Today I watched William Friedkin’s Rules of Engagement (2000)
In the jungles of Vietnam 1968, two 2nd Leutenants, Terry Childers played by Samuel L. Jackson and Tommy Lee Jones as Hays Hodges, are caught up in a disastrous operation. Hodges’ squad are cut down but Childers’ men manage to capture an enemy radio operator and an officer. Childers sees the situation has gone totally FUBAR and demands the captured officer to order a withdrawal, when he does not, Childers executes the radio officer and threatens that the officer will be next and he capitulates. Skip ahead to the Nineties and Hodges’ injuries from Vietnam have forced him from field duty, he went on to be an admittedly bad military lawyer. Meanwhile Childers is still operating in the field and has been sent to Yemen where terrorist elements have attacked the American embassy. During this operation things go south and Childers orders his men to open fire on a crowd that includes civilians along with armed combatants. The after action of this event leads to Childers being court marshaled for purposely firing on unarmed civilians and he calls on his old war buddy to defend him in court.
This movie is an actor movie, almost everything in it, the themes, pacing, and suspense, are all wholly reliant on the performances of the principle cast. Thankfully with the pair of Jackson and Jones heading this film, the cast is largely dynamite. Samuel L. Jackson has something of a reputation as a bit of a catchphrase actor who plays every character very similarly, which is true, but it he is really good at doing that one thing. And really this film sees him stretch further than most other projects he has done and he really lives up to the challenge, he may be known for playing tough guys but he delivers a very vulnerable performance in this film. Guy Pierce plays the prosecutor and does a great job at being the understandable and respectable antagonist, fitting into the film’s moral ambiguity.
Unfortunately the delivery of these themes gets rather spotty during the film. Bruce Greenwood plays a U.S. national security advisor who is an out and out villain, something that this film did not need and has a frustratingly detrimental effect on the ideas presented. The film is a rather interesting exploration of the complete ambiguity of the modern warzone, especially when terrorism and foreign unrest are involved. Despite Childers being a protagonist, the brutal outcome of his actions is focused on far more than the damage inflicted upon his men, because, really, he still opened fire on a crowd that was not all enemy combatants. But then in comes this antagonist to destroy evidence and bully witnesses into false testimony and the film didn’t need this at all. It makes the film turn from a very morally complex and interesting tale that shows that all sides are motivated by their own humanity into something much more plain simplistic and unintentionally jingoistic.
I still think this film has a lot to offer, if you just forget Greenwood’s character. The scenes between Jackson and Jones, and Jones and Pierce are incredibly fascinating and are great showcases of the performing talent of all involved. If the film was more objective it would be a truly great film and I would certainly recommend it for the performances alone, but it stands as just alright because of the contrived villainy. 3/5