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Rules of Engagement   C

Paramount Pictures

Year Released: 2000
MPAA Rating: R
Director: William Friedkin
Writer: Stephen Gaghan
Cast: Tommy Lee Jones, Samuel L. Jackson, Guy Pearce, Ben Kingsley, Bruce Greenwood, Philip Baker Hall, Blair Underwood, Anne Archer, Mark Feuerstein.

Review by Rob Vaux

Rules of Engagement makes the terrible mistake of trying to say something important. While initially posited as a Few Good Men-style courtroom drama, it has the gumption to open a huge ethical can of worms without the first idea what to do with them. They end up getting underfoot, popping up when you least expect them to, and revealing the glaring flaws in an otherwise entertaining bit of fluff.

The film certainly has strength with a pair of stars like Tommy Lee Jones and Samuel L. Jackson operating under the direction of an old pro like William Friedkin. The sweaty-palms opening sequence -- featuring the two as young Marine officers caught in an ugly firefight in Vietnam -- sets an encouraging pace that continues for most of an hour. Jones's Hays Hodges ends the fight all shot up and spends the next 30 years as a desk-bound military lawyer, while Jackson's Terry Childers saves his buddy's life and continues on the front lines. By the time the main action begins, it's 30 years later and the two are full-bird colonels.

Then the roof caves in. Childers takes a detachment of Marines to evacuate the U.S. Embassy in Yemen, which has come under fire from a hostile Arab crowd. The platoon gets the ambassador (Ben Kingsley, largely wasted) and his family out, but takes casualties in the process and Childers isn't interested in watching more of his men die. He orders an open-fire on the crowd, killing 83 of them and creating a nice fat international incident. With the State Department ready to immolate him, Childers turns to his old buddy Hodges to give him a hand, and the courtroom histrionics commence.

You can see the dicey moral territory Rules of Engagement is flirting with here. The title refers to the code by which U.S. soldiers can engage hostile forces, and in the post-Cold War world, those forces are becoming increasingly hard to define. The first half opens up some intriguing questions. Were there terrorists in the crowd, and if so, how many? Could Childers have just fired above their heads to disperse them? Is he really a lone murderer, as the sneering prosecutor (Guy Pearce, terrific as always) suggests, or do the Marines as a whole bear responsibility for his actions? This is potent stuff and could make for a truly great movie.

Unfortunately, Rules of Engagement avoids tackling it head-on, reducing the potent early scenes to a stock good-guys/bad-guys confrontation in the concluding hour. With the sinister Yemeni (it's official: we're out of enemies) and a sleazy National Security advisor (Bruce Greenwood) doing countless Bad Things to stop our heroes, it's hard to consider the validity of alternate arguments. Was Childers too blinded by rage to stop himself? Who cares, that's what the villains think. The director also cheats a bit by hiding key information early on, then revealing it later to clear up all the muddle. Besides being crude and manipulative, the gimmick embraces some nasty Arab stereotypes which further undermines the film's credibility. They're not all terrorists, guys. Really.

Friedkin is too good to let this go completely to pot, and his stars manage to get him past the rougher bits. The sequence at the Embassy is appropriately taut, and there's some terrific scenes where Jones makes an investigative trip to Yemen and confronts the brutal reality of his friend's actions. He and Jackson both get some cool Did-You-Order-The-Code-Red speeches, and it's nice to see Bruce Greenwood working, even in a stock bad guy role like this. But all of that keeps getting undermined by those nasty questions and with the film's insistence on sweeping them all under the table.

Rules of Engagement would have benefited from either a lot less ambition or a lot more. As a stock military drama, it could have made a fun Saturday night. As a serious rumination on combat ethics, it could have been a powerhouse. As it is, it lacks the courage of its convictions and ends up an unfulfilling cop-out. Considering the immense talent at work here, that's a terrible waste. If you're going to bring out the big guns, fellas, you really need to use them.

Review published 04.14.2000.

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