Rules of Engagement

If I were in combat, Col. Terry Childers is the kind of man I would want on my side. A 30-year Marine veteran, Childers has seen it all. His combat experiences includes Vietnam, Beirut and Desert Storm. He’s a decorated war hero and he knows how to get things done under fire.


rulesofengagementHe’s also charged with conduct unbecoming of an officer and the murder of 83 civilians in a botched Embassy rescue in Yemen. After losing three men while rescuing the American Ambassador and his family, Childers ordered his men to open fire on the hostile protestors surrounding the Embassy.

Childers is on trial because he broke the “Rules of Engagement,” a military directive that dictates how American soldiers will act in combat. By doing so, Childers has also put his career and possibly life on trial as well. Should a Marine under fire face disciplinary action for trying to save his men?

William Friedkin’s latest film, “Rules of Engagement,” is about perception. It’s about how we view the world around us, and how much we’re willing to see. Childers is on trial because his actions, no matter how warranted, have led to a public relations nightmare. A cover-up exists to discredit Childers and his claim that the crowd was armed because the United States needs someone to blame.

Director Friedkin and writer Stephen Gaghan are smart to limit our sight line during the Embassy rescue and massacre. They don’t want us to know if the crowd is armed. They want us to believe in Childers enough to believe that he knows that the crowd was armed. Thanks to the dynamic performance by Samuel L. Jackson, we not only believe him, but salute his decision.

The filmmakers are also smart in casting Jackson, a black actor, to play the Marine who leads the massacre. By having a man of color lead the assault on a crowd of third world children and women, the action seems less xenophobic. Still, Gaghan’s screenplay preys on xenophobic fears, portraying the citizens of Yemen as anti-American terrorists.

When Childers and his men open fire on the crowd, I realized my own xenophobic fears. How many times I wanted to see the same thing happen to those crowds of anti-American protestors burning our flag and President in effigy. Sure, we need their oil, but to hell with them.

See how easy it was to fall into that trap? That’s the problem with “Rules of Engagement.” The film raises more questions than it is capable of answering. Even though the film brings up important issues, all it wants to be is a military courtroom drama. It’s not a bad military courtroom drama, but it lacks the power and punch of it’s predecessors, including “A Few Good Men.”

Friedkin does a good job of setting up the dominos and then knocking them over, but that’s the film’s biggest flaw. Everything falls into place just the way you expect it too. There’s very little surprise in “Rules of Engagement.” Neither the director nor the writer seem intent on turning the genre on its head. Instead, they play out the drama with as little suspense as possible.

The emphasis is on character, and Friedkin has chosen a sturdy roster of talent to execute his battle plan. Jackson is commanding as Childers, a man who lives and breathes Marine. Jackson brings dedication and conviction to his performance. He’s matched by Tommy Lee Jones, who plays Childers’ best friend and the man chosen to defend him at his trial. Even though the screenwriter’s attempts at male bonding fall flat, Jackson and Jones makes believe that these men would go through heaven and hell for each other.

Guy Pearce is strong as the military prosecutor who agrees to try Childers, but only on the evidence. It’s refreshing to see this character played as something more than a cliche. Instead of pulling out all the stops, Pearce’s character bows to honor and tradition. The same can’t be said for the character of the Ambassador and his wife, played by Ben Kingsley and Anne Archer. Both add new shades to cowardice.

While the film does sidestep some of the pitfalls of courtroom dramas, the filmmakers still stumble by wrapping up loose ends with unnecessary on-screen narrative. It’s not a true story, so why feel the need to tell us what happened to the participants of the story? Too corny for my taste.

For the most part, Friedkin has made a film that crackles. Swift in its pacing and delivery, the film proves that the director of “The Exorcist” and “The French Connection” can still make a film that is both gripping and engaging. Directors of photography William Fraker and Nicola Pecorini manage to make even the most wide open spaces seem claustrophobic, while Mark Isham’s music is filled with immediacy.

“Rules of Engagement” is a crowd pleaser. It touches on all of the bases that make popular entertainment popular. It also taps into deep rooted fears of prejudice to advance its story. If the answers it comes up with were as compelling as the questions, that wouldn’t be a bad thing.

PLAYING BY THE “RULES”MILITARY COURTROOM DRAMA PREYS ON XENOPHOBIC FEARS

RULES OF ENGAGEMENT

Tommy Lee Jones, Samuel L. Jackson, Guy Pearce, Ben Kingsley, Anne Archer, Bruce Greenwood, Blair Underwood, Mark Feurstein in a film directed by William Friedkin. Rated R. 128 Minutes.

LARSEN RATING: $6



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