Once upon a time, William Friedkin made good movies. This is not one of them. As late as the mid-’80’s, the man behind “The Exorcist” and “The French Connection” directed “To Live and Die in L.A.” and a fantastic episode of the new “Twilight Zone”. Now we only get manipulative over-direction in the service of a manipulative under-written story.
Colonel Hayes Hodges (Tommy Lee Jones) has been friends with Colonel Terry Childers (Samuel L. Jackson) for most of their adult lives. Childers saved Hodges life in Vietnam. After 28 years of every possible military action on foreign soil, Childers is the toughest Marine of them all. When an embassy evacuation in Yemen goes wrong, the U.S. is blamed. The colonel orders his besieged unit to fire into a crowd of civilian demonstrators from the embassy rooftop, an action that brings about the death of dozens of native women and children. While his men could see snipers firing from neighboring rooftops, only Childers, from his viewpoint, could see whether shooters were present in the crowd below. When the government, led by National Security Advisor William Sokal (Bruce Greenwood), tries to scapegoat the commander for the tragedy, he turns to his old pal and lawyer, Hodges, for help. His guilt or innocence hinge upon the RULES OF ENGAGEMENT: the code of conduct by which military personnel are allowed to employ deadly force.
This is one silly, cliched film, but you’ve got to love Samuel L. Jackson. No remorse here, he remains a hard-a*s throughout the film. He’s even given a score of “Samuel L. Jackson” moments; at one point he even screams, “WASTE THE MUTHA FUCKAS!”
Tommy Lee is trying his best, but the problems begin with the performances elicited from the supporting cast. Australian Guy Pearce portrays the prosecuting attorney, but his attempts to cover his native accent float inconsistently between some vague southern dialect to something half-remembered from an episode of “The Sopranos”. Worse is poor Bruce Greenwood, whom Hollywood seems hell-bent on turning into the new Richard Jordan, a great actor pigeonholed into cartoon villain roles.
This leads me to the next big problem, implausibility. God knows the U.S. government has a well- established reputation for hanging its lowest-ranking representatives out to dry. Still, I can’t really buy that someone in a job as high up the food chain as National Security Advisor would be so reactionary as to ignore crucial security videotapes before blaming U.S. personnel for a tragedy. When he finally gets around to examining the evidence, his reaction is close to that of an eight-year-old. The worst offense is the court appearance by an North Vietnamese officer present during the incident where Childers saved Hodges life. As he wasn’t captured, no explanation is ever given for how the prosecution could have known his name or ever tracked him down.
The worst offense of the movie is the constant manipulation. Bad guys act bad or just weaselly. The Yemenites, of whom only a doctor is allowed to speak in English, are either shown as silent, suffering victims, or angry, screaming lunatics. When a little girl, first shown hobbling around on crutches, is later revealed to by firing a large handgun at Americans in flashback, it’s difficult not to laugh. The inability to view foreign nationals as complex individuals has been one of our country’s greatest weaknesses. By carrying this flaw into the movie, the size of the colonel’s body count remains little more than a number by the end.
Still, the one saving grace is the future “Shaft”. You can believe he earned that chest full of medals as the kind of Marine who gets the job done and doesn’t feel sorry for himself. Too bad the move lets him down more than the government. I’d have rather watched a flick called, “Waste the Mutha Fuckas”, but maybe with the upcoming “Shaft” I’ll get my chance.