Los Angeles Times

Rules of Engagement


Friday April 7, 2000

     "Rules of Engagement," as this courtroom-combat drama takes pains to explain, are a set of regulations that let soldiers know what the military can and cannot do when it comes to using deadly force. Wouldn't it be nice if there were similar rules governing what Hollywood can and cannot do when confronted with what's potentially an involving, invigorating subject?
     Directed by the veteran William Friedkin and starring Tommy Lee Jones, Samuel L. Jackson and an impressive Guy Pearce, "Rules" is a passable, moderately diverting dramatic entertainment that raises all kinds of thought-provoking questions it's not really interested in answering. Though we all know that situations in the real world are complex while those in the movies are simple, it's always frustrating when a film hints at the former before ending up with the latter.
     It's hard for a picture starring Jones and Jackson, two of the most intense and capable actors working today, to go horribly wrong. Few performers look as natural as Marine officers, and seeing them both in the jungle in Vietnam in the film's 1968 prologue makes us wonder how the hell we ever lost the war.
     Close combat buddies, Hays Hodges (Jones) and Terry Childers (Jackson) get separated before a blistering fire fight and Childers has to make a fateful decision about some Viet Cong captives that may mean life or death for his pal. Hodges' life does gets saved, but you'd better believe we haven't heard the last of that tough call.
     Cut to 28 years later, in Camp Lejeune, N.C., where the two men are reunited at Hodges' retirement celebration. Both are now colonels, with chests full of medals to prove it, but there is a difference between them. Since being wounded in combat, Hodges has been a desk-bound Marine attorney while Childers, known to intimates as "the warrior's warrior," is about to get an important field command.
     That command turns out to involve leading a squadron of helicopter-borne Marines from an aircraft carrier to the U.S. Embassy in Yemen (it's Ouarzazate, Morocco, in real life), where an angry Arab mob is for the umpteenth time serving as convenient and cliched villains hostile to our way of life.
     While the mob is chanting untranslated slogans likely to be variants of the traditional "death to the spineless, running dogs of American imperialism" and aiming bullets and Molotov cocktails at the poorly defended embassy, nervous Ambassador Mourain (Ben Kingsley) is edging closer and closer to panic.
     Not so the cool Col. Childers. Does he take a moment to calm down the ambassador's understandably terrified small son? You betcha. Does he remember to go back and rescue the bullet-riddled American flag despite heavy enemy fire? Roger that. Does the seriously rattled ambassador mean it when he vows eternal gratitude before he flies away? Don't hold your breath.
     Only one thing gets Col. Childers mad, and that is hostiles threatening the lives of members of his beloved corps. It's a complicated crowd he's left to deal with in front of the embassy, some taking pot shots at the building, others content to merely chant those snappy slogans. Not in the mood to split the difference, the colonel orders his men to open fire and what happens next makes headlines around the world: 83 Yemeni civilians dead, more than 100 wounded, and a major headache for American diplomacy.
     Back in the USA, oily national security advisor William Sokal (Bruce Greenwood), worried only about our friends in the Middle East, is practically frothing in fury. He insists that Col. Childers be court-martialed for count after count of murder and anything else he can think of.
     Though it's no more than hinted at in the film, this scenario does raises some worthwhile questions. Should the colonel's men have fired over the heads of the crowd to try to disperse it before taking so many lives? What exactly is necessary force? Does Childers represent all that is wrong or all that is right about the military? Is it true, as someone says, that the difference between a hero and a murderer is a very fine line?
     Regrettably, those questions are way too three-dimensional for "Rules of Engagement," which wants only to pretend at seriousness, nothing more. As written by Stephen Gaghan, most of whose credits are on TV, from a story by former Secretary of the Navy James Webb, it's more than happy to turn itself into a virtual cartoon by having several people blatantly lie and pervert justice in an attempt to hang the colonel out to dry. Childers, however, has a secret weapon on his side. It's old pal Hays Hodges, whom he picks for his attorney because he doesn't want "a Starbuck's drinker who's never seen combat" to defend him.
     Of course, this being a movie, no one knows Hodges is a secret weapon. To the world and even to himself and members of his immediate family he appears to be a mess, a weak attorney on the way to retirement who barely survived a drinking problem and a messy divorce. But, hey, this is Tommy Lee Jones we're talking about, and anyone wanting to bet against him making a rousing summation to the jury would probably have picked "Wild Wild West" to win an Oscar.
     Unfortunately neither Jones nor Jackson is really used to his fullest capacity here. Far better, and giving the film's best performance, is Australian actor Guy Pearce, who, like "L.A. Confidential" co-star Russell Crowe, is proving a master at reinventing himself for each new role.
     Pearce's Maj. Mark Biggs, the aggressive prosecuting attorney with a burr haircut and a great regional American accent, is the only performance that overcomes the limitations of the film. While the rest of "Rules of Engagement" is acceptable, it doesn't have the chops or the ambition to wrestle with the questions it raises.

Rules of Engagement, 2000. R, for scenes of war violence and for language. In association with Seven Arts Pictures, a Richard D. Zanuck/Scott Rudin production, released by Paramount Pictures. Director William Friedkin. Producers Richard D. Zanuck, Scott Rudin. Executive producers Adam Schroeder, James Webb. Screenplay Stephen Gaghan, story James Webb. Cinematographers William Fraker, Nicola Pecorini. Editor Augie Hess. Costumes Gloria Gresham. Music Mark Isham. Production design Robert Laing. Running time: 2 hours, 8 minutes. Tommy Lee Jones as Col. Hays Hodges. Samuel L. Jackson as Col. Terry Childers. Guy Pearce as Maj. Mark Biggs. Bruce Greenwood as William Sokal. Blair Underwood as Capt. Lee. Ben Kingsley as Ambassador Mourain.

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