The whole film is told through the eyes of the Joker (Matthew Modine), both in the boot camp and then in Vietnam. As a war correspondent he is sent off to cover a story and ends up tagging along with a squad of marines which includes one of Joker’s friends from his days in boot camp. Of course as the film progresses the number of marines in this squad drops and drops, and it climaxes with a scene where Joker has to come to terms with killing face to face; he has to finally confront his demons as well as the mixed messages on his uniform.
There are quite a few tracking shots which gives the film a very fluid feel, which almost counteracts some of the confusing, disjointed battle sequences. The action is all superb and very well edited, though never over the top. One aspect I particularly liked was the tanks firing; usually filmed from behind we would see the tank fire, see the impact in the distance, and then hear the explosion. Exactly correct, I just thought that it was a nice subtle touch. Otherwise there were some beautifully framed shots as I have come to expect from Kubrick.
The main cast are all great, each with their little idiosyncrasies. Joker makes jokes to cope with the awful situation he finds himself in, Cowboy is a good soldier but lacks the conviction to lead when he is thrust into that situation. Lawrence (Vincent D'Onofrio) is really good as the persecuted and slightly unhinged private Pyle; but special mention must be made for Lee Ermey’s drill instructor. Gunnery Sergeant Hartman is an amazing character, he is just so brutal it is hard to imagine anyone being able to maintain that intensity for as long as he does. There is also an appearance of a very young looking Adam Baldwin as Animal Mother, a gung-ho marine who, as his name suggests, is fairly intense and likes nothing more than charging head on into battle.
At one moment in the film Joker explains that the conflicting messages on his uniform (Born to Kill and a peace symbol) are highlighting the duality of man; and the film itself has many examples of this. The marines are effectively brainwashed to become killing machines at boot camp, but the drill instructor explains that they are not robots, they need to remain men. It is implied that the Vietnam war is not a popular war with the American public back home, yet Joker is told to rewrite one of his stories with a confirmed kill at the end so that it appears that the marines are being successful. Of course finally, despite maintaining throughout the film that he is a killer, Joker finds it hard to look into the eyes of the enemy and actually pull the trigger.
Hard-hitting and brutal, Full Metal Jacket is another cynical look at an unpopular war, but is actually perhaps more subtle about it (boot camp excepted) than the other classic Vietnam movies. Great acting, completely absorbing, and with Kubrick’s ability to know exactly where to put the camera make Full Metal Jacket a truly memorable film.