“Are we ever going to get to kill anyone?,” a young Marine asks after waiting for months in the Arabian desert for the Persian Gulf war to begin. The negative answer for him and his pumped-up fellow grunts who get sent home without seeing any real action makes “Jarhead” a different kind of antiwar film — a war film without a war. Part absurdist drama, part personal observational commentary and part hormonal explosion, all seen through the filter of previous war pics, Sam Mendes’ third feature has numerous arresting moments but never achieves a confident, consistent or sufficiently audacious tone. Quasi-topical release pushes enough buttons to make this a solid B.O. performer for Universal with review-conscious and young auds alike.
As a Hollywood take on the United States’ initial offensive against the dictator commonly referred to here as Saddam Insane, “Jarhead” doesn’t come close to the first one, David O. Russell’s “Three Kings.” Nor does it self-importantly try to offer even covert commentary on what’s going on in Iraq today. Rather, Vietnam vet screenwriter William Broyles Jr. has used Anthony Swofford’s bestselling 2003 tome to create a bemused study of what it was like to be a soldier primed for action in a war in which ground troops were rendered almost irrelevant by air power.
From the outset, Vietnam and movies assert themselves as the primary touchstones for “Jarhead.” You have to look carefully to make sure the opening shot isn’t drawn directly from “Full Metal Jacket,” what with a barracks-full of dogfaces being berated by a vein-busting drill instructor who looks like R. Lee Ermey’s country cousin. But it’s 1989, and the man/boys are being prepped for war on the sizzling sands of the Middle East.
By forthrightly announcing its cinematic reference points (recruits are later shown whooping it up to the Wagner-backed helicopter attack in “Apocalypse Now” and settling in to watch “The Deer Hunter”), the film instantly disarms those who might otherwise be inclined to take it to task for cribbing, just as it shows how young soldiers actually took inspiration from those classics. But forcibly reminding the audience of its forebears has the simultaneous negative effect of spotlighting the picture’s own lack of comparable boldness and invention. Nope, the Gulf War was no Vietnam, and “Jarhead” is no “Platoon.”
Point of view is provided by the persistent voiceover of 20-year-old Tony “Swoff” Swofford (Jake Gyllenhaal), a third-generation military man (his dad served in ‘Nam) who leaves behind a hot girlfriend and pointedly totes around a copy of Camus’ “The Stranger.” Although no intellectual, Swoff is bright and notices things, qualities that invest his thoughts with sidelong insights that keep his comments amusing, even as they lack the sweaty cynicism of those of a Yossarian in “Catch-22.”
After 20 minutes of basic training, a beautifully rendered fleet of TWA 747s transports the tale to Saudi Arabia, where the men are exhorted to “kick some Iraqi ass” by a gung-ho officer (Chris Cooper). Throughout, global politics and the motives behind the troop buildup lie far in the background, as the film strives to portray a state of being rather than a reason for action.
Once the stage shifts to the promised battleground, “Jarhead” becomes a vaguely existential story of being all dressed up with nowhere to go, about men awaiting chemical warfare and an alleged million-man army while playing football in the sand sporting gas masks, surreptitiously pleasuring themselves and giving each other grief about unfaithful girlfriends and wives.
On a scene-by-scene basis, Mendes and Broyles provide a steady serving of gritty goods, from the lovely monologue by Jamie Foxx, playing a staff sergeant, to haunting shots of the men examining the charred remains of Iraqi soldiers and burning oil wells lighting up the night sky that prompt Swoff to observe that “the Earth is bleeding,” and for some will bring to mind Werner Herzog’s mesmerizing impressionistic docu “Lessons of Darkness.”
Trained as snipers, Swoff and his partner Troy (Peter Sarsgaard) are finally called uponto ply their specialized trade, but at the last second are thwarted by the arrival of yet more air power, rendering their lengthy sojourn in the desert essentially pointless. Pic emerges as more a diaristic chronicle than a muscular drama, and an ironic postscript underlines yarn’s absurdist elements while also stressing the notion that, once a soldier, always a soldier.
After “American Beauty” and “Road to Perdition,” Mendes looks more than ever a veritable chameleon among directors as he stages the action here — and nonaction — with vigor and smarts. But his very caginess helps prevent the film from busting out — with irreverence, outrageousness, penetrating insight, anything — in a way that would give it a full-fledged personality of its own. It’s almost as if the filmmakers were hiding behind a mask of strongly cultivated intelligence that keeps them from genuinely expressing their emotions and gut instincts.
Gyllenhaal is alert and physically very present in a good performance that centers the film, and Foxx is strong in his important secondary role. Otherwise, however, thesping is more ordinary than one has come to expect from a Mendes film.
Ruggedly made pic looks buff and stripped down. Roger Deakins’ lensing is at one with the bleached-out appearance of the sand-colored costumes and settings (pic was shot entirely in North America, in the California and Mexican deserts). Visual effects are seamless, while Thomas Newman’s score is abetted by some musical selections that consciously ape those used in some Vietnam-era dramas.