The first half of Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket, based on Gustav Hasford’s novel The Short Timers, is flawless. Marine privates Joker (Matthew Modine), Leonard Lawrence (Vincent D’Onfrio) and others are trained with their class at Parris Island by their Lord and Master, Marine Gunnery Sergeant Hartmann (R. Lee. Ermey). Kubrick depicts the indoctrination and transformation of Marines in a manner that is tragi-comic, lyrical and, at the end of training, deadly. Penned by Kubrick, Hasford, and Michael Herr (Dispatches), the dialogue has the stamp of authenticity (Hasford and Ermey were Marines and Ermey, first hired as a technical advisor, had actually been a drill sergeant at Parris Island during the Vietnam war). The process of creating cohesion and toughness is brutal and efficient, and its unsparing nature produces effective warriors, but it also damages the fragile D’Onofrio.
The second half opens with a concise commentary on the problems of an occupying army, memorably introduced by the sultry voice of Nancy Sinatra. Despite such promise, the film becomes less engaging. Modine is sent to Vietnam as a correspondent for Star and Stripes and he wants desperately to get in “the shit.” He does, during the Tet Offensive, and what he sees is the hard killers from Parris, broken, unmoored and wreaking havoc. The film plays out as a series of barely connected set pieces, which is in stark contrast to the single-mindedness of the first half.