William Friedkin | 122 mins | TV | 2.35:1 | Canada, Germany, UK & USA / English | 15 / R
Samuel L. Jackson and Tommy Lee Jones star in this military courtroom thriller from the director of The French Connection and The Exorcist. Jackson is the commanding officer who may have done Something Wrong during a mission; Jones is the old friend he asks to defend him by finding out The Truth.
Let’s jump straight to the heart of the matter, and arguably the film’s primary flaw, with a bit of trivia from IMDb. (Should you wish to avoid spoilers, skip the quote and the first paragraph after.)
The scene of Sokal viewing and destroying the tape after he sees it proves gunfire was coming from the crowd, was imposed by test audiences according to William Friedkin. The film was supposed to leave ambiguous whether or not [Jackson] did the right thing, depicting what happened through subjective viewpoints and never revealing the objective truth of what occurred.
Which just goes to show why test audiences are a bad idea. Friedkin’s original idea would’ve made a stronger movie, and this explains some of the choices and attempts at ambiguity displayed elsewhere. I thought the flashback Jackson has played more like an imagined version than What He Really Saw, but knowing he was right (from having seen the tape) makes it seem like he’s merely remembering.
That said, most of the time it feels less like the film is aiming for ambiguity and more like it doesn’t know how to guide us well enough in what to feel. Important points aren’t appropriately established, others aren’t appropriately dealt with, and Mark Isham’s score toddles on regardless while important moments slip by, such as the declaration of the final verdict: when it’s announced, the music continues on the “tension” setting for a while before petering out. I know some people hate heavy-handed music in films, but this isn’t that, it’s just misguided.
That’s not all that’s bungled. There’s numerous instances of awkward editing by Augie Hess; a screenplay from Stephen Gaghan that clearly wants to be A Few Good Men (right down to several attempts at conjuring a “you can’t handle the truth” moment) but doesn’t exhibit Aaron Sorkin’s skill; relatedly, Guy Pearce’s prosecutor is disappointing underused (his character just needs more time, especially on his “I’ll only try with good evidence” facet); and the climactic court scenes, Friedkin and DoPs William A. Fraker and Nicola Pecorini go overboard with Dutch angles and chiaroscuro lighting.
There are good ideas in Rules of Engagement, but none of them are given enough weight. Couple that with several weak technical elements and it comes out a disappointment.