“Rules of Engagement” (2000):
While not as particularly iconic as some of the films cut from the same cloth as in, say, “A Few Good Men”, “Rules of Engagement” manages to be a compelling drama that I cannot help but feel was buried in the rubble of 9/11. The film had already been negated by a majority of mainstream critics due to accusations of being “anti-Islam” because of the slaughter of over 80 Yemenites in the film, and the events that followed a year after its release obviously did not help its case. Director William Friedkin rebutted those claims by saying that “Rules” was anti-terrorism, not anti-Islam, and whether or not he was entirely successful in that goal, I’ll touch on a little bit later.
The story of the film revolves around Col. Terry Childers (Samuel L. Jackson), whom is tasked to take a security squad of Marines to the U.S. Embassy in Yemen to possibly evacuate the Ambassador (Ben Kingsley) after a large Yemenite protest gathers outside the Embassy’s doors. Expectantly, after the U.S. Marines arrive, the situation escalates between the soldiers and the protestors in the form of outright violence. After Childers gets the Ambassador and his family to safety, he returns to obtain the American flag which ends up costing a few of his men’s lives. Childers then notices that they are not being fired upon by just surrounding snipers, but also radicals from the crowd. Now that he feels his soldiers’ lives are in imminent danger, he gives the order to fire upon the crowd despite the presence of women and children, and the outcome is several dead and even more critically wounded. Seeing how this could have an outstandingly negative effect on the U.S.’s stance with Middle Eastern countries, Childers is put to trial for murder with the possible consequence of the death penalty. Childers recruits his retired military colleague and friend, Col. Hays Lawrence (Tommy Lee Jones), to represent him in the consequent trial proceedings to help prove his innocence.
The film generally focuses on its plot in more broad strokes than minor detailed ones. A decorated war hero does what he has to do to protect his men under fire, and the U.S. government goes out of its way to burn him at the stake to protect its own interests. That being said, there’s not much of anything to read between the lines here; the film promptly expects you to absorb the dramatic efforts of Jones and Jackson, and I would say that it succeeds in this manner. More of a fault to the character and his circumstances than the actor playing him, the role of Childers does feel undoubtedly like familiar turf for Jackson as his plight mirrors almost identically to his role in “The Negotiator” (1998), all the way down to his corrupt opposition. I additionally had difficulty buying into Guy Pearce’s representation of Major Mark Biggs, the trial’s prosecutor. I typically enjoy his work as an actor, but, I don’t know, something about this one and his New England accent felt a little disappointingly plastic to me.
All in all, though, the film does flow in typical Friedkin fashion, and the shallow depth of the film’s material notwithstanding, “Rules” does create enough sound enjoyment to sell to the audience. I don’t honestly think the accusations toward Friedkin that the film is “anti-Islamic” where justified either – completely. The plot does shine some negative lights on both sides of the fence, but when it comes to final weight on the scale, there’s still that discomfort that “America wins and you guys deserved what you got.”
Nevertheless, “Rules” does mark a strong comeback for Director Friedkin after a lengthy absence from what he does best, and really filmmaking in general. I was sold on the lead cast regardless, and even then my expectations were lower than usual; still, I did hope the film would keep me captivated and it did provide that much.
“Rules of Engagement”: Recommended.