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Review: An unengaging 'Rules'

movie strip

By Reviewer Paul Clinton

April 7, 2000
Web posted at: 4:38 p.m. EST (2038 GMT)

At its best, "Rules Of Engagement" is merely bad, a sad and confused flick with more than a passing nod to another -- and better -- military courtroom drama, "A Few Good Men."

At its worst, it's blatantly racist, using Arabs as cartoon-cutout bad guys, and unrealistic in its depiction of a conflict in the Middle East.

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It's also a gigantic misuse of the considerable talents of Tommy Lee Jones and Samuel L. Jackson.

The film opens with a bang. Picture it: Vietnam 1968. A major battle is in progress. Jackson, playing Terry Childers, is trying to help his fellow Marines caught in a firefight. After a few "unpleasantries," he saves the only surviving Marine -- Hays Hodges, played by Jones.

A party, a seige

Flash forward 30 years for a two-minute scene in Washington. Col. Hodges is retiring from the Corps. Col. Childers is there to wish him well.

Bang! Suddenly, Childers is heading for another conflict. Picture it: present-day Yemen, where the United States embassy is under siege. The American ambassador, played by Ben Kingsley, and his wife, played by Anne Archer, are under fire, along with their young son.

Why is the embassy in danger? What has happened? Who are the people rioting? We never know, but we do know this: Those pesky, dark-eyed people in Arab dress, holding protest signs, have become international shorthand for "terrorist bad guys."

You're tempted to wonder what the filmmakers had in mind. "Oh, it's the Middle East," you imagine them saying. "There's always something going on. Let's just make up some generic crises and toss a few hundred cliches at it."

So filmgoers find themselves watching a huge battle scene that has no known motive, and in the middle of it Childers is stoically calling the shots. The surging crowd is out of control. Snipers line the rooftops of surrounding buildings. The Marines are undercover, but trapped.

At the height of all this mayhem, Childers literally calls the shots, ordering his men to open fire on the crowd in front of the embassy -- a throng containing old men, women and children. His men, who can't see the crowd from their crouched position, protest but obey. Bullets spit, people fall and all is quiet as the Marines gather their dead and wounded and retreat in the helicopters that brought them in.

Eighty-three people are left dead in Yemen; 100 more are severely wounded. We're 20 minutes into the movie. It's too late to get your money back.

Coverup, confusion

Now the film really begins to stink. There apparently are no witnesses in the entire company of Marines to back up Childers' story that gunfire was coming from the mob in front of the embassy.

Also, for some unknown reason, the U.S. national security adviser, William Sokal, played by an uninspired Bruce Greenwood, wants Childers' head on a platter. Greenwood, by the way, specializes in evil characters. He played Ashley Judd's no-good husband in "Double Jeopardy."

With a stunning, numbing lack of motive, Sokal destroys evidence proving Childers' innocence while letting the "terrorists" in Yemen totally off the hook. Why?

We don't know. -- never will, either.

At this point, Childers hires the soon-to-retire Col. Hodges -- happily, he's a military attorney -- as his lawyer. Now, finally, filmgoers understand why Jones' character was in the movie in the first place. He promptly goes to Yemen, alone, just days after the battle, where the Yemen government gives him total access to everything and everybody -- the same government that seemingly is justified in crying for American blood.

Yeah, right. Wanna buy a bridge?

He, too, finds no evidence that guns were in the crowd -- surprise, surprise -- and comes home to defend Childers with no more his client's outstanding military record as his entire case.

A few good scenes?

Enter this film's resemblance to "A Few Good Men" as the courtroom battle begins with the U.S. government vs. Childers. The main point here,, apparently, is that Jackson gets his moment to shine, to act!

Director William Friedkin pulls out all the stops -- extreme closeups, angles, fast editing. In a shameless rip-off of Jack Nicholson's performance in "A Few Good Men," Jackson vents and rages on the witness stand. He doesn't actually scream, "Truth! You can't handle the truth!" a la Jack -- but he comes close.

Filling in for Tom Cruise, who played the prosecuting attorney in "Good Men," is Guy Pierce. He looks slightly embarrassed to be caught in this film. He should be.

The ending, of course, is a foregone conclusion, and it's all treated as a "real event." The closing credits are preceded by written information about the people who tried to frame Childers and how many years in prison they're supposedly serving. No doubt, some people will leave the theater thinking this "war in Yemen" actually took place.

Friedkin knows how to do good work. He won two best directing Academy Awards for "The French Connection" (1972) and "The Exorcist" (1974).

But consider his output in little more than a decade: "Rampage" in 1988, "The Guardian," in 1990, "Blue Chips" in 1994 and "Jade" in 1995 -- not a decent movie in the bunch. "Rules Of Engagement" does not break that record.

"Rules of Engagement" opens nationwide on Friday and is rated R with a running time of 123 minutes.



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