Wednesday 25 July 2012

Movie Review: Rules Of Engagement (2000)

A military martial court drama, Rules Of Engagement assembles pieces from other, better movies and serves them at lukewarm temperature. The soldier on trial for doing what he thought was his duty. The underdog old lawyer with a past and a drinking problem. The smarmy politicians eager for a scapegoat. And the jingoistic celebration of misplaced American patriotism and bravery in the face of hordes of enemies.  Rules Of Engagement is almost embarrassingly oblivious to the countless movies that have been there, and done that.

Terry Childers (Samuel L. Jackson) and Lawrence Hodges (Tommy Lee Jones) fought together in Vietnam of 1968, Childers ultimately saving Hodges' life in a bloody encounter that psychologically damaged Hodges to the point that he abandoned combat service and became a military lawyer. Fast forward to 1996, and Childers is now a hardened Colonel, selected to lead a Marine airborne unit on a mission to evacuate the US ambassador in Yemen, besieged in his own embassy and surrounded by a demonstration turning hostile.

The Ambassador is evacuated, but the Marines come under fire. Eventually, Childers orders them to fire back, and at the end of the carnage, 83 Yemeni civilians are dead, and America's reputation in the region is taking a pounding. The politicians run for cover, Childers is charged with murder, and he requests that Hodges lead his defence, with the central question being whether there was hostile fire coming from the demonstrators, or did Childers order the killing of unarmed civilians.

A film that artificially hides its central fact is always in trouble, and Rules Of Engagement ridiculously conceals the basic information related to what Childers saw before he ordered his men to return fire. But the problems in the Stephan Gaghan screenplay run deeper, exemplified by a stupifying bare-knuckled punching fight between Childers and Hodges, Jackson and Jones appearing genuinely embarrassed by the scene. Some fundamental questions are barely asked and never answered, such as even if Childers believed the demonstrators to be armed and hostile, why did he not resort to tear gas, stun grenades, or even warning shots prior to unloading live ammunition into the heart of the dense crowd.

It is difficult to understand what director William Friedkin, Jackson and Jones are doing in this movie, but their combined efforts at least result in a basic level of competence. Friedkin is much more comfortable with the early action scenes, first in Vietnam and then Yemen, injecting the latter with good tension and capturing the chaos in the eye of a hostile situation. He is much less interested in the courtroom scenes, and once Rules Of Engagement settles down to a predictable courtroom drama, the sizzle seeps out.

Jones and Jackson are stuck with predictable military characters, Hodges the stereotypical bag of damaged goods and Childers the all-action soldier hero misunderstood by the world. Ben Kingsley has a brief role as the Ambassador, cowering under his desk and then participating in the political cover up to hang the mess on Childers. Anne Archer gets an even smaller role as the Ambassador's wife, and Philip Baker Hall is superfluous as Hodges' father.

Whether in the battlefields or the courtrooms, the rules here are bent and broken.

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