Rules of Engagement” is a nuts-and-bolts, ramrod-straight military thriller that uses a distinctly unsavory case to defend the honor of the U.S. Marines’ way of life. Taking a broad and obvious approach to ambiguous material that’s virtually all plot mechanics with little nuance or characterization, William Friedkin’s combat-and-courtroom drama possesses sufficient action and conflict to put it over as a solid commercial attraction, and it will be easy for Paramount to suggest to the public that the picture is this season’s “A Few Good Men” or “The General’s Daughter,” big hits both.
The specifics of the situation, which were elaborated into a screenplay by TV writer Stephen Gaghan from a story by former Marine infantry commander and Secretary of the Navy James Webb, may be distinct from other screen military mellers, but the dynamics — the honor of the military view vs. the incomprehension and hostility of civilians — are pretty familiar. Probably the film “Rules” most resembles, notably in its stress on decisions made under difficult battle conditions and its concern with the truth about how and why tragic events occurred, is the 1996 “Courage Under Fire,” which also dealt with combat in the Middle East.
Ten-minute prologue illustrates the defining moment in the lifelong bond between Terry Childers (Samuel L. Jackson) and Hays Hodges (Tommy Lee Jones), which was cemented when the former saved the latter’s life during a mission in Vietnam. Twenty-eight years later, Col. Childers presents Col. Hodges with a sword at his retirement party from the Marines before heading off for another arena of conflict, this time in Yemen.
With angry crowds besieging the American Embassy, Childers commands three Marine choppers that are sent to rescue the cowering ambassador (Ben Kingsley), his wife (Anne Archer) and son. By the time the colonel and his men arrive, snipers are firing from rooftops across the street, and the mob is launching rocks and knocking down the doors to the ancient palace; Childers only barely manages to spirit out the government representative in the nick of time. But the fighting continues, Marines start to be killed, and Childers finally gives the order to start firing into the crazed crowd.
The result is an international scandal: Eighty-three Arabs are dead, including many women and children, with scores more wounded. Snapping into action, the transparently evil National Security Adviser, William Sokal (Bruce Greenwood), demands that the blame for the slaughter be placed squarely upon Col. Childers for giving illegal orders to “murder” unarmed people, so as take responsibility off the United States in general. In other words, the fix is in from the start, and there’s nothing that even sympathetic military higher-ups can do about it.
Rightly sensing he’s being hung out to dry, Childers asks his old buddy Hodges, who went to law school after Nam, to represent him at the court-martial. Although Hodges insists, “I’m a weak lawyer,” he can hardly refuse his friend, who flatly states the film’s p.o.v. when he says, “If I’m guilty of this, I’m guilty of everything I’ve done in combat for the last 30 years.”
Hodges takes a quick trip to Yemen in search of anything or anyone possibly helpful to his client, but all he finds is heated anti-Americanism and mutilated victims, mostly children, of Marine bullets. He returns mad as hell at Childers, but then the audience gets to see something that no one else sees: a videotape taken by an embassy security camera that clearly shows many of the “innocent” men, women and, yes, children in the crowd firing guns at the American compound and its defenders. Finding this evidence at odds with his intentions, Sokal tosses the one and only tape in the fire.
Final 45 minutes are devoted to the trial, in which callow bulldog prosecutor Maj. Mark Biggs (Guy Pearce) relentlessly attacks Childers’ alleged recklessness and makes him look pretty bad. Hodges chips away at the government’s case as best he can, even managing to suggest that Sokal destroyed the tape he proves was sent to the State Dept. from Yemen. But it just doesn’t look like it’s going to be enough, especially in light of the weaselly ambassador’s lies on the stand and Childers’ own unfortunate outburst at a crucial point.
“Rules of Engagement” gives fresh meaning to the term “narrative cinema,” since there is essentially nothing else here. A reserved man who says he wants to spend his retirement fly fishing, Hodges is divorced with a grown son and once had “a drinking problem,” but that’s all the information about him provided by either the script or Jones’ recessive performance. Jackson has even less to work with, since Childers is defined only as Pure Marine — no family, no psychology, no nothing. A big fight between the two aging comrades-in-arms, in which Hodges assaults Childers after his return from Yemen, is clearly meant to be a classic Big Scene, with two stars beating up on each other, but Friedkin doesn’t stage it too well, and the underlying layers of comedy and love between the men don’t find expression. The anti-Arab defamation crowd could conceivably mobilize itself for this one, since all Yemeni adults but one are seen as hate-filled marauders. Still, none of them is as clearly nefarious as the National Security Adviser, who, rather than the military, is meant to represent the poison that infects the American establishment.
It cannot be denied, however, that such a story develops a pull and momentum of its own, that the issues of justice, honor, professionalism, patriotism and bonds between soldiers can generate feelings independent of the characters who embody them, and that courtroom dramas aren’t that difficult to make interesting and even gripping. Friedkin has an affinity for the trappings of the genre, even if he doesn’t do much special with them this time out, and the 15-minute action sequence of the Yemeni siege and evacuation undeniably builds to a blood-coursing level of intensity. But the picture’s outlook on the events it depicts is strictly legalistic, never broadening to assume anything resembling a political, moral or philosophical position.
All performances are as narrowly defined as the storytelling approach. Visually, pic is disappointing, with the widescreen compositions lacking boldness and drab color schemes predominating everywhere but in the foreign locales in Nicola Pecorini and William Fraker’s lensing. Mark Isham’s score hits predictable military chords rounded out with a few exotic sounds, while other production values, notably the sound work, are good. Locations in and around Ouarzazate, Morocco, fill in nicely for Yemen.