Rated R - Running Time: 2:10 - Released 4/7/00

It's interesting to think about the process that must have gone into writing the official international "rules of engagement," something that we obviously would need in order to understand what is appropriate behavior when dealing with the enemy in wartime. It is strange that humans have evolved into such an intelligent, reasonable species, and yet so admittedly prone to violence, as to actually agree, without feeling the slightest bit self-conscious, on a set of rules dictating when and how it's okay to kill somebody. Like the rules of a football game. No wonder Patton loved it so much.

Rules Of Engagement, a story by Vietnam veteran & former U.S. Secretary of the Navy James Webb, adapted for the screen by Stephen Gaghan, and directed by William Friedkin, deals with this subject. A fascinating and often gripping film, it stars Samuel L. Jackson as Colonel Terry Childers, a Marine commander who is charged with murdering 83 civilian demonstrators outside the American embassy in Yemen — demonstrators who were shooting at and killing his men, but who included women, children, and the elderly. Feeling that he acted within the rules, he pleads not guilty and hires his old Vietnam buddy, Marine attorney Col. Hayes Hodges (Tommy Lee Jones) to defend him.

This movie features, of course, liberal use of the interesting but oft-used courtroom formula — although one should note that military law is not exactly the same a civilian law (for one thing, rather than being innocent until proven guilty, you're guilty until proven innocent). But interspersed between the court scenes are many flashback battle sequences, both at the embassy and, more distantly, in the jungle of Vietnam. Because Col. Hodges was wounded there, he was forced to give up the infantry he loved for a desk job, which, according to most military movies, is a soldier's absolute worst fate imaginable. His association with the case brings back constant memories of his fighting days, resulting in a complex web of emotions about Childers's situation. Friedkin makes adroit use of this back-and-forth technique so that one does not get mired in the legal/political aspects of the trial, nor weary of the action-packed combat footage.

But the sequence I like the best is where Hodges flies to Yemen alone to asses the crime scene and discovers some things that profoundly alter his perception of the case and of his own truncated combat career. This section, a good 20 minutes long at least, features Jones practically by himself, with few words spoken, walking, looking, thinking, is a tremendously real, subtle segment of the film, forcing him to act without speaking. Any actor knows that being alone is one of the most difficult things to portray realistically.

Jackson is not as strong in his portrayal of Childers; his combat manner is fine, but during the interior scenes, he seems to lack the common sense that got him all those medals. Moreover, the subplot involving Hodges failing to live up to the expectations of his old man is perhaps the film's weakest point. It's trite and unnecessary, but fortunately Friedkin and Gaghan don't dwell on the subject, so it doesn't seriously pull the film in the wrong direction. Among the supporting cast, mention must be given to Guy Pearce as Major Mark Biggs, the prosecuting attorney. Biggs makes it clear that he intends to try the case based solely on evidence and not to "hang this guy out to dry." Born in England and reared in Australia, Pearce has no trouble with an American accent, which is important when playing a lawyer for the U.S. Marines. His character's righteousness is an important point, since National Security Advisor William Sokal (Bruce Greenwood) desires to make an example of Childers so as to preserve the delicate balance of international politics, even if it means concealing evidence. Greenwood's character, as well as that of Ben Kingsley as the tense, cowardly ambassador, is two-dimensional, but both actors try admirably to be convincing nonetheless. Also notable are Anne Archer and Hayden Tank as the ambasssador's panic-stricken wife and child. ****

Copyright 2000 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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