Director William Friedkin (Exorcist, Blue Chips, TV's "12 Angry Men") delivered another box office hit with his most recent picture, Rules of Engagement. Unlike most of the money rakers in theaters lately, his film manages to blend strong acting and thought provoking issues into a mainstream friendly mix of action and drama.
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The film opens in 1968 where U.S. Marine Colonels Terry Childers (Samuel L. Jackson - Pulp Fiction, A Time to Kill) and Hayes Hodges (Tommy Lee Jones - Fugitive, Double Jeopardy) are fighting together in Vietnam. Combat with a platoon of Vietnamese troops breaks out in the woods, and, though it costs them severely, Childers manages to save Hodges' life. Injured in the battle, Hodges returns home, becomes a lawyer, and settles down into a more normal life. Childers, on the other hand, remains in the Marines where he continues to serve for thirty years.
Flash to present day Yemen where hostile protestors have been gradually growing stronger around the U.S. Embassy. Childers has been called on to lead his troops into Yemen where they plan to remove the Ambassador and his family from harm. Once they reach the Embassy, the protests are getting way out of hand. Crawling on their hands and knees through the rubble on building tops to reach the Ambassador, the troops find themselves under heavy fire. With three of his men KIA, Childers orders his troops to open fire on the crowd below. He knows that most, if not all, of the gunfire is coming from snipers, but with no clear shot at them, he and his men are sitting ducks. The only way to feasibly fight back is to aim at the crowd of protestors, many of whom are women and children. They manage to escape with the Ambassador, but 83 "civilians" are killed in the process.
News of the massacre immediately reaches home where the government decides that the best way to handle the situation is to place all the blame on Childers. A trial date is set, and Childers' life is immediately in terrible danger. Childers' defense relies on the fact that decisions made during battle must be governed differently than domestic violence. Instead of relying on an appointed lawyer to argue his case, he wants someone who truly understands the heat of the battle to take it. He decides that the best man for the job is the one who owes him his life, retired lawyer Hodges. Although Hodges has his doubts (mainly because he was never a very good lawyer), he eventually takes the case, paving the way for an intense trial with no clear answers in sight.
Samuel L. Jackson and Tommy Lee Jones deliver very convincing performances, without which the film would probably be a complete failure. Why, however, similar looking actors could not be found to play their younger selves, I do not understand. Supporting performances are strong across the board, though plot development opportunities involving some characters, most notably the Ambassador's wife (Anne Archer - Clear and Present Danger, Patriot Games), are completely missed.
With Rules of Engagement, Friedkin left a fair share of plot holes, missed many interesting opportunities, and contributed nothing new in the way of film ideas. Nonetheless, the movie manages to get you thoroughly involved and keep you guessing up until the end, enough so to garner a fair recommendation. Is Childers' a murderer or a hero? It is up to you to decide.
7 out of 10
Rated R for violence and language
DVD Extras: The recent DVD release of Rules of Engagement features the film in its original widescreen format. Cast and crew interviews and a 25 minute featurette make for interesting and informative supplemental material to the film. Friedkin offers up a solo full length commentary, but I cannot comment on this because I was not interested enough in the film to listen to it.
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