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Site created 12/15/97.

review added: 11/2/00

Rules of Engagement
2000 (2000) - Paramount

review by Brad Pilcher of The Digital Bits

Enhanced for 16x9 TVs

Rules of Engagement Film Rating: C+

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): B/B/B-

Specs and Features

127 mins, R, letterboxed widescreen (2.35:1), 16x9 enhanced, single-sided, single-layered, Amaray keep case packaging, audio commentary by director William Friedkin, "behind-the-scenes" featurette, cast and crew interviews, film-themed menu screens, scene access (15 chapters), languages: English (DD 5.1 & 2.0), French (DD 2.0), subtitles: English, Closed Captioned

"I was not going to sit by and watch another Marine die just to live by those rules!"

Rules of Engagement features Samuel L. Jackson as Colonel Terry Childers and Tommy Lee Jones as Colonel Hays Hodges. During the Vietnam War, Childers saved Hodges' life. So thirty years later, when Childers is court marshaled after ordering his soldiers to fire on a crowd of demonstrators outside the U.S. embassy in Yemen, he asks Hodges to return the favor. So goes the basic plot of this film. There's plenty of subterfuge here. For example, there's the corrupt National Security Advisor, played by Bruce Greenwood, who is covering up evidence that could clear Childers. There's the U.S. ambassador, whose life Col. Childers saved in Yemen - he's being pressured by the National Security Advisor to lie about it. But ultimately, the plot boils down to a courtroom drama about the actions of Childers in combat. Was the order to fire into the crowd right or wrong? Sure... all of that sounds like a pretty promising (if not too original) story idea. The problem is that the damned script fumbles over its own villain. Even solid performances by an all-star cast and quality directing can't save it. That's not to say that Rules of Engagement is a horrible film. It isn't. It succeeds in one thing - it left me in doubt over what the ending would be. It ends up being a compelling drama, but only due to the magnetism of the actors on screen. The script they were working with failed them.

Let's break down the faults of the film. Take the villain - standard Hollywood script formula says that you always need some sort of clearly defined villain. But in this case, the villain actually works against the movie. This film is a compelling question dramatized in an entirely believable situation. What should the rules of engagement be? How do we confront the unfortunate realities of those rules? That's dramatic enough - you don't need some nefarious government official. The worst thing to do here was to have the National Security Advisor actively suppressing evidence. It derails the whole moral quandary and instead pits the good guy Marine versus an evil government persecutor looking for a scapegoat. Either of those scenarios would make for a fine movie, but you've got to go one way or the other. If you're going to have the good guy Marine, then make him a clear-cut good guy. If you're going to have the moral quandary, then focus in on the complex realities of Childers and leave the evil government official out of it. The ending doesn't help any, and while I won't give it away, I'll say that it would be a wonderful ending for the moral quandary angle, but leaves you unresolved as to the whole "good guy versus evil official" plot. Since the film can't figure out which of these it wants to follow, the ending comes off as somewhat unsatisfying.

The DVD itself is an equally mixed bag of good content with a lack of focus. The anamorphic video is crisp and clean, but somehow the colors are a bit too muted. The whites are also a little on the bright side, on occasion, but I think that's a minor issue. Overall, this is a good transfer - but nothing special. The audio is also pretty good. The dialogue seems a bit lost in the mix, but it finds it's place and stays there. There's some good play with panning and interesting surround effects, but ultimately it comes off as being less dynamic than it could have been.

As far as extras... well, they're less than thrilling. There's a nice little featurette with interviews. There's also a nice little featurette with behind-the-scenes footage. I say they're nice and little, because they offer nothing more than studio promotional style fluff - the kind of thing you'd expect to find on Entertainment Tonight or Access Hollywood. Aside from that, you don't get much more other than a commentary track with director William Friedkin. It's good, but it has a few problems. For one thing, Friedkin stops talking for long stretches of time. That would be fine, if we could hear the audio from the movie during the breaks. We can't, and I don't want to sit through silence. When Friedkin does have something to say, however, it's interesting. In the beginning of the track, he says that we should take his comments with a grain of salt, because they're only his version of the truth. He then goes on to say plenty about his own preferences in filmmaking. That's cool to hear from a guy like Friedkin, and it manages to redeem the disc somewhat.

Rules of Engagement is a mixed bag of a film, and this disc mirrors that. It's unfortunate, because the premise was great and the first twenty minutes of the film were really going somewhere. Still, if you have the extra cash and you need something to watch over the weekend, you could do much worse than this. The performances alone, mixed with Friedkin's commentary, make it worth spinning at least once.

Brad Pilcher

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