If there was ever one person who could just set the camera in motion and completely get away with making a movie without employing that technique others might refer to as a genuine, bona fide "story," it was Stanley Kubrick. While the late director has never been a true favorite of mine — I utterly love some of his work, while I completely loathe others — I have to admit he had quite a way with painting a picture composed of only actors and scenery. In the case of his second-to-last film, 1987's Full Metal Jacket, he paints an unsettlingly beautiful image of a timelessly ugly subject: war.
Like many of his other works, Full Metal Jacket is presented in a basic three-chapter format. All three are connected, though could easily stand on their own as mini-movies any day. The first segment introduces us to what we might as well call the film's "main" character, a Marine Corps recruit who will come to be known as "Joker" as played by Matthew Modine. It also introduces us to what is quite possibly the one reason the film has become so popular: a disgustingly tough drill sergeant (a more-realistic-to-life-than-you-might-realize performance by R. Lee Ermey) and a disturbingly plausible newcomer to the Corps (Vincent D'Onofrio) who is doomed to failure.
Following the strenuous mental and physical ordeals only basic training can provide, Joker ends up working for Basic Military Journalism, where his commander/editor looks suspiciously like the guy who wound up being the least-memorable Felix Leiter in James Bond history the same year (John Terry). Assigned to tag along with and cover a platoon, Joker meets up with an old boot camp buddy, "Cowboy" (Arliss Howard), and winds up right in the thick of things during the Battle of Hu? — where blood, sweat, and tears are an all-too common sight; displays of both humanity and heartlessness, which ultimately cultivate the whole premise of Kubrick's film.
And then, just like that, it's over. The credits role, the last of many rockin' '60s track accompanies the film, and the audience has is left pondering the sights and sounds they have just seen. While it almost seems like a paint-by-numbers affair to Kubrick's modus operandi, Full Metal Jacket still manages to reel its viewers in, and keeps 'em hooked until fisherman Stanley finally throws 'em back into the sea of cinema.