Act I: As the country crooner sings "Goodbye, sweetheart, hello, Viet Nam," 17 Marine recruits get their heads shaved. The long, defiant hair of the late 1960s falls to the floor; the young men look sullen or stern. Do they know that this is a pre-op for a lobotomy? Double time, in their eight weeks at Parris Island, S.C., they will be stripped of their freedom, their pride, their names. The recruit who dares to hang some John Wayne sarcasm on the drill instructor will be called Joker (Matthew Modine). The guy from Texas will be dubbed Cowboy (Arliss Howard). Gomer Pyle is the name given to a fat bumpkin (Vincent D'Onofrio) whose dim-witted sanctity begs to be beaten into lean meat. The D.I. (Lee Ermey) will oblige. He will shape Pyle into an M-14 with a loaded magazine -- a full metal jacket. Then Pyle, like his sweetheart of a rifle, will go off. The killing machine will be fired too soon. His last smile will be one of emotional vacancy, for he has achieved the purity of madness.
With this splendid first 45 minutes of his new film, Stanley Kubrick reenters the real world. For a quarter-century the reclusive director has hit the cerebral fantasy button, in Pentagon war rooms (Dr. Strangelove), in outer and inner space (2001: A Space Odyssey), in the nightmare future (A Clockwork Orange), in the duplicitous past (Barry Lyndon) and down the endless bloody corridors of a deranged mind (The Shining). Now he's back. Full Metal Jacket is not a realistic film -- it is horror-comic superrealism, from a God's-eye view -- but it should fully engage the ordinary movie grunt. The boot-camp sequence begins as high farce, with the D.I. taunting his recruits in arias of obscenity that tickle and singe the ear. Kubrick's majestic camera tracks across the barracks, it ascends obstacle courses, it glides past the soldiers, then abruptly cuts to close-ups, to study their pain head on. Their faces are fists clenched in rage and fear; they know that farce is about to replay itself as tragedy. The Marines never quite recover from the inevitable explosion. The film never quite survives its bravura beginning.
Act II: Viet Nam, just before the 1968 Tet offensive. Local hookers peddle their pleasures while Joker and a soft, eager photographer called Rafterman (Kevyn Major Howard) dodge thieves and boredom. Their job is to rouge up the war for the Stars and Stripes, to turn the horror into cheering press releases. No soldier believes a bit of it. Everyone has reached a state of exalted cynicism. "Welcome to Viet Nam, the Movie," Joker sneers to an American camera crew. "You think we waste gooks for freedom?" says the Marine called Animal Mother (Adam Baldwin). Crazy Earl (Kieron Jecchins), who poses next to a sprawling Viet Cong corpse, pays ironic tribute to the enemy: "After we rotate back to the world, we're gonna miss not havin' anybody around worth shootin'." Later, when he picks off a couple of V.C. like fairground ducks, his face creases in a smile of dread and awe.