That joke is in Jarhead. That joke and about a thousand others. As the entire Full Metal Jacket-esque first half unfolds, it feels a lot like director Sam Mendes and screenwriter William Broyles Jr. are trying to break up the tension of Anthony Swofford's book with a quite liberal (sorry, gang) peppering of comedy. This never becomes M*A*S*H, of course (I don't remember old Hawkeye copping a squat on bombed out car parts to converse with a charred corpse sitting upright in a sick perversion of "The Thinker"), but it does tend to rely on the funny to balance out the gunny. Jarhead isn't always the surface laugh that it begins as, however. Our intrepid filmmakers pump more Irony into this movie than Geritol pumps into Grandpa Simpson. Not that the audience I was with got it. Czech this out... Our team of Jarhead Marines are viewing a base theater's showing of Apocalypse Now, watching the taking of "Charlie's Point", hootin', hollerin', laughin' and acting it all out. The Audience I was with watched similar scenes within Jarhead itself... and had a similar reaction, as oblivious as Dan Quayle on Meet the Press. Look, if Irony were cream filling and Jarhead was a Hostess Twinkie, it would have ruptured and spattered enough to whitewash Tom Sawyer's fence.
Sometimes, though, Jarhead falls victim to its own references, as it becomes pretty obvious that it's trying damned hard to be Apocalypse Now or Full Metal Jacket or The Deer Hunter (a reference you have to see, by the way). Other times, there's no denying that Jarhead simply works. From the dead on and multi-faceted performance and narration by Jake Gyllenhaal (as "Swoff" himself), to the unconventional and real-world story, to the way it all fits into an imperfect, yet realistic whole, I'm an immediate fan of Jarhead, stray hairs and all.
Gyllenhaal begins our story during Swofford's Basic Training, induction into the Surveillance and Target Acquisition Platoon (the "STA" or "stay", under the cruel tutelage of Jamie Foxx) and the ramp up to deployment into the Kingdom of Saud for some Shielding and Storming of the old Desert. It's this gripping first half that brings us into the heart of Swofford, his friends and his enemies (often interchanging like G.I. Joe Figures), and into a natural, dramatic and funny elevation of character and story.
As we migrate from the training to the storming, we do see some damned good acting, often in contrast to type. Peter Sarsgaard is pretty much the same in every movie, but manages to break the mold and shine here as Troy. This may be his best performance yet. Lucas Black commonly plays the same Southern pie kicker in each film he's been cast in since Fight The Future. Here, however, he actually manages to play a free thinking and order questioning Southern pie kicker. Hell, we even get some twisted and off-key cameos from such actors as Dennis Haysbert and Chris Cooper. One might think that with as many war movie references and notable known names, that there's a governmental cover-up of the story here. But quicker than you can say "A-TEN-HUT" each character can move and twist before one's eyes. In one scene the stable rock can become the quivering wreck, just as the reluctant grunt morphs into the blood-sniffing nihilist, covered in a mud made of sand and oil.
One can't help but think that Swofford's original book must have been more cohesive and flowing, especially as from time to time, Jarhead goes from Olive Drab to just plain Drab. There are a few missing moments and the occasional feeling that Mendes and company spent a few days with a stack of DVDs before filming this one (you can add Platoon, and maybe just a granule of Black Hawk Down and Saving Private Ryan to the pile of potential borrowees). Even considering its flaws, Jarhead manages to achieve a high water mark in the annals of American War Films, and with the legitimate laughs, stunning visuals, brutally honest dialogue and situations (this one can be very hard to watch in parts), great acting and the occasional brief, yet applause worthy nudity, Jarhead proves it. It's also completely true that there seems to be a whole lot of set-up and build-up to a war that hardly lasts any time at all... if you even casually glanced at CNN during 1991, you'll see that this is what really happened (we should be so lucky today), and one can hardly nitpick the events of this film until one walks a mile in Swofford's book, Jarhead: A Marine's Chronicle of the Gulf War and Other Battles.
I won't be able to tell you how accurate this film is to the book until I read it, and I can't tell you how accurate either one is to the real deal Holyfield... but mi amigo Phillips could. Marines may or may not like the ironic overtones, or the "War Is Hell" undertones, but skinny, sarcastic, wise-crackin' room mates of Marines (turned overweight, bombastic fries-snackin' Internet Movie critics) could suck it up with a canteen straw, salute it, stubble-and-all, and give it Four Stars out of Five. Jake Gyllenhaal is more than just Donnie Darko, and here's a jar full of proof that he just might be more than even just a Jarhead. Does he need kickass performances from Sarsgaard, Foxx, Black, Cooper and Haysbert? Well, Marine... sure as deserts are dusty, it doesn't hurt one bit. So, until my buddy Phillips (long since surpassing the rank of Corporal), shows up at my house, beats the holy Irish out of me, and only then tells me that my posting his use of Marine NBC gear and Star Wars quotes to woo women has gotten him a dishonorable discharge, and I'm a-gonna get beaten into the approximate varied shades of desert camouflage, I'll see you in the next oil-mudded reel. We won't be asking "Where's The War?" that day. Ouch, man!
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