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Rules of Engagement

Review by KJ Doughton
Posted 7 April 2000

Directed by William Friedkin.

Starring Tommy Lee Jones, 
Samuel L. Jackson, Guy Pearce, 
Philip Baker Hall, and Ben Kingsley.

 Written by Stephen Gaghan.

A rain of criticism has fallen on William Friedkin’s new military thriller, Rules of Engagement.  Reading some of the reviews, a prospective viewer gets the notion that the courtroom saga is a redneck’s wet dream. It’s been attacked for coupling post-Private Ryan carnage (in “blow-‘em-up-real-good,” exploitative fashion and not as anti-war commentary) with a story that seems to advocate taking military law into one’s hands when the confusion of combat gets too heated.

What a relief, then, to find that Rules of Engagement ultimately presents its story on an even playing field while exploring a disturbing -- yet noteworthy -- topic.  Liberals will find fault with its right wing posturing, as it dares to sympathetically portray a soldier who is capable of awful things in the name of necessity. But the depiction is a welcome change: for too long, marines have been characterized as cauldrons of self-induced violence and intentional mayhem, from Taxi Driver’s urban psychopath Travis Bickle to American Beauty’s unhinged Colonel Frank Fitts.  Even Oliver Stone’s Platoon, based on personal, grunt’s eye memories, offers up the hardened Sgt. Barnes as a sub-human machine capable of offing his own platoon members. 

Rules of Engagement provides the flip side of this coin, examining the actions of a man whose command results in the death of eighty-three citizens in Yemen. By suggesting that such actions might not be the result of personal rage, or the need for vengeful “payback”, but a necessary and sound choice -- heroic, even -- the film treads on some risky, unusual ground.    

The movie opens in Vietnam, 1968, as its two central characters, Col. Hays Hodges (Tommy Lee Jones) and Col. Terry Childers (Samuel L. Jackson) slither through the jungle in full camouflaged garb with a handful of other American platoon members.  The two leaders divide their group in half, each taking a separate path.  Before you can say “ambush”, Hodges’ men are riddled with enemy fire. Meanwhile, the distant Childers is tuned into the slaughter via radio. He grabs a POW, demanding that he radio in his men and order that they retreat from Hodges’ battle site -- it’s a desperate stab at salvaging the lives of whoever might have survived the attack. When the POW doesn’t comply, he’s unceremoniously executed by the commanding Childers: the ruthless action is enough to convince another prisoner to make the radio call. Hodges is saved.

Flash forward to the present, where Childers in being roasted for his retirement from the Marines after thirty-two years of service, mostly as a mediocre, pencil-pushing attorney (“He hasn’t taken many cases, and he hasn’t won many cases,” reports a military higher-up).  Reminiscent of Tom Cruise’s similar role in Rob Reiner’s A Few Good Men, Childers’ legal eagle is haunted by insecurity -- his father was a great marine, but also the yardstick by which the other top brass compared the less stellar son.  Alcoholism and divorce have also clouded Childers’ post-combat resume. He’s resigned to a quiet retirement: “I plan to continue serving my country by decimating its trout population with my fly rod,” he announces to his military cronies. 

Meanwhile, Childers’ hero status extends well beyond Viet Nam, with missions and medals continuing to pile up until he’s chosen to enter Yemen and rescue American Ambassador Mourain (Ben Kingsley) from the U.S. Embassy.  Angry demonstrators have assembled, and the mood is volatile.  While Childers ushers Mourain and his family onto a fleeing helicopter, his men take fire from the increasingly hostile army of surrounding demonstrators. After losing two men, Childers issues the command: “Waste those motherfuckers!”  His men open fire, and when the dust settles, there are eighty-three dead Yemen bodies.

The remainder of The Rules of Engagement traces the fallout of this event.  Bringing to mind Courage Under Fire, the film combines subjective perceptions of the shooting, and adds a mystery element: we’re never quite sure how sound Childers’ judgment is until very late in the proceedings.  When a court-martial is announced, and Childers is accused by the military of ordering his men to fire on unarmed innocents, the troubled Colonel calls on Hodges to represent him in court.  Hodges is reluctant.  “I’m a good enough attorney to know that you need a better attorney,” he says.

Ultimately, however, Hodges gives in, and the finale echoes such similar legal dramas as The Verdict, where Paul Newman’s attorney fought an uphill battle for respectability, much like Jones’ washed-up vet. In addition to showing this vulnerability, however, Jones invests his character with toughness. Oliver Stone once said that Jones had the weathered look and manner of a war veteran, even though the actor never actually fought, and he’s right.  Meanwhile, Jackson’s intensity on the stand -- including some bug-eyed stares that rival Al Pacino’s onscreen mania -- is mesmerizing.

Rules of Engagement has much to recommend it, but the movie is also marred by some unfortunate plot devices that cheapen its very serious subject.  There’s a villainous National Security Adviser (Bruce Greenwood) who destroys a surveillance tape that clearly demonstrates who initiated the aggression and clarifies guilt. An unconvincing speech justifying this dubious decision brings to mind Charles Napier’s rantings in Rambo.  You remember Napier: he was the bureaucrat who pulled a rescue team out of Nam after Stallone found that POW’s were, in fact, still imprisoned there. “We don’t want to deal with a bunch of forgotten ghosts,” he reasons. Eh?  Similarly, Greenwood’s character would rather pin the blame squarely on Childers' shoulders, presumably to clear the greater military as a whole and let the matter die quietly. But what if the tape revealed that there were, in fact, snipers firing from the crowd-in-question? Wouldn’t that be a feather in his cap, while legitimizing the actions of both Childers and the larger military body? There’s also a big, dumb brawl between the two Colonels that is a complete throwaway.  It’s strictly wedged in for the action crowd.

Despite the fact that Rules of Engagement feels obligated to throw in some bogus cliches and obvious villains, it still brings up some brave questions, and deals with them in an honest fashion.  A Rashomon-style approach, in which subjective viewpoints all projected slightly altered perspectives, would have been more daring than an obvious cue-in as to who was at fault, which eventually arrives to squash such vagueness.  Still, the film has conviction and succeeds in persuading us that in the blur of battle, the rules of survival don’t always correspond with textbook procedures. 

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