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  Directed by
    None Listed
  Starring
  Specs
  • Widescreen 2.35:1
  • 16:9 Enhanced
  • Dual Layer (RSDL 1:16.34)
  Languages
  • English: Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround
  • English: Dolby Digital Surround
  Subtitles
    English - Hearing Impaired
  Extras
  • 1 Theatrical trailer
  • 1 Audio commentary - Director William Friedkin
  • 6 Cast/crew biographies
  • 2 Featurette

Rules Of Engagement

Roadshow Entertainment/Roadshow Entertainment . R4 . COLOR . 122 mins . MA15+ . PAL

  Feature
Contract

When the words "troubled production history" are mentioned in many reviews of and reports about a film, it's not unwise to be a little wary about the final product that you're about to sit down to watch. For Rules Of Engagement - a film that briefly topped the US box office upon its release there last year - that troubled history appears to have resulted from the clash between the current Hollywood philosophy of "the audience is always right" and the intentions of the film's original writer. Extensively altered after screenings to test audiences (indeed, TWO directors of photography are credited and key lines of dialogue were obviously altered at the last minute, often a sure sign of a problem production), the final cut of Rules Of Engagement offended the writer of the original story (James Webb, a Vietnam veteran and former US Naval Secretary to the Reagan Government) so strongly that he asked to have his name removed from the picture (changes were obligingly made, and his name remains). With all this second-guessing during post-production, does this film stand on its own merits? If not for some fatal flaws in plot and structure, the answer would have certainly been yes.

The film opens with Marine Colonel Terry Childers (Jackson), and Colonel Hayes Hodges (Jones, whose character's name is lazily mistyped as "Hays Lodgers" on the DVD's back cover!) in the midst of the Vietnam War in 1968. In a moment that will redefine their futures, Childers saves Hodges' life in dramatic (and dubious) fashion; Childers remains a Marine, but Hodges, alive but wounded, spends the next three decades as a military lawyer after being injured.

Flash forward to 1996. Childers is sent to Yemen to "babysit" a demonstration against the US Embassy there - a demonstration that turns violent, forcing the evacuation of the Ambassador (Kingsley), his wife (Archer, barely seen in the final cut) and his son, while Childers attempts to save his troops. In doing so, he unleashes untold violence on the demonstrators in what is, paradoxically, the film's most confused yet compelling scene. Back in the US, he is charged with the murder of innocent civilians; Hodges is dragged from the brink of retirement to defend the man that saved his life back in '68. Did he commit murder, or did he act honourably? Incredibly, as director William Friedkin (The Exorcist, The French Connection) points out in this disc's commentary track, that decision was left to test screening audiences, who quite literally chose the film's ending - and demanded the addition of closing "where are they now" captions which undermine the entire movie. Friedkin, for his part, does sound a bit uneasy with the decisions made, but insists that the audience is always right - "we don't make movies to hang in museums". With an attitude like that, it's not surprising Friedkin's career has waned since his halcyon '70s days.

The plot here bears striking similarities to recent movies - most notably Courage Under Fire in the first half and A Few Good Men in the second. And taken at face value, this one's a perfectly entertaining couple of hours - as long as you don't look too closely. The script - by Stephen Gaghan, who just won a Golden Globe award for his script for Traffic - is incredibly lazy in places, particularly in the military court martial that makes up much of the second half of the film. Too much is made of that curiously American brand of "honour at all costs" and many will cringe frequently - while others will detect a not unsubtle racism in the screenplay.

The acting is strong - Jones and Jackson in particular, with Guy Pearce efficient but curiously stilted as prosecutor Major Biggs. Kingsley and Archer are virtually irrelevant to the film except as transient plot devices.

Ultimately, though, the amount of money thrown at this film is there to see on the screen, and thanks to the lead actors' performances and some striking visuals - particularly the visceral Saving Private Ryan style war sequences - Rules Of Engagement works well as no-brainer entertainment. Just don't expect to be enlightened, even if the director constantly states (in his commentary) that you should be.

  Video
Contract

Another magnificent effort from Roadshow, the 16:9 enhanced transfer here (which, it's to be assumed, was done in the US) is first-rate throughout the film, and there are very few problems caused by MPEG compression - a little aliasing here and there is about all there is to complain about, and none of it is problematic. Colours are rich, and the image is constantly sharp - but not over-sharp. Black level is spot-on, and dark scenes are still detailed and evocative. The transfer's big potential problem area - the high-speed, hand-held camera used in the opening battle scenes - is negotiated without the slightest compression problem. The layer change takes place mid-way through a courtroom scene, carefully placed to cause minimal disruption to both sound and picture.

  Audio
Contract

With two of Hollywood's finest (Kevin O'Connell and Greg Russell) mixing the sound and the legendary Gary Rydstrom as Sound Design Consultant, this one was always going to sound good. And in many ways, the audio is key to the film's success, especially in the combat sequences. Enveloping, exciting and immensely surround-active, this is the kind of show-off sound mix that moves buildings, and it effortlessly draws you into the action.

Two audio tracks are on offer for the main feature; while a Dolby Surround 2.0 track is provided, I would highly recommend those using two-channel systems to go for the Dolby Digital 5.1 track anyway - it downmixes to 2.0 exceptionally well, and is far better balanced than the dialogue-heavy 2.0 track.

Steve: I had a chance to check out the disc before I passed it on to Anthony. The 5.1 soundtrack is excellent providing for some great atmosphere, particularly in the opening jungle skirmish and the attack on the protestors. Directionality, panning and accuracy are all there with abundance coupled with some deep bass to provide pleasure for your senses.

  Extras
Contract

A solid selection of extras is included, though they're of varying value. Director William Friedkin tackles a commentary track with what has to be described as "enthusiasm" - the man sounds like the guest at a dinner party who can't stop talking. He exuberantly analyses his film, but largely confines his comments to the script itself - the characters, their motivations, and often descriptions of The Bleeding Obvious. "Now Tommy is looking at a security camera which is pointing towards the ground," he helpfully points out. "Duh," mutters the audience. Those of you looking for insight into the technical aspects of the film's production won't find much joy here, though there are some valuable insights for those with patience.

Also included are two featurettes: a 23-minute "making-of" titled Behind The Rules Of Engagement, and a 13-minute selection of interviews named A Look Inside. Both are 16:9 enhanced - and they should NOT be. Both of these featurettes were produced in the 4:3 television aspect ratio, and have been cropped and vertically panned by Roadshow's DVD authors to turn them into 16:9. The result is, especially in the second featurette, utter confusion - there were obviously titles denoting who's being interviewed in the original version, but they've been cropped out - so we have no idea who's talking in some cases. To get away with this, the authors have used the top of the 4:3 frame, and have to pan downwards to cover dissolves into letterboxed segments from the film itself. As far as this writer is concerned, altering 4:3 material in this way is as criminal as pan-and-scanning a widescreen movie to make it fit 4:3; Roadshow are the only company doing this at the moment, and they should stop. Only 0.01% of viewers in this country use 16:9 screens at this time, and the other 99.99% are getting less than the full picture in these extras. I have taken several points away from the "extras" vote for this reason alone.

A theatrical trailer and some rudimentary cast bios are also included; the Dolby Digital "Canyon" trailer precedes the film.

By the way, an important note - DO NOT watch either of the featurettes or listen to the commentary before watching the film itself, unless you like seeing films where you know the entire plot except for the last two minutes.

  Overall  
Contract

If the combination of combat action and courtroom drama excites you, Rules Of Engagement - in many ways a handsome production, only let down by a few dubious decisions - will make for an exciting evening's viewing. But don't press "play" and expect realism - this is Hollywood fantasy, and despite the involvement of real Marines and "people that were there at the time", this is a film that doesn't stand up to scrutiny. It is, however, never dull, with the possible exception of a clumsy and badly edited fight scene between Jones and Jackson. Don't let the captions at the end fool you - this is fiction from start to finish, and very simplified fiction at that. But then, if it's a documentary you're after, you know what shelf to look for in the video store.


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