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Rules of Engagement

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Review by Harvey Karten
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If you've ever held a job with a large company, private or public, you can testify to this: if your boss screws up, guess who will bear the onus? Your supervisor will hang you out to dry. You accept the censure: your overseer gets off the hook. In "Rules of Engagement," director William Friedkin, using Stephen Gaghan's adaptation of a story by a former Secretary of the Navy (and Marine infantry commander) James Webb, takes this concept writ large. If the United States is about to go down for an alleged screw-up somewhere in the world, the United States will try to pin the blame on an individual. Perhaps Lt. Calley's situation in My Lai is the not the best example, but when that officer gunned down unarmed civilians in Viet Nam, the lieutenant and not the United States government was to be be held up to rebuke.

"Rules of Engagement" depicts a situation similar to that in My Lai, however, except that in this circumstance, the commanding officer who issues an order to gun down a group of civilians in Yemen is justified. Friedkin takes us inside the Yemeni capital of S'ana (actually filmed in Ouazazarte in southern Morocco) to show us a fierce demonstration by about two hundred civilians plus several rooftop snipers determined to gut the American embassy and kill all personnel found therein. The kicker is that most of the Arab civilians, including at least one nine- year-old girl and several black-robed women, are firing pistols and automatic weapons in addition to flinging stones and Molotov cocktails on what is sovereign United States territory in that small country on the Saudi tip. When Marine Col. Terry Childers (Samuel L. Jackson), seeing some of his fellow Marines killed by the bullets while the others troops in his company are observing the snipers and not the crowd below, he gives the order to "waste the m-f's." The entire group of demonstrators are hit by Marine bullets resulting in 83 dead and about 100 critical injuries. Determined to get the U.S. government off the hook by disavowing the action and blaming an overzealous career military officer, National Security Adviser William Sokal (Bruce Greenwood) arranges to court-martial Childers and assigns Major Mark Biggs (Guy Pearce) to prosecute the case.

The final part of the movie involves the trial of Col. Childers, who is defended by the accused's old wartime buddy Col. Hays Hodges (Tommy Lee Jones), with whom he fought side by side thirty years previously in Viet Nam. Much is made of Hodges's inexperience as a lawyer--that he has had a long-standing drinking problem, that he graduated sixty-seventh in his class at Georgetown Law, and that he is divorced. But while given the sort of movie that this is we may expect even an inept attorney to clear Childers despite the lawyer's ineptitude, Gaghan's script subverts the presumption and allows Hodges to mount a fiery defense.

In this high-budget, slickly commercial movie, Friedkin keeps the pace moving at a swift pace, becoming frenetic in scenes involving battle. The Moroccan extras performing as Yeminis on a jihad against America are so fired up by their role in storming the embassy that we don't wonder at the ease with which the fundamentalists in the Arab world are able to pitch fervor into the hearts of their recruits. The stones fly wildly, battering the shabby structure of the embassy as though flung from battering rams determined to bring down a Scottish castle. We almost expect a Marine guard inside the embassy to call out, "Hang out our banners on the outward walls;/ Our castle's strength/ Will laugh a siege to scorn." Some of the Viet Nam battle scenes that open the movie are taut, realistic, and could have been directed with pride even by Oliver Stone. While the colonels, Hodges and Childers, are not developed characters, they need not be. All we need to know is that they were Marine buddies who fought side by side, dependent on each other for their very lives, to see the depths to which Hodges would go in defending the highly decorated and now beleaguered soldier.

Once again, the U.S. government is portrayed as the bad guys. As National Security Adviser William Sokal, Bruce Greenwood comes across as the epitome of evil, his bland and mellifluous voice signalling us that this is the sort of con artist we must all watch out for. Guy Pearce is a strange choice for prosecutor though. With hair closely cropped even for a military officer, Pearce has lost any trace of his native accent and substitutes a strange brogue that combines a Brooklyn dialect with New England vernacular. Putting aside the saintly roles to which he is accustomed, Ben Kingsley makes the perfect cowering ambassador, a high official who-- together with his iniquitous wive (Anne Archer)--suddenly forgets the debt he owes to the heroic Childers for getting him out of Yemen alive when his career is spuriously threatened by Adviser Sokal.

"Rules of Engagement" may be a feel good movie that lacks the imaginative thrusts of David O. Russell's "The Three Kings," but for what it is this is one of the better examples. =

William Friedkin directs us to a man who successfully stands up to the heinous machinations of a U.S. eager to cover its own rear. What lies open to future judgment, though, is the danger faced by our government as a result of this court martial. Does the U.S. risk even greater militancy from the fundamentalists in the Middle East? Even more crucial, can America prevent the withering of its support among the moderate states of the area, including Egypt, Morocco and even Turkey? These are not questions that the typical movie fan is going to bother with. "Rules of Engagement" is, after all, a rah-rah film whose cinematography makes up for its domestic drabness in Washington scenes with a ravishing array of North African colors, and supplies us with two heroes who fight against the odds to make a crucial point: if you're not under combat, do not assume that you can always find a diplomatic solution when unreasonable people, powered by fanatical beliefs, are determined to do you in.

(C) 2000 by Harvey Karten, film_critic@compuserve.com

Copyright 2000 Harvey Karten

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