Rules of Engagement

Directed by William Friedkin
Starring: Tommy Lee Jones, Samuel L. Jackson, Guy Pearce, Bruce Greenwood, Ben Kingsley, Blair Underwood, Philip Baker Hall.
MPAA Rating: R for scenes of war violence, and for language.

Review by Matt Heffernan
April 12, 2000

After having back-to-back critical and financial successes with The French Connection and The Exorcist, director William Friedkin has had trouble living up to his past. His 1995 bomb Jade seemed to be the final nail in his career's coffin, but now he back at the top of the box office after a five-year absence.

While serving in Vietnam, Col. Hayes Hodges (Tommy Lee Jones) was injured by enemy gunfire, and has spent the last 28 years as a lawyer for the Marine Corps. Meanwhile, Col. Terry Childers (Samuel L. Jackson), the man who saved his life in that jungle, has had a distinguished career of leading troops all around the world. Shortly after Hodges retires, Childers is assigned to take troops to Yemen, and evacuate the embassy which is being attacked by anti-U.S. protestors.

The situation gets out of hand, and Childers is forced to order open fire at the crowd, which was shooting at the troops. He returns home to a publicity nightmare, with 83 dead protestors, and a hundred more wounded, making headlines. No weapons were found among the dead, largely comprising of women and children. Instead of allowing the U.S. government to take the blame, National Security Advisor William Sokal (Bruce Greenwood) orders a court martial against Childers. He assigns hotshot Stanford graduate Major Mark Biggs (Guy Pearce) for the prosecution, and Childers brings a reluctant Hodges out of retirement to defend him.

Rules of Engagement is a film of wonderful parts that never come together as a great whole. The battle scenes in Vietnam and Yemen had the same kind of flow and energy that were found in Saving Private Ryan and The Thin Red Line. The courtroom scenes are well-constructed, and photographed using surreal angles and lighting. In fact, I think this probably would have been more effective in black and white.

The problem is, despite these technical merits, there is something wrong with the film. At its core, the story just isn't believable. We discover early that Sokal has evidence that the crowd was firing at the marines, but he covers it up. Does he have an agenda against Childers? Is he just trying to do what he thinks his best for the country? Those questions aren't answered, and the characters are never fully developed. So, it's a good film that's really about nothing, which I suppose is better than a bad film about something (like most of what has come out lately).

At least the film is selling tickets, and that's better than nothing. Friedkin shows that he is still a great filmmaker; now he just needs to find a great film to make.

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Rules of Engagement (2000)

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Review © 2000 Matt Heffernan