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With: Samuel L. Jackson, Tommy Lee Jones, Guy Pearce, Ben Kingsley, Bruce Greenwood, Anne Archer, Blair Underwood, Philip Baker Hall, Dale Dye, Amidou
Written by: Stephen Gaghan, based on a story by James Webb
Directed by: William Friedkin
MPAA Rating: R for scenes of war violence, and for language
Running Time: 128
Date: 03/31/2000

Rules of Engagement (2000)

3 Stars (out of 4)


By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Rules of Engagement is not exactly a triumphant return to form for maverick director William Friedkin, but it's not bad, either. Friedkin was among that crop of groundbreaking filmmakers in the early seventies who changed the way movies were made. Among his best films are: The French Connection (1971), The Exorcist (1973), and To Live and Die in L.A. (1985).

But Rules of Engagement is a perfectly accomplished thriller, without managing to be extraordinary in any way. Most of the reason I liked it is because, a) I'm a sucker for courtroom dramas, and b) stars Tommy Lee Jones and Samuel L. Jackson are two of the most engaging actors in movies right now.

Jackson stars as a Marine with combat experience who is sent on a mission to rescue the American Ambassador of Yemen (Ben Kingsley), who is under siege. Jackson performs heroically, going back into the Embassy to rescue the American flag. But when Yemeni citizens shoot and kill three Marines, Jackson orders his men to return fire. Back home the event looks like a massacre. Jackson is blamed and faces a court-martial for it. So, he selects Jones, another experienced combat veteran, to be his lawyer.

Neither man was meant to battle in a courtroom, and both have a hard time standing up to the slick lawyer (Guy Pearce) hired by the commanding officers. They both find it difficult to be contained and play by the rules, even when it becomes apparent that the COs are withholding evidence. As a result, they both experience uncontained dramatic explosions in the courtroom.

I don't know why courtroom stuff has always appealed to me. It's mostly talk. There's not a lot of cinematic value in it. Or is there? There's the witness, physically protected by the witness box. There's the judge, physically elevated above everyone else. There's the two lawyers, one good and one evil, one stationed on the left and the other on the right. They have their arena, their little space that they circle and pace in, shifting their attention strategically to the jury, the witness, the judge, and the spectators. There's the jury, swept off to one side, objective viewers. But the whole thing is really an acting game. Using words, voice inflections, body movement, and eye contact to try to convince someone of your opinion of right and wrong. It's a mini-drama played out under a microscope. It doesn't even matter that the bad guy in this case is a one-dimensional creep who is shown withholding evidence so that he can easily get his scapegoat. The court case in To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) was equally one-sided. The only thing that's changed is that race is not an issue here, despite the accused in both cases being a black man.

Rules of Engagement also deals with a couple of subplots, such as whether or not Jones acted bravely in an early Vietnam scenario, and whether or not he has failed to live up to the standards of his Marine father (Philip Baker Hall). The fine actress Anne Archer is also around for a scene or two playing the Ambassador's wife but, as usual in these types of male-driven movies, she has nothing to do. These are all forgettable moments compared to the Yemen war scenes and the courtroom scenes.

The movie is based on a true story, and these subplots are no doubt meant to flesh out what really happened. But the stripped-down version is so much more interesting.

In the end, this is the kind of old-fashioned movie that John Wayne fans (who insist that they don't make 'em like they used to) will enjoy. Friedkin should get most of the credit here. His skill is in looking at gritty, dark stories and photographing them matter-of-factly, as if they're just now happening. He's like a member of that old school of crusty film directors like John Huston -- all guts and balls. Rules of Engagement is good old-fashioned entertainment.

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