"Rules of Engagement", the new film from William Friedkin (you remember, the
guy who directed "The Exorcist" way back when), is something of an enigma.
It's one of those films which is entirely predictable, not particularly well
written, and it's all stuff we've seen before. However, there is something
about it that holds your attention despite all of this. I suppose it could
be the two leads, Tommy Lee Jones and Samuel L. Jackson, two of the better
actors working in Hollywood today. It could also be that Friedkin somehow
manages to keep the action going throughout the entire film so that you're
never distracted by having seen all this before. Whatever the reason, "Rules
of Engagement" is one of those bizarre movies like "The 13th Warrior" which
has no discernible redeeming qualities, but I was incapable of disliking.
Colonel Terry Childers (Samuel L. Jackson) is a decorated marine and Vietnam
veteran. His latest assignment is to fly into Yemen with a squad of marines
and rescue an ambassador (Ben Kingsley) and his family from protestors at
the American embassy. When the protestors turn violent and marines are
killed, Childers orders his men to open fire on the crowd, killing over 70
people. Now he faces a court martial and up to fifteen years in prison
unless he can prove that the crowd had weapons, and he was only returning
fire. His attorney is Colonel Hayes Hodges (Tommy Lee Jones), a friend whose
life Childers saved in Vietnam. The prosecuting attorney is the slimy Major
Mark Biggs (Guy Pearce), who has been hired on by the even slimier William
Sokal (Bruce Greenwood), who wants everything pinned on Childers so the US
can save face.
As I said, this is hardly an original movie since obvious similarities to
1992's "A Few Good Men" exist. There are several things besides the lack of
originality which really hurt this film. One is the absence of a good score.
In fact, there is hardly any music at all in "Rules of Engagement". During
the courtroom and battle scenes, where the tension is palpable and the
audience is on the edge of their seats, a nice dramatic score would have
been welcome. Instead, we are given overwhelmingly loud sound effects of
explosions and gun shots which make it impossible to hear what is being
said. On the bright side, the battle scenes are very realistically filmed,
especially the opening scene of the skirmish in Vietnam involving Childers
and Hodges' unit and a VC squad.
The acting in "Rules of Engagement" is certainly the film's high point.
Samuel L. Jackson is the perfect choice for his role. A man consumed with
passion (Jackson is at his best when playing a character consumed by
passion) for his job and his country. Jones may be a bit miscast as an
alcoholic loser of a lawyer, but he turns in a great performance anyway. Ben
Kingsley ("Species", "What Planet Are You From?") is given nothing to do
other than look shifty eyed and stutter over his testimony in court. Guy
Pearce, who gave a brilliant performance in "LA Confidential", is horribly
miscast as the prosecuting attorney. There is something about Pearce's
performance that makes Major Biggs seem incredibly slimy (too much so in
fact) despite the fact that his introduction sets the character up as
something of a boy scout.
There are certain things about this film which make very little sense. For
example, Bruce Greenwood's ("Double Jeopardy") character is given a video
tape that would not only clear Childers of all charges, but would get the US
out of trouble as well. Instead of submitting the tape as evidence, he tells
his aid: "I don't want to think about it, I don't want to see it, I don't
want it to exist." Not only does it not make sense that he didn't want it to
exist, but it makes even less sense that he would tell a witness. The only
other thing that bothered me was the poor editing job performed here. Not
only are long, sometimes boring sequences not edited down to size, but we
are sometimes given quick camera cuts from person to person during the
courtroom scenes which make things very confusing. "Rules of Engagement"
runs a little too long at 127 minutes. I recommend it to fans of Tommy Lee
Jones and Samuel L Jackson since they are both given a chance to shine here.
I give the film two and a half out of five stars.
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* * * * * - One of the greatest movies ever made, see it now.
* * * * - Great flick. Try and catch this one.
* * * - Okay movie, hits and misses.
* * - Pretty bad. See it if you have nothing better to do.
* - One of the worst movies ever. See it only if you enjoy pain.
Copyright © 2000 John Beachem