Samuel L. Jackson and Tommy Lee Jones are incendiary actors who can make even standard stuff look good.

RULES OF ENGAGEMENT

A Illusion review by Joan Ellis.


Samuel L. Jackson and Tommy Lee Jones are incendiary actors who can make even standard stuff look good. Carried on their shoulders, Rules of Engagement manages to make the best of itself. The two terrific actors, striding through an ordinary script, make the supporting actors look like stick figures. Director William Friedkin and writer Stephen Gaghan sniff at the edges of big questions and then fail to follow their noses, leaving us intrigued and then disappointed at their failure to draw conclusions. In the early scenes, for example, they paint a riveting contrast of U.S. troops at war. In Vietnam, 1968, and in Yemen, 30 years later, the Americans are isolated in an alien land. In each case they are 10,000 miles from home without any understanding of the culture that engulfs them. Their misjudgments are more often cultural than military.

In the Vietnam segment, Col. Terry Childers (Samuel L. Jackson) saves the life of badly wounded Col. Hays Hodges (Tommy Lee Jones). The jungle battle sends Childers on to success and prestige as a career Marine, while Hodges plays out his 32-year service as a military lawyer whose ability is drowned in cynicism.

As Hodges retires, Childers leads a special mission into Yemen to evacuate the American ambassador and his family before an angry crowd demolishes the embassy. The audience sees the truth: a crowd of civilians armed with Molotov cocktails, battering rams, and guns. The embassy is under attack. Childers orders his men to fire back, and in short order, 83 lie dead, 100 wounded, many of them women and children.

Back home, Childers is charged with murder for firing into a group of innocent civilians. Faced with a general court-martial, Childers lures the highly reluctant Hodges to the table as his defense lawyer. Hodges faces a prosecutor (Guy Pearce) whose skeletal face and unnatural calm give him an unearthly air of omnipotence. As a witness for the prosecution, Ben Kingsley's ambassador is a weasel with power.

As the movie moves to the courtroom, one question looms: Did Childers violate the rules of military engagement? Unfortunately the dramatic tension leaks away through the gaping holes of the courtroom scenes. The government case is built on lies and destruction of evidence, which surprises no one these days, and the scriptwriter seems spent after his fine efforts in setting the scene.

Samuel L. Jackson and Tommy Lee Jones, who shone when engaged with the rules of the military, are suddenly subdued by the courtroom, tethered to tables and hobbled by the rules of law. Two big talents need a whale of a story to contain them, and for half its length, this movie does just that. They're so good that the material simply wilts beneath them when the writer wears out. Igniting the screen as two old-style military men, Mr. Jackson and Mr. Jones turn their self-serving junior officers to ash. Watching them is enough reward for a weak last half.


Film Critic : JOAN ELLIS
Word Count : 497
Studio : Paramount
Rating : R
Running time : 2h3m


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