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JARHEAD   Print  E-mail 
Written by Graham Reed  
Wednesday, 15 February 2006
Gulf Metal Jacket!

War Films.  You can’t escape 'em, even if you had a squadron of helicopters flying out of the sun blasting Ride Of the Valkryies at insane volume. From Apocalypse Now to Platoon to Saving Private Ryan, from Three Kings to Full Metal Jacket to Tigerland,  It seems like everything has been done before. As such, its difficult to reinvent the genre of tough n' gritty war film.

Most preach war is bad, but they sure do so in a variety of pyrotechnical ways that almost makes you want to shout 'Yeee-haw!' whilst fragging some gooks , preferably in the tie-in PS2 game. Even so,  It seems odd to have to state even now that killing people and war is a bad thing, because you'd think its an obvious thing. Fortunately its' a route that Jarhead doesn’t follow; rather than concentrating on the simplistic 'war is bad, mmmkay?' message, it tries not to take sides, which leads to an often uneven, occasionally jarring viewing experience.

Based on the real-life experiences of  Antony Swofford (played by Jake Glyenhall), and from his  on the book of the same name, Jarhead certainly feels less like a fictional story as much as a retelling of real events,but surely tries to bite off a little more than it can chew. Starting in 1990, Swofford has chosen life as one of the  'jarheads' of the title ; a US Army Marine, so called on the basis of their square heads and short haircuts. From following his induction in training camps to being posted in the gulf, from the brutality and the cruelty of drill sergeants and instructors to the endless tedium of waiting for war, from lightning intense combat to  yet more tedium again.

Jarhead follows the character arc of pretty much every war film before it; with such familiarity it sometimes feels like a remake of a long lost war film you've just never got round to seeing.  With such a familiar story arc it all feels very familiar, not so much Full Metal Jacket as Gulf Metal Jacket as taking this approach seems formulaic no matter how true to the reality of the situation is. Just don’t bother applying the usual movie logic and play who gets killed first, especially when they start showing off pictures of their girlfriends - real life rarely if ever conforms to movie clichés.

Hampered by these limitations, Jarhead feels like it could be so much more than it actually is. In a bizarre twist of events, it feels hampered by being based on real life; because the first Gulf war was mainly fought in the air with carpet bombing and laser guided missiles, not on the ground by marines. Hence the hours of tedium ; to parahrase another film, if 'peace is f**king boring', then according to Jarhead, so is war. But that doesn't  mean the film is boring, not at all - because if this film shows one thing, its that groups of men trained to be constantly on the edge with an excess of testosterone often counter tedium by making life eventful; be it blowing things up, displays of public nudity, or watching Apocalypse Now endlessly and singing along to the Ride of the Valkyries as the helicopters come heroically out of the sun. And how does this compare with the intellectual Swofford, reading philosophers such as Camus? How does a man deal with the beast inside himself he is called upon to  unleash, only then to put that genie back in a box forever? How can someone go from being a trained killer to stacking shelves?

Beautifully and brilliantly shot through with striking images, a complex moral position which presents both sides of pro-war and anti-war but takes neither, an excellent performance from Oscar winner Jamie Foxx (who seems to have been taken over by the very spirit of R.Lee Emery himself) as Swofford's Drill Sergeant and Peter Skaasrsgard who is an absolute standout as Troy, the recruit with thwarted ambition and a sense of fatality. As Sam Mendes (the oscar winning director of American Beauty and the much superior Road To Perdition) continues to go from strength to strength, one has to wonder just what other drama genre  he can turn his hand to next, because at the moment he's in danger of boxing himself into a corner of making the same film (just with different characters and settings) over and over agaian. With fringes of occasional greatness, Jarhead may well be remembered as nothing more than the first (and hopefully last) misfire of Mendes career.

Jarhead ultimately asks more questions than it can possibly answer, and in the end doesn’t even try to answer them - it leaves them open to interpretation. In an America somewhere between gung-ho for war and rife with cynicism, this fence sitting leaves an uneven and unpleasant aftertaste. No matter how well crafted - and Jarhead is excellently made - its ambigious tone is what means that Jarhead is ultimately a war film that won’t be remembered as one of the greats of the genre, and this ambigiousity is a major problem; at the end is just fizzles out and you're left asking yourself, 'is that it?' 

Well, sadly it is. If there's any major problem here, it just that you wish it could be as daring as 'Three Kings', but in the middle of the second Iraqi war, maybe its difficult to take the stand on the issue the material really needs. But Where Jarhead needs to be bold it plays it safe, and that’s the death knell of many a great film maker. After all, people remember Apocalypse Now, not crud like Jack….  But ultimately, jarhead lives in the shadow of many a greater war movie to whom it owes considerable debts, and only pales by comparison.

Gulf Metal jacket, indeed.

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