mental states. Nearly every line has something to say about the effects of war on the human psyche, and it’s a powerful statement. Tim Colceri has a small role as a helicopter gunner, and his statements are the most provocative of the entire film.
Those expecting the usual array of battle scenes are bound to be disappointed. Kubrick instead offers only two scenes of action, one of which only has one enemy. However, these scenes are bleak, tense, and the static direction works for them rather than against. The strong development of its main characters strengthens the impact of these scenes as well, while the build-up helps even more.
There’s a lot to dissect and discuss about the message and meaning of Full Metal Jacket. That’s worth discussing in something far more complex than a simple review. Regardless of how you view its purpose, this is still a solid piece of dramatic and comedic filmmaking despite the wildly varying tone shifts.
Full Metal Jacket carries a rather dishonorable distinction of being one of the fastest double dips in the short history of hi-def discs. Part of the problem was the original transfer, which was mastered at 1080i instead of 1080p. What that led to was a flat, uninspired, and lifeless video transfer.