Rules of Engagement (William Friedkin, 2000)
[originally posted 8May2000]
Two bad Samuel L. Jackson movies in one year? Say it ain’t so, Jim! But the sad truth is, yep. On the heels of allowing himself to be cast in Star Wars: Episode I, Jackson finds himself in this muddled mess of a Friedkin. You know, one wonders what drives Friedkin these days, and how someone whose career started with such promising work as The Birthday Party, The French Connection, and The Exorcist took such a left turn so quickly, leaving us with stuff like Blue Chips, Jade, and Rules of Engagement.
And Jackson isn’t the only one who lent his name to this muddled mess, though he’s the actor I’m most surprised to find in a bad film. Tommy Lee Jones, Ben Kingsley, Dale Dye, and Blair Underwood all find themselves in here, wandering aimlessly through a plot with more holes in it than the facade of the building in question, but they’ve all been in truly awful things before.
The quick and easy plot summary is this: Jackson is a marine colonel who saved Jones’ life when both were in Vietnam. Jones got shot up and took a desk job as a not-too-good lawyer, while Jackson stayed in the field. Jackson is sent to evacuate the ambassador to Yemen and protect the embassy, and while doing so, Jackson and his men are attacked, from the time they’re still in the air until the time Jackson orders his men to open fire on the crowd. And they do, killing eighty-three people. The Yemeni government is up in arms (pardon the pun) over this, and Jackson is hauled in front of a military tribunal as a scapegoat. He hires Jones to defend him, and away we go.
If you want to make a good Vietnam war film, you go to the best. You get Jim Webb to write the script. Webb’s good, right? He wrote the definitive Vietnam War novel, Fields of Fire. Then you get a technical adviser who happens to double as an actor whose name, in Hollywood, is synonymous with Vietnam—Dale Dye. Whip up a few upper-middle-age actors, and transport the whole thing to the year 2000.
Whoops. Rules of Engagement is not a Vietnam War film, despite that fact that a decent chunk of its screen time takes place there. And maybe that’s where this thing goes horribly wrong. Well, that, and the incredible number of clichés in the script. Let’s see. We need a scene where Jones and Jackson beat each other to a pulp and end up laughing about it. We need a scene where a whole bunch of people get shot up in Vietnam. We need a slimy government official who is the embodiment of pure evil. We need a young, gung-ho prosecutor who will make a name for himself with this case (Guy Pearce, last seen as the male lead in Ravenous, who is nastily effective here). And so on, and so on. You name it, it’s in here. How much predictability do you want?
Okay, despite all this, there ARE some good things to be said. There’s a chemistry between Jones and Jackson. Jackson’s usual comic timing comes through, despite the script (you get the feeling he ad-libbed a lot). Pearce and the evil government official (Bruce Greenwood, who hasn’t played a good guy since FOX’s late and very much lamented series Nowhere Man) are very, very good at making you hate them. And at a time when American feeling towards the government and our military and its involvement overseas is either horribly wrong or right but for all the wrong reasons, it can be argued that a film like this was in desperate need of being made. It’s too bad that what came out of it was such a cliche-ridden, goopy, insubstantial mess. Many reviewers have compared it to A Few Good Men, one of whom went so far as to say Rules of Engagement is “the same movie. Not similar, the same.” [ed. note 19Aug2013: unfortunately, I can no longer find this review online.] Would that it were so. After this, Jack Nicholson’s scene-chewing and Tom Cruise’s incompetence look positively masterful. * ½
Trailer. Now with ridiculous comments!