New York City police detective John Shaft (nephew of the original 1970s detective) goes on a personal mission to make sure the son of a real estate tycoon is brought to justice after a racially-motivated murder.
Samuel L. Jackson,
Hayes Hodges finds his career aspirations dashed when he's wounded in Vietnam combat. He then returns to America and becomes a disillusioned lawyer who goes up against the service to defend Colonel Terry Childers, who is accused of inciting an incident that leaves many demonstrators dead. Hodges in no position to decline: Childers heroically saved his life back in Vietnam. Written by
Rules of Engagement fits comfortably into that genre of military film in which the motivations inherant in the human character are subverted for the motivates of the The United States Marines. Assinine personal decisions can just be tossed off as being part of The Code. Unlike A Few Good Men, still the best of its kind, Rules of Engagement falls flat because even as none of the character actions make sense, nothing is surprising either, and that is the biggest sin of all.
This is all unfortunate, since Rules of Engagement was made by a lot of people who should know better. Or who at least once knew better. The recent rerelease of The Exorcist and a repeat viewing of The French Connection contrasted with this film can only lead viewer to a simple conclusion: At one point William Friedkin was a master of his craft, knowing how to tell a compelling story with a unique visual style. He can't do that anymore. It's shocking just how dull the early scenes in Vietnam and Yemen feel. There's no tension and at a certain point you just want the characters to move on. Friedkin isn't helped by the fact that usually reliable cinematographer William Fraker (a five-time Oscar nominee) has given the film a murky look, often mislighting actors, unless the purpose was to make everybody look bruised.
When all is said and done, only Tommy Lee Jones and Samuel L. Jackson are given fully developed characters. Even though they're often forced to say stupid things (Out of nowhere Jackson has an overly expositional insult about Jones's alcoholism, a problem that hadn't been mentioned previously and was never relevant afterwards), these actors are always reliable. The film's other interesting performance come from Guy Pearce, whose American accent is frequently preposterous, but unlike LA Confidential (where Pearce gave a fuller overall performance), the accent remains mostly consistant throughout.
The film's other actors are stranded without resolutions for their characters. Ben Kingsley and Anne Archer, as the weak Yemeni ambassador and his wife, are left stranded. Ditto Bruce Greenwood (so consistantly excellent as wounded heroes in Atom Egoyan films, and so badly wasted as one dimensional heavies in American movies), whose narrative arc involving a videotape is woefully without payoff.
In the end, Rules of the Game offers nothing new, and nothing surprising. The solid acting by the leads fits into this rubric of normality, but as does the absolute apathy the film produces.
I give it a 4/10.
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