Rules of Engagement
2000, R, 123 min. Directed by William Friedkin. Starring Dale Dye, Ben Kingsley, Anne Archer, Blair Underwood, Bruce Greenwood, Philip Baker Hall, Guy Pearce, Tommy Lee Jones, Samuel L. Jackson.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., April 14, 2000
For a movie that spends so much of its time trying to figure out whether a career Marine has violated the military's rules of engagement, it's amazing the filmmakers never really concern themselves with satisfying the audience's rules of engagement. Oh, it engages on a purely tactical level by relying on familiar storylines, grand acting, and a bottomless bucket of blood squibs to tell its tale. But it's that kind of pandering to the lowest common denominator that keeps Rules of Engagement from using these useful narrative tools as a means to an end rather than an end in themselves. The filmmakers are far too willing to accept that if you like A Few Good Men and Courage Under Fire, well then, gosh darn, you're most probably gonna like this new movie too. And although correct, these assumptions are sad, especially since they are being wielded by some of the industry's most respected veterans. William Friedkin established his career as a director of gripping action sequences with movies such as The French Connection and The Exorcist; DP William Fraker has a career that also spans three decades; and Dale Dye, who has made a second career as Hollywood's top military technical advisor, appears as an actor here as well as a behind-the-scenes advisor. Actors Jackson and Jones could excel in roles such as these with one hand tied behind their backs -- which is not to say this is how they performed their roles as career Marines, but rather to say that their always scintillating work upgrades the movie's quality and is the primary reason to see Rules of Engagement. The script by Stephen Gaghan (TV's The Practice) is a routine surf 'n turf drama composed about half and half of combat sequences and legal shufflings. It doesn't help matters that the opening sequences demonstrate the Marine's innocence of the charges against him, thus deflating any tension the movie might have developed in this regard. Without the question of guilt or innocence hanging in the balance, we are left with the more fleeting interests of watching two fine actors, asking how Hollywood keeps getting away with its one-dimensional depiction of Arab insurgents, and wondering if the defense will locate the government's “missing” tapes that might exonerate the defendant. Wouldn't you know it always comes down to that same old culprit -- missing government tapes? Where's a good character like Rosemary Woods when you need her?