Where movies are concerned, the first few months of the year 2000 call to mind the classic Thanksgiving episode of WKRP in Cincinnati – the one where station manager Arthur Carlson arranges for dozens of live turkeys to be dropped from a helicopter as a promotional event. After the birds plummet to their deaths in the parking lot of a shopping mall, a shaken Carlson mutters, "As God is my witness, I thought turkeys could fly."
It would take a genuinely reprehensible film to stand out in this crowded field of flightless fowl. With his new military thriller Rules of Engagement, veteran director William Friedkin (The Exorcist, To Live and Die in L.A.) proves more than willing to fill the bill. He’s crafted a cynical, angering piece of work that nevertheless functions as a ruthlessly efficient crowd-pleaser. If Friedkin is in need of a hit, he’ll probably get one, but if this movie is any indication, whatever spark of artistry he once possessed has long since been obliterated.
Samuel Jackson stars as Col. Terry Childers, a career Marine dispatched to the site of a demonstration at the U.S. Embassy in Yemen. Childers has orders to evacuate the building if the protest gets out of control, which it does in short order. The Marines manage to get the ambassador (Ben Kingsley) and his family onto a helicopter, but not before several of the soldiers fall to sniper fire. As the bullets fly, Childers orders his men to open fire on the crowd of demonstrators below. When the smoke clears, 83 Yemeni men, women and children are dead and Childers is facing a court martial and the possibility of life in prison.
Childers calls on his old buddy from Vietnam, Col. Hayes Hodges, now a military lawyer two weeks from retirement, to help him out of the mess. But the videotape proving that shots were fired not only from the sniper’s nest across the street but also from the crowd below has been destroyed by the National Security Adviser, who is determined that the blame for the incident be placed on a single man and not the United States government. Will Hodges – whose life Childers saved in Vietnam – fail to get his friend off the hook? Will Childers be disgraced and spend the rest of his life in jail? Can turkeys fly?
Jones and Jackson are both capable of delivering incendiary performances. Maybe they’ll get the chance to do a real movie together someday. Here they are but cogs in the machinery. Half action movie, half courtroom drama, Rules of Engagement fails on both counts. Two directors of photography are credited, presumably so neither of them need take the blame for the unsightly visuals. Even cribbing a few tricks from Saving Private Ryan, Friedkin can’t raise much of a pulse in the battle scenes. And if the director of The French Connection can’t even get the action sequences right, you know you’re in trouble once the focus shifts to Childers’s court martial.
Nearly every scene in Rules of Engagement feels obligatory. The rejection of the plea bargain. The request for more time to prepare for trial. The Alpha Male bonding-through-beating- each-other-senseless ritual. And inevitably, and on and on, the courtroom grandstanding. The question of Childers’s guilt or innocence turns on the specific "rules of engagement" that apply to the military situation in play. According to these rules, Childers has committed no crime if there were indeed a few armed terrorists in the crowd firing on his men. This would seem to present the opportunity for exploring an area of moral ambiguity: can a man be innocent of murder even if he has killed unarmed civilians, including women and children? The script by Stephen Gaghan neatly sidesteps that question with an outrageous, crassly manipulative revelation sure to offend Arabs and intelligent moviegoers in equal numbers.
Even that plot development barely scratches the surface of the levels of offensive pandering the filmmakers achieve in Rules of Engagement. Anti-Arab sentiment rubs shoulders with anti-government paranoia. Character motivation is reduced to the lowest common denominator. Courtroom proceedings are conducted in accordance with the laws of hammy showboating, with solid evidence taking a back seat. But Friedkin saves his most odious and transparent piece of audience manipulation for last. It involves a North Vietnamese ex-soldier who has testified at the court martial. You’ll know it when you see it. If you’re lucky, you won’t see it at all.