Rules of Engagement - movie review (May 10, 2000)

What would you do for your country? And what would your country ask you to do?

Colonel Hays Hodges (Tommy Lee Jones) is retiring after 32 years of service to the Marines, most of it spent as a lawyer after a devastating experience in Vietnam from which he never recovered. His last case, however, will be his most difficult. He is called upon by best friend Colonel Terry Childers (Samuel L. Jackson), who is being court-martialed for, among other charges, murder, following a mission gone bad - a run-of-the-mill assignment to assist the ambassador (Ben Kingsley) at the U.S. Embassy in Yemen goes terribly wrong and results in a tragedy that results in international condemnation. Childers is steadfast in his resolve that he did the right thing under the circumstances, but Hodges must battle his own insecurities and inadequacies as well as a contentious National Security Advisor (Bruce Greenwood) in search of justice - whatever that is.

Tommy Lee Jones ("Coal Miner's Daughter", "Under Siege", "JFK", "The Fugitive", "The Client", "Batman Forever", "Men in Black" and "Double Jeopardy") is terrific in a role that's very different than we're used to seeing him play. Jones usually plays characters that are cool, confident and in charge. This time, he's unsure of himself, vulnerable and at times, lost. But he's no less riveting to watch. Samuel L. Jackson ("Pulp Fiction", "Die Hard: With a Vengeance", "Star Wars:  Episode 1 - The Phantom Menace", "Deep Blue Sea" and the upcoming "Shaft") is wonderful as the dedicated lifetime military man who suddenly questions his years of service in the face of the kind of adversity that is so different from that on the battlefield.  "Take-no-prisoners" doesn't begin to do justice to his attitude. Bruce Greenwood (TVs "St. Elsewhere", "Passenger 57" and "Double Jeopardy") is good as the calculating National Security Advisor. Ben Kingsley ("Gandhi", "Bugsy", "Sneakers", "Searching for Bobby Fischer", "Dave" and "Schindler's List") is good in the minor role of the beleaguered Ambassador. Anne Archer ("Patriot Games" and "Clear and Present Danger") is fine as the Ambassador's mousy wife. Blair Underwood is memorable in a mostly cameo role.

This film is reminiscent of "A Few Good Men" in that it involves a military trial, and the audience follows the case as developments unfold. There are revelations in the courtroom testimony in this film that are as riveting and astonishing as in "A Few Good Men". This film, however, is not without its problems (including one very bad bit of ADR). There is never a good explanation for the National Security Advisor's actions other than being motivated by plot. The one major problem with this film, though, is that the audience is privy to a bit of vital information of which the main characters are ignorant. This ends up tainting everything we see because everything that happens is filtered through our extra knowledge, thereby preventing us from totally sharing their experience, and I think this was a big mistake. It also makes a potentially riveting revelation merely a side note only addressed in a film-ending on-screen subtitle. Upon some consideration, I can think of a way to fix both problems. If you're interested, email me privately.

The film is surprisingly well-directed by William Friedkin ("The French Connection", "The Exorcist", "Blue Chips" and "Jade"). The music is composed by Mark Isham.

Even with its problems, I think its a film well worth seeing.


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