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"Jarhead"

Directed by Sam Mendes.
Written by William Broyles, Jr.  Based on the book by Anthony Swofford.
Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Peter Sarsgaard, Lucas Black, and Jamie Foxx.
Release Year:  2005
Review Date:  11/06/05

Folks--

The trailer was cool ("JE-SUS WALKS...JE...sus...WALKS!"), the cast is loaded, the director has pedigree..."Jarhead" was on my list for quite a while now.  But there's just enough missing that I don't think it will be around for awards season.

Based on the autobiographical tale of a soldier that took part in Operation Desert Shield--and then, Operation Desert Storm--"Jarhead" sits somewhere between dramedy and black comedy in its retelling of what it might be like to be a soldier in a war where almost NOTHING ever really happens.  Private Swofford (the book author is played by Jake Gyllenhaal), a reasonably smart guy that decided joining the Marines was the way to go over attending college, joins the Corps with the hope that one day he can make a difference, but by the time we meet him he seems to be a bit like the guy sitting two cubes over that is just going through the motions--Swoff doesn't seem to have the ambition to be anything more than a pencil pusher and that suits him just fine.

Just fine...until he meets Staff Sergeant Sykes (Jamie Foxx), who invites Swoff to try out for an elite sniper unit that takes only eight new members out of a crowded field.  The tryouts, the camaraderie and the sniper rifle itself open Swoff's eyes to what being a soldier is all about...and when he makes the unit and they are asked to serve in Operation Desert Shield, Swoff seems truly down with the program.

And then, the U.S. troops arrive...and wait...and wait...and wait.  And Swoff goes slowly insane waiting for something to happen.

I saw this flick with The Professional, Gordon Stokes, and my friend Erin, who came to town to chill out and present at a conference in town.  Erin commented and we all agreed that films like this aren't made very often because you expect Swoff to get off the plane and fight a Gulf War that is long, and brutal, and violent, with thousands of casualties.  If anything else, you expect that we'll get only the glimpse of the fighting that Swofford took part in, expecting the film version of a book that featured a lot of action, or a fairly high number of casualties.  Instead, you get the war as it really was...much ado about nothing, protecting "our interest" (oil, through and through) while seeing about as many soldiers get killed through friendly fire as through actual wartime casualties.  "Jarhead" is excellent as a reference point to what it might be like to be a cop in the real world (i.e., paperwork, lead follow-ups, stakeouts...but really, a shootout only comes a few times in a career) or maybe a volunteer firefighter in your hometown.  It's 99% dead time and 1% action, and while our movies always seem to focus on that 1%, why not profile what it might be like to be a "soldier" but the most important thing you are protecting is your own sanity?

And, as a movie, director Sam Mendes ("Road to Perdition" and "American Beauty") strikes a good balance between comedy and drama in these sequences as Swoff and his cohorts--including his spotter Troy (Peter Sarsgaard) and his Texas-bred teammate Kruger (Lucas Black)--do anything they can to stave off complete boredom.  At least Mendes keeps your attention for the first hour or so of complete boredom...and, this is my only real issue with "Jarhead", that it takes boredom for so long that I found myself a little bored at the Marines' boredom, as funny as it is to watch the men endure scorpion cage matches and tossing the football around while running around in their chemical biosuits.  The film's tone goes from boring to psycho in the matter of a couple of scenes (you have to see it to know what I mean), and then we finally get to see what happens when actual fighting breaks out and by that time the movie lost some of my initial interest.

It's not for a lack of strong performances, though.  Gyllenhaal continues to impress and Sarsgaard made me forget his somewhat-shitty role in this fall's "Flightplan" with another solid supporting performance.  Foxx is good enough in the sergeant role, and the Marine teammates, like Fowler (Evan Jones), help fill your standard-issue one-sided male teammate roles.  The cameos are not as good, but it's always great to see Mr. David Palmer himself, Dennis Haysbert, show up late in the film even if Chris Cooper was dogging it with a subpar performance.

"Jarhead" is also a great looking film and it has a great soundtrack to boot.  It's just too bad that when I left the theater, I was thinking "good film" and not "great film."  Certainly, though, Sam Mendes has made three pretty good films and I'm looking forward to whatever he does next.

Rating:  $9.50 Show

 

Comments?  Drop me a line at justin@bellviewmovies.com.

 

Bellview Rating System:

"Opening Weekend":  This is the highest rating a movie can receive.  Reserved for movies that exhibit the highest level of acting, plot, character development, setting...or Salma Hayek.  Not necessarily in that order. 

"$X.XX Show":  This price changes each year due to the inflation of movie prices; currently, it is the $9.50 Show.  While not technically perfect, this is a movie that will still entertain you at a very high level.  "Undercover Brother" falls into this category; it's no "Casablanca", but you'll have a great time watching.  The $9.50 Show won't win any Oscars, but you'll be quoting lines from the thing for ages (see "Office Space"). 

"Matinee":  An average movie that merits no more than a $6.50 viewing at your local theater.  Seeing it for less than $9.50 will make you feel a lot better about yourself.  A movie like "Blue Crush" fits this category; you leave the theater saying "That wasn't too bad...man, did you see that Lakers game last night?" 

"Rental":  This rating indicates a movie that you see in the previews and say to your friend, "I'll be sure to miss that one."  Mostly forgettable, you couldn't lose too much by going to Hollywood Video and paying $3 to watch it with your sig other, but you would only do that if the video store was out of copies of "Ronin."  If you can, see this movie for free.  This is what your TV Guide would give "one and a half stars." 

"Hard Vice":  This rating is the bottom of the barrel.  A movie that only six other human beings have witnessed, this is the worst movie I have ever seen.  A Shannon Tweed "thriller," it is so bad as to be funny during almost every one of its 84 minutes, and includes the worst ending ever put into a movie.  Marginally worse than "Cabin Boy", "The Avengers" or "Leonard, Part 6", this rating means that you should avoid this movie at all costs, or no costs, EVEN IF YOU CAN SEE IT FOR FREE!  (Warning:  strong profanity will be used in all reviews of "Hard Vice"-rated movies.)

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All material by Justin Elliot Bell for SMR/Bellview/bellviewmovies.com except where noted
1999-2009 Justin Elliot Bell This site was last updated 01/08/09