That said, this is a spit-and-polish production with solid if unremarkable performances by Tommy Lee Jones and Samuel L. Jackson and early exciting footage, shot in Morocco, of a U.S. embassy under siege.
Jackson is a Marine colonel who commands a rescue mission into Yemen when violent protesters surround the embassy. He plucks the ambassador (Ben Kingsley) and his wife (Anne Archer) from danger but leaves behind a body count of three Marines plus 83 Yemeni citizens. He becomes a scapegoat in an ensuing diplomatic crisis and is court-martialed for murder.
The lawyer Jackson chooses to defend him is Jones, his longtime friend and a fellow combat veteran. Jones is also a third-rate attorney and an alcoholic with a busted marriage and a general for a father -- you know the drill, a guy in dire need of redemption.
The prosecutor is a straight-arrow Marine whose only combat duty came from a feisty office stapler. He is played by Guy Pearce, who in trying to lose his Aussie accent winds up sounding almost Prussian. Or maybe that's what he was going for.
Stephen Gaghan's screenplay, based on a story by former Marine and high-level government official James Webb, makes the damaging decision to reveal Jackson's innocence before the trail gets under way. After you watch the villainous national security adviser (Bruce Greenwood) destroy a tape vindicating Jackson's decision to fire back at armed protesters, even as he instructs Kingsley's scared-rabbit diplomat to lie on the stand, the film fails to hold any suspense.
Instead, the viewer experiences mere frustration at the highly improbable cover-up of terrorism by an American official, the motive for which is never really clear.
At least Jackson and Jones put enough energy into the static courtroom scenes to give them more charge than they deserve. The rest of the acting suffers from over obviousness, from a need to spell things out with black-and-white characterizations.
The cinematography, a shared credit for William Fraker and Nicola Pecorini, is top-notch, giving real urgency in the embassy sequence and a dark, brooding quality to the latter half of the picture. Mark Isham's dynamic music is also a big plus.
RULES OF ENGAGEMENT
Paramount Pictures in association with Seven Arts Pictures
presents a Richard D. Zanuck/Scott Rudin production
Producers:Richard D. Zanuck, Scott Rudin
Story by:James Webb
Executive producers:Adam Schroeder, James Webb
Director of photography:William Fraker, Nicola Pecorini
Production designer:Robert Laing
Costume designer:Gloria Gresham
Col. Hayes Hodges:Tommy Lee Jones
Col. Terry Childers:Samuel L. Jackson
Maj. Mark Biggs:Guy Pearce
Gen. H. Lawrence Hodges:Philip Baker Hall
William Sokal:Bruce Greenwood
Capt. Lee:Blair Underwood
Mrs. Mourain:Anne Archer
Ambassador Mourain:Ben Kingsley
Running time -- 128 minutes
MPAA rating: R