For those of you who hold a special place in your heart for Full Metal Jacket, Sam Mendes’ Gulf War opus Jarhead will not disappoint you. Jarhead shares an in-your-face gritty reality and a dark, twisted sense of humor with Stanley Kubrick’s 1987 Vietnam flick. It also shares its drawbacks and limitations. Like Jacket, Jarhead grabs you immediately with its scary/funny, no-holds-barred depiction of basic training as a bleak comic hellhole. Also following Jacket’s template, Jarhead loses its way once it leaves boot camp behind and heads into the thick of the war itself; right when the story should sharpen its already biting perspective, it becomes fuzzy and unfocused.
The fact that the film is still entertaining and compelling is a credit to the caliber of talent in front of the camera and behind it. Mendes has a flair for dark comedy (he got an Oscar for mastering it in American Beauty) and he’s in better form here than in his last outing, the good-but-not-great Road to Perdition. The intensity of the film is a direct result of Mendes placing us in the middle of the action. Mendes nails the macho ridiculousness that characterizes all of the different men’s relationships and he pulls strong performances out of his cast.
Jamie Foxx is well-suited to his hoo-wah role as a Sgt. Siek, who leads the battalion in the Middle East. Foxx‘s easy charisma and comic chops get equal workout (though if he does one more role like this, it?s going to start feeling like shtick). Peter Sarsgaard is typically off-center and intriguing as the troubled moral center of his unit. He?s good enough that it?s a shame he doesn’t have more to do in the story. Ditto for Chris Cooper‘s semi-cameo as a military bigwig. Cooper was born to play military, but his part is just small enough and just big enough to make you wonder exactly what the hell he?s doing in the movie at all. Lucas Black (best known as the boy in Sling Blade) lends terrific support and manages to flesh out a small part with lots of comic and dramatic nuances. Dennis Haysbert effects a nice change of pace from his usual stoic good-guy persona as a hard-ass sergeant. Finally, we come to Jake Gyllenhaal, who carries the weight of the film as the central character, Swofford, the author of the book upon which the film is based. Gyllenhaal is a very capable actor and a commanding presence. In sharply scripted films, Gyllenhaal is soulful and thoughtful (see Donnie Darko); in less surely structured material, his performances can go astray (see his disastrous turn in the otherwise-solid The Good Girl). Jarhead puts him somewhere in the middle. In the script?s sharpest moments, Gyllenhaal is galvanizing as the conflicted, disillusioned Everyman. The problem here, as with so many first person accounts, is that the central character is the least defined. The script never really tells us who Swofford is and Gyllenhaal does not always fill in the gaps (a fate that also befalls Gyllenhaal‘s Full Metal Jacket counterpart, the ridiculously blank Matthew Modine).
Once the film arrives in the Iraqi desert, it becomes increasingly apparent that there is no strong story to tell. William Broyles, Jr.’s adaptation of Swofford’s book can’t seem to decide if it’s an antiwar satire or a character study. In the end, we’re left wondering the same questions as Swofford: what exactly was the point? Despite its shortcomings (including the fact that Kubrick already made this film 18 years ago), Jarhead is a film worth seeing. It is good enough to make you wish it were even better.
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