Rules of Engagement

I’m not the first to say this, but Rules of Engagement is a real testament to the skills of three great actors. The movie itself is utterly hollow, a confused diatribe unable or unwilling to determine what exactly its convictions are. I’ve heard that the reason for this is the film’s commercialization for easy access by a wide audience and for once, it may have been for the best. As it stands, I would have probably enjoyed the film far less had it been a moral lesson rather than just an entertaining popcorn flick.

The movie begins in the jungles of Vietnam, where Colonels Terry Childers (Samuel L. Jackson) and Hayes Hodges (Tommy Lee Jones) are under a surprise guerrilla attack by North Vietnamese soldiers. Hodges is shot. A desperate Childers executes a Vietnamese soldier in an effort to make the general tell his troops to back off. He then drages Hodges to safety. This scene is there to set up the fact that Hodges is indebted to Childers — something that will become important later on.

Years pass. Hayes Hodges is now a small-time military lawyer about to retire; Childers is still an active Colonel. One day, he is sent to the American embassy in Yemen, where native protesters have surrounded the building with the ambassador (Ben Kingsley) inside and are getting rowdy. In essense, this is a babysitting mission: go in, get the ambassador out, leave. But things get more complicated than that. It seems there are snipers set up in strategic locations around the building and the crowd also seems to have weapons. Childers’ marines start to get shot. Panicking, Childers orders his men to fire into the crowd, yelling “Waste the motherfuckers.” 73 Yemenese civilians die; over a hundred are injured.

Back at home, the head honchos of the military are scared to death of a scandal. The National Security Adviser (Bruce Greenwood) decides to avoid fingers pointed at the American military by blaming the whole thing on Col. Childers. He destroys the tape that proves that the crowd in front of the embassy did indeed have weapons. Childers is court marshaled and charged with murder. He asks his old friend Hayes to defend him. At first, Hayes is reluctant (“I’m a good enough lawyer to know that you need a better lawyer than me.”) but finally gives in because of his debt to his friend. Meanwhile, Major Mark Biggs (Guy Pearce), a big-shot, Stanford-educated lawyer, volunteers to prosecute.

Rules of Engagement is one of the more engrossing military dramas that I’ve seen. It was directed by William Friedkin (The Exorcist), who has a flair for undistinctive, unpretentious but always effective camerawork. He uses camera tricks but he doesn’t over use them (ahem, Oliver Stone) and the result is a movie that flows smoothly, grabbing your attention from point one and never letting go.

Friedkin really has his stars to thank for that. Jackson is excellent, despite having the most bombastic and least versatile of the roles in the movie. Even in his character’s most defeated state, he still exudes authority. Jones has opportunities for poignancy, action and even laughs. Despite being typecast nowadays, he’s still a consistently entertaining actor — and as a lawyer, he’s unbeatable. I also liked what Guy Pearce did with the thankless role of the prosecuting attorney. He’s a villain in the story, yes, but Pearce makes him a little more than that: a ruthless man with a little sympathy running underneath.

It should be said that Rules of Engagement has absolutely no message. It doesn’t know what it wants to say, or even if it wants to say anything. It takes a point of view: Col. Childers should not be punished because the crowd had weapons and he was defending his men. And then it begins to thematically eat itself by starting to make arguments for the other side. It goes back and forth that way until we abandon all hope of the film actually being significant and focus on the glorious performances and the smart, concise, enjoyable dialogue. The courtroom scenes, at least, have the force of conviction.

When push comes to shove, Rules of Engagement comes through as a mindless courtroom melodrama and inevitably fails on the rare occasions when it tries to pass itself off as something more than that. It’s not brain food, but no one will be bored.

-- Eugene Novikov

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