“Rules of Engagement” is a military courtroom drama directed by William Friedkin (his only war movie). The story originated with decorated Marine veteran and U.S. Senator James Webb. Friedkin had problems with Webb’s screenplay and someone else had to write the script that was used. Webb was so resentful of this turn of events that he tried to prevent Pentagon cooperation on the film. Later, after seeing the movie, Webb complimented the finished product. The movie was partly filmed in Morocco. The movie was criticized for its treatment of Arab Muslims. The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee claimed that the movie was the most racist movie ever made concerning Arabs.
The movie begins in Vietnam in 1968. The 54 year old Tommy Lee Jones plays 2nd Lt. Hays Hodges and the 52 year old Samuel L. Jackson plays his best friend 2nd Lt. Terry Childers. (They couldn’t make these two old coots Captains?) When Hodges’ platoon is ambushed, Childers executes an enemy prisoner to force a North Vietnamese officer to call off the dogs. Twenty-eight years later, Hodges is preparing to retire from his job with JAG. Childers is head of a Marine unit that is sent to defend the U.S. embassy in Yemen. In the process of evacuating Ambassador Mourain (Ben Kingsley) and his family, the Marines take fire from snipers. A mob has gathered outside the embassy and when Childers gets a view from the roof he sees people in the crowd firing at his men. He orders his men to “waste the motherfuckers” and 83 Arabs end up dead, including women and children. In the aftermath, no weapons are found and of course the world assumes Childers has perpetrated a war crime. National Security Adviser Bill Sokal (Bruce Greenwood) decides to throw Childers under to bus to appease the Arab world. Guess who Childers insists on for his lawyer? He does not mind that Hodges is a bad lawyer and an alcoholic who has no self-esteem. Time to return the favor. The prosecuting attorney Maj. Biggs (Guy Pearce) is the usual overconfident hot shot. And why shouldn’t he be? Hodges is guilty of firing on a crowd instead of the snipers who had actually killed some of his men. But wait, that doesn’t make for a satisfying movie.
|the two oldest grunts in Vietnam|
Sokal turns out to be a slimy politician who is willing to destroy evidence and bribe witnesses – for the good of the country, of course. And for plot purposes. Hodges starts the trial by telling the jury that he sucks as a lawyer and then proceeds to do nothing to disprove this. The deck is stacked against Childers since no one is willing to testify that they saw weapons in the crowd. And there is no tape to prove what Childers insists he saw. Since this is a courtroom drama, there has to be a surprise witness and this one is a doozy. Biggs brings in the NVA officer that Childers had atrocitized (I know there is no such word). Hodges closing argument is: “It’s not murder, it's combat.”
|damn, these dudes don't look a day older than when|
they were in Vietnam 30 years earlier
Maybe Friedkin should have stuck with Webb’s original script. It could not have been worse than what he ended up with. The movie is full of clichés and plot developments that make little sense. The troubled, alcoholic lawyer who has one last chance to prove himself is not exactly original (see Paul Newman in “The Verdict”). Neither is the corrupt politician who railroads a hero. The script even throws in the old daddy issues trope. Hodges never lived up to his father’s standards, but earns a hug and “atta boy” in the end. The clichés are to be expected, it’s the ridiculous plot points that are troubling. For instance, it makes no sense for Sokal to withhold evidence that would exonerate an American from an accusation of a war crime. Why would Childers being found guilty be better than showing the world that his men were being fired on by the crowd? As it is, without the tape, Childers is totally guilty and clearly violated the rules of engagement. I read where Friedkin’s intention was to leave Childers’ actions ambiguous, but test audiences insisted on Jackson’s character being innocent so they had to add a scene where we see the tape showing people in the crowd firing weapons. Nothing shown up to then had backed his claim. Earlier in the movie, the same scene showed no weapons. To make matters worse, the movie throws in a fact-finding trip to Yemen by Hodges to introduce a wounded girl who then appears firing a weapon on the tape. Talk about jumping the shark!
The movie is not a total disaster. The acting is fine and the only reason to watch it. But Jones and Jackson are sufficient reason to watch any movie. It’s a shame they weren’t given something better to work with. By the way, if you are keeping track, Jackson says his first “motherfucker” at the five-minute mark. Pearce is fine, but distractingly decided to adopt a weird accent. Greenwood is appropriately slimy, but Kingsley looks lost. The combat scene is well done and realistically chaotic. Unfortunately, the trial itself lacks suspense. Again I want to emphasize that this is because Childers is guilty. I have to add that I did not find the movie to be racist.
It’s possible to make a good military courtroom drama. “A Few Good Men” is an example of this. “Rules of Engagement” is not in a league with that film. The script is the weakness. Maybe if they had not wimped out on the weapons in the crowd scenario. However, who wants to see a movie where an American soldier fires on a crowd of innocent Muslims? No American soldier would do that. Even a soldier who once shot a prisoner in the head.