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RULES OF ENGAGEMENT

by: James Berardinelli

Rules of Engagement reaches theater screens with a troubled production history behind it. At one point, former Secretary of the Navy, James Webb, who is credited with having developed the story, demanded that his name be removed from the project, claiming that a scene or scenes in the final cut "betrayed" his original vision. Only after changes were made did Webb relent. There have also been rumors of massive last-minute edits (possibly connected with Webb's demand), which may explain the choppiness of the film's narrative.

Rules of Engagement suffers from a serious split personality disorder. On the one hand, it wants to explore the fascinating question of when killing people in combat turns into murder. On the other hand, the movie wants to present a straightforward courtroom thriller, with all of the usual trappings (an innocent man wrongly accused, a defense attorney striving for redemption, a belligerent prosecuting attorney, and a big speech at the end). Unfortunately, respected director William Friedkin (The French Connection, The Exorcist) and screenwriter Stephen Gaghan are unable to effectively wed these two elements. The movie creates an over-the-top villain who renders the first approach moot, then shoots down the second one with a feeble ending.

The movie starts out successfully enough, introducing us to lead character Terry L. Childers (Samuel L. Jackson) back in the days when he was hunting through the jungles of Vietnam. In short order, Rules of Engagement clouds Childers' moral character by having him shoot a prisoner-of-war in cold blood in order to save American men, including his friend, Hayes Hodges (Tommy Lee Jones). In his view, sparing the lives of U.S. soldiers is worth violating provisions of the Geneva Convention. He does not regret his action, and he does not look back.

28 years later, both Childers and Hodges are colonels. Childers is the head of a special forces group, and Hodges, a lawyer of little distinction, is about to retire. Then, on a seemingly routine "babysitting" mission to Yemen, where a group of protesters are frightening the U.S. ambassador (Ben Kingsley) and his wife (Anne Archer), everything goes terribly wrong. Childers gets the citizens out, but loses three men in the process. When under heavy fire, he orders retaliation, and the result is 83 dead men, women, and children. The political firestorm demands a scapegoat, and the U.S. National Security Advisor, William Sokal (Bruce Greenwood), destroys evidence suggesting Childers' innocence in order to attain a conviction on 83 counts of murder. In search of a defense attorney, Childers approaches his old friend Hodges, who advises him, "I'm a good enough lawyer to know you need a better lawyer than me." Despite this, Childers presses Hodges into service, claiming, "If I'm guilty of this, I'm guilty of everything I've done in combat in the last 30 years."

One of the earliest apparent problem with Rules of Engagement is its lack of credibility. The entire operation in Yemen seems contrived and unrealistic - as if a chain of events had to happen in a particular manner in order for the plot to proceed as it does. Childers is the only one to see weapons in the hands of the so-called "innocent" civilians. He does not fire warning shots. He does not attempt to take out nearby snipers. He does nothing to protect his men until several of them are dead - the he immediately orders them to fire into a crowd. Unfortunately, questions surround the morality and necessity of Childers' actions are rendered irrelevant when the film introduces William Sokal, a villain without a single redeeming quality. We hate this man so intently that we immediately buy into Childers' point-of-view because Sokal is determined to destroy the man.

The trial sequences, which comprise about half of the film's running time, have their good points and bad points. There are no dra

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