There are bad movies and bad movies, and then there's the rarity that I watch thinking "Why is God punishing me? What did I do to deserve this?" William Friedkin's Rules of Engagement is that bad, the kind that's not funny or merely annoying but actively, deeply excruciating.
And appalling. And depressing. I thought that the film's stealing the title of the most important documentary of recent years, William Gazecki's Waco: The Rules of Engagement, would be its worst sin. But no; the sins multiply from there. Friedkin's last movie, Jade, was the cinematic equivalent of dog poop. Compared with this new film, though, Jade now looks like The Sorrow and the Pity.
Hands down, ROE now owns the title of Sorriest Slice of Celluloid of the New Millennium, and I honestly wouldn't be surprised if it held onto that crown for months or years to come. Besides which, in a distinction that clarifies its special brand of awfulness, it straightaway claims a prime spot in the Museum of Stupidest Movies Ever Made. Movies that would be hooted at by people who can't count past 10. Movies destined to test a moron's patience.
How did a bunch of adults who can walk upright and feed themselves concoct something that is pure, drooling idiocy in virtually every particular? What mind or minds could hatch such a staggering abortion? Well, check it out: While the movie's screenplay is credited to Stephen Gaghan, a writer for The Practice and NYPD Blue--a mere TV hack, in other words--its story came from the picture's executive producer, James Webb, whose credit sheet contains this interesting item: former secretary of the U.S. Navy.
I kid you not. In fact, Webb's credits include a lot more. He served as a Marine infantry commander in Vietnam. Earned numerous decorations including the Navy Cross, the Silver Star and two Purple Hearts. Got his law degree from Georgetown. Worked as a journalist, winning an Emmy for his coverage of the Marines in Beirut in 1983 for McNeil/Lehrer. Served as the first assistant secretary of defense for reserve affairs, then as secretary of the Navy (1987-88). Is a recognized scholar of the Vietnam War and spokesman for the veterans community. Has written several books, fiction and non.
That's an impressive résumé, I'll be the first to admit. Webb may well be a cool and fascinating guy. But his handiwork on Rules of Engagement left me wondering one thing: If a really smart ex-military guy can fashion a story that plays like the mumblings of the most bitter and full-of-crap old dotard in the VFW hall, what kind of movie would a dumb grunt come up with? The mind boggles.
The film's story opens amid jungle warfare in Vietnam, 1968. Although neither looks a day under 40, Tommy Lee Jones and Samuel L. Jackson play "young" officers caught in desperate straits, which Friedkin conveys through the kind of camera-whipping and sonic barrage that's all the more fakey for trying so lamely to be realistic. Hayes Hodges (Jones) is commanding a group of men that's getting beat to hell by NVA soldiers whose commander and radio operator just happen to be held prisoner nearby by Terry Childers (Jackson). Childers orders the commander to stop the attack, and threatens to kill the radio operator. Then he does just that: shoots his prisoner in the temple, just like in you-know-which famous Vietnam newsreel. The commander now does as he's told, thereby saving Hodges' ass.
How are we supposed to feel about Childers and this scene? Well, it appears we're supposed to feel that in killing his prisoner he's doing something tough and no doubt very regrettable but something that, gosh darnit, just had to be done. This is war, and he's a good man, after all, Childers. In fact, he's our hero.
What, you don't buy that? You think maybe he was just a little bit wrong in murdering a helpless man in his charge? Well then, you're obviously a spineless, peacenik wuss, but at least you've hit upon the single, sentiment-basted thought at the core of this self-cooking turkey: Only Military Guys Can Understand (OMGCU).
And therein lies the contradiction that dooms the whole enterprise to absurdity. The movie won't work unless it can let the audience understand precisely what it is that OMGCU. But it can't, because 1) it's so badly written and directed. And 2) OMGCU, anyway.
Back to the idiotic story, after it flashes forward 30 or so years. Childers is now a Marine colonel. When the U.S. Embassy in Yemen is besieged by a mob of protestors, he and a few choppers-worth of Marines are sent in to save the day by rescuing the cowering, craven ambassador (Ben Kingsley, in the most pathetic part any ex-Gandhi could ever encounter) and his hapless wife and son.
What follows is, moment to moment, idea by idea, surely one of the most ludicrous scenes ever to appear in a modern war film. Childers and company storm into the embassy and escort the jellylike Ambassador and family to the waiting helicopter. But Childers won't leave, because he has to go back and get the flag. (You think I'm making this up. Believe me, I couldn't.)
The American soldiers, for reasons that defy analysis, all go to the roof of the embassy, where, as the crowd of demonstrators howls on the street below, they're mercilessly targeted by a handful of snipers on nearby rooftops. Oddly, Childers doesn't order his men to take out the snipers. Instead, he suddenly determines that there are shooters in the crowd--which includes lots of women, kids and old folks--so he screams to his troops, "Waste the motherfuckers!" They do; scores of Yemenis are mowed down in seconds.
Now, the continuing scandal of Hollywood's Arab-bashing smells to high heaven, but this film manages to stun nonetheless. Near the end of last year, in a particularly odious and underhanded example of political correctness, the Directors Guild of America removed from the name of its annual prize the name of D.W. Griffith, who was convicted 85 years after the fact of fostering intolerable "racial stereotypes" in one of his 500 films. Given the movie colony's mammoth self-delusion and boundless hypocrisy, you can be sure the DGA won't raise a peep against Billy Friedkin and Paramount for promoting the only vicious racial stereotype that's not only still permitted but actively endorsed by Hollywood.
Still, at least you now see why the movie is set in the Middle East. If Childers had mowed down a hundred Africans or Swedes, say, it might be a little hard for us to see our hero's act as just like that earlier murder in Vietnam: harsh but justifiable, perhaps even heroic. Arabs deserve it, anyway--they're the enemy, the dark, fanatical Other, aren't they?
Alas, not everyone agrees. When the world's liberal and foreign newspapers raise a front-page eyebrow at so many people being slaughtered, the president's oily national security adviser (Bruce Greenwood) decides Childers will have to be thrown to the wolves via a court martial that can be rigged, if necessary, to produce the desired result. Of course, this plot turn is the most preposterous of all. The president has no need to back up the military? The Joint Chiefs see no reason to stand behind their commander in the field (and he's not even gay)? Yep, it's just as you always suspected: U.S. military command and foreign policy are actually dictated by the editors of Le Monde.
There are no women in this fantasy world, except for one speechless, cowering wife. And every civilian male of note--the national security adviser, the ambassador--is a slimy coward. All of which reflects the corollary truism that Only Military Guys Are Real Men. But the greater, looming truth is still OMGCU. Thus when Childers is railroaded into that rigged military trial, only his old Vietnam buddy Hodges, now a military lawyer, can understand and mount a real defense, which ultimately--get this--rests on the most absurd twist of all: The old NVA commander from that 1968 battle is brought in to testify that Childers did the right thing in murdering the commander's poor subordinate!
Huh? Yes indeed, we have here the winner of most pathetically ridiculous and nonsensical movie scene of the year. Of course, the United States should let its former enemies wipe away any notion of proper military conduct. Why? Don't ask, wuss. OMGCU.
That anyone, much less a former secretary of the Navy, could cobble such a sub-Tom Clancy pastiche of boozy self-pity, chest-thumping vanity and hoary military fantasy into a screen story is staggering enough. But the real stunner is that lots of other people surely contrived to turn this risible bilge into a movie in the year 2000. I sat through the film thinking of the number of sleek, Rolexed Hollywood execs who must've looked at the movie's script and other elements and given their approval to it. What were they thinking? More precisely, as a colleague said on the way out of the screening said, "What audience is there for this silly claptrap?"
There are indeed bad movies and bad movies. You can understand the kind that's made from the desire to turn a quick buck by pandering to the public's degraded tastes. But the movies that really seem actively pernicious to me are those that defy all obvious commercial logic, that seem to reflect hidden agendas and corrupting influences not unlike those which this stupid film imputes to the government and the civilian world. What am I talking about? Well, for example, the reason that Billy Friedkin, a has-been who's made mostly crap for 20 years, gets to mount yet another big Paramount project: because he's married to Sherry Lansing, the studio's head.
Paramount is owned by Viacom, which is run by Sumner Redstone. Does anyone out there have the ear of Mr. Redstone? If so, call him up and invite him to take a look at how much of his money Sherry Lansing's spending on her marriage. This is the kind of crime that only a good capitalist could remedy.