Rules of Engagement – 3.75 stars

William Friedkin is apparently “back” with his black crime picture Killer Joe, but he never really went away.  I suppose what critics mean about Friedkin’s return is that he’s “back” in his 1970s The Exorcist and  The French Connection form, the one-two punch of Friedkin’s career.  These films are nothing to sneeze at, the former being the greatest high-brow scare flick ever made, the latter number 93 on AFI’s top 100, but since those halcyon days, Friedkin suffered his Heaven’s Gate (Sorcerer); helmed some off-kilter duds (Deal of the Century, a black comedy about arms dealers with Chevy Chase (?)) and Bug (here’s the IMDB set-up so you can run quick to your Netflix queue — “An unhinged war veteran holes up with a lonely woman in a spooky Oklahoma motel room. The line between reality and delusion is blurred as they discover a bug infestation”); and delivered a gripping, underappreciated crime picture that utilized the musical stylings of Wang Chung for the score (To Live and Die in LA).

Rules of Engagement, an effective, thoughtful, political potboiler about a Marine officer (Samuel L. Jackson) tasked with protecting an American embassy under siege in Yemen.  In extricating embassy staff, the ambassador (Ben Kingsley) and the ambassador’s family, Jackson gives the order for his men to fire into a crowd that includes women and children.  For that act, he is brought up for court martial and must rely on his Vietnam pal (Tommy Lee Jones) who is squaring off against a tough, determined prosecutor (Guy Pearce).  The shooting is recapitulated from various vantage points, the characters compellingly provide their assessment of what happened (of particular note, Blair Underwood, who was probably too good looking to be a bigger star, is excellent as part of the Marine contingent), and political skulduggery is uncovered.

The picture moves fast, alternating between flashbacks of the shooting, courtroom drama and a sojourn back to ‘Nam.  It is also topical and adult, reluctant to direct us to any pat conclusion (Stephen Gaghan wrote it, and followed it up with the Academy Award winning Traffic and the Academy Award nominated Syriana).  Jackson and Jones are not exactly breaking new ground here, but they are very good actors who know what to do with the material.  Finally, with the exception of Kingsley (whose imperiousness and cowardice are cartoonish), all the characters feel real.  Roger Ebert disliked the film, noting, “At the end we have a film that attacks its central issue from all sides and has a collision in the middle.”  That’s exactly true, and it is the movie’s strongest attribute.  There is no assured resolution of many of the issues it raises, but the story at the center holds you to the point where you can come to your own conclusions.  The political shenanigans at the end feel very tacked-on, but otherwise, this is a strong movie.

Of course, anything less than a full filmic indictment of the Jackson character was enough to send some reviewers into apoplexy.  Hence, Michael Atkinson from The Village Voice: “William Friedkin‘s bathetic flag-fucker Rules of Engagement is as dogged and concise an apologia for using militarist might to control civilians as any City Hall publicists could ever concoct . . . . Who’s talking this neo-con psycho-talk, exactly”?   Given that, as noted, Gaghan wrote it and was pilloried later by the right for his allegedly lefty take in Syriana, consider Atkinson’s broadside a strong recommendation indeed

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