"Rules of Engagement" makes one long for the subtle nuances of "A Few Good Men."
This military courtroom drama is full of questions, but woefully short of answers. It stars Samuel L. Jackson as a Marine colonel who orders his troops to open fire on civilians attacking the U.S. embassy in Yemen, and Tommy Lee Jones as the longtime friend who defends him at the resulting court-martial.
"Rules of Engagement" offers a Marine-centric view of the world, where everyone out of uniform is a spineless self-aggrandizer who just doesn't understand. And it's brimming with one-dimensional cartoon characters who can each be summed up in one word or less.
On the plus side, it's rousingly loud -- the embassy attack features the most cacophonous sound since the Normandy invasion in "Saving Private Ryan." And it features two of Hollywood's most charismatic stars in its lead roles. They may not be doing their best work, but even average work by these guys can carry a film.
"Rules of Engagement" opens in Vietnam, where Hodges (Jones) and his men are ambushed by the enemy and nearly obliterated. Hodges survives only because of the quick action of his friend, Childers (Jackson), who violates basic rules of warfare to get the North Vietnamese commander to call off the attack.
Back in the present, Hodges is set to retire, but Childers is still very much on active duty. Put in charge of the embassy rescue mission, he evacuates the ambassador (Ben Kingsley, playing the most spineless bureaucrat ever to draw a breath), then quickly returns to the building's roof. Already, three Marines are dead, shot either by snipers or by gun-wielding members of the crowd. Childers orders his Marines to open fire, and the resulting carnage leaves 83 people dead, and a bunch of Washington politicos looking for a scapegoat.
That scapegoat would be Childers and, boy, are the cards stacked against him. A hotshot Marine lawyer (Guy Pierce) is put in charge of the prosecution, the ambassador is warned he must either lie about what happened or torpedo his own career, and a videotape that could prove Childers acted properly is burned by an oily national security adviser (Bruce Greenwood).
Perhaps worst of all, Childers insists on having his friend Hodges act as his attorney, even though Hodges himself admits he's not much of a lawyer.
At the center of the film are the military's rules of engagement, a set of laws dictating the conditions under which deadly force can be used against an enemy. Screenwriters Stephen Gaghan and James Webb (secretary of the Navy under Ronald Reagan) obviously believe such rules are meaningless in actual combat situations, where split-second decisions can make the difference between killing or being killed. That point the film makes clear.
What "Rules of Engagement" doesn't do is make anything dramatic out of that point. The audience is quickly made aware that Childers did abide by the rules. And the politicos are such hypocrites -- not to mention cheats, perjurers and cowards -- that they become comic figures. A few shades of gray would have helped immensely.
And Hodges, by all accounts a mediocre lawyer, suddenly turns pretty darn good.
Granted, Friedkin, whose previous films have included such winners as "The French Connection" and "The Exorcist," along with the gritty and unjustly neglected "To Live and Die in L.A.," stages action sequences with the best of them. The attack on the embassy, filmed in Morocco, is both terrifying and emotionally draining; you feel the horror these young Marines have to cope with.
Too bad the film goes stateside for better than half its length; as courtroom drama, "Rules of Engagement" simply ignores too many rules of drama to be engaging.
'Rules of Engagement'
Starring Samuel L. Jackson and Tommy Lee Jones
Directed by William Friedkin
Released by Paramount
Rated R (scenes of war violence and language)
Running time: 123 minutes
Sun score: **