Waste the motherfuckers!

Col. Terry Childers, USMC, Rules Of Engagement
Rules Of Engagement is a film made before its time. Not in the way that, say, da Vinci was before his time, more like the way Vlad the Impaler was before his time.

One of the things that trouble me about it is its moral ambiguity. The film sets up a moral question - and then doesn't bother to resolve it. The result is that you're left with the disconcerting conclusion that the producers have decided to support a decidedly incorrect point of view.

The story of Rules Of Engagement is a simple one - about a decorated war hero put on trial for acts committed in the line of duty. The question the film tries to ask is, is "collateral damage" during conflict an acceptable consequence of the need to defend ones comrades, uphold the honour of your country, and achieve your objectives? As far as Rules Of Engagement is concerned, the answer is a definite yes!

US Marine Colonel Terry Childers, played by Samuel L. Jackson, is a decorated officer commanding a detachment of marines sent to Yemen, where the U.S. Embassy is under attack by terrorists who've subverted a regular (and peaceful) anti-US protest outside the embassy buildings. The actual motivation for the attack isn't explored, these days, Arabs can be portrayed as bloodthirsty terrorists without the need for justification (remember, this film was released in 2000).

Upon arrival, Childers finds the embassy under attack from gunmen (some are snipers, standing on rooftops with women and children as human shields, some are standing among the crowds below), and the ambassador (played by Ben Kingsley) cowering in fear under his desk. Childers evacuates the ambassador and his family to a waiting Chinook, and returns to his men to find them pinned down on the roof, and several of them fatally wounded.

For some reason, rather than pull his troops back to the waiting helicopters (Childers doesn't seem to have any trouble scooting back and forth), he decides to keep them on the roof. After seeing his men injured and killed, and receiving a slight injury (from a bullet that managed to pass through a solid wall), Childers gives the order to fire into the crowds below, forsaking the snipers in the opposite roofs, with the order "waste the motherfuckers!", resulting in the deaths of 83 innocent Yemeni civilians.

Childers returns home, expecting a hero's welcome, but finding instead that's he's been charged with 83 counts of murder.

The film then deteriorates into a below-par courtroom drama, with Childer's old 'Nam comrade Hays Hodges (played by Tommy Lee Jones) - a mediocre lawyer and desk jockey to defend his case.

The proceedings seem to hinge around whether or not there were gunmen in the crowds below - there were - if so, then it was OK for Childers to machine gun innocent men, women and children if they happened to be in the line of fire. A video tape showing the presence of gunmen in the crowd has been (for some unexplained reason) destroyed by the National Security Adviser, meaning that Childers can't back up his explanation of why he gave the order to fire.

Eventually, the jury somehow acquit Childers of murder after hearing his (not especially) stirring speech (a total rip-off of A Few Good Men) about comrades-in-arms, the heat of battle and various other bullshit explanations of why soldiers commit atrocities in war.

This outcome is bizarre to say the least - after hearing of how Childers executed an unarmed prisoner of war in Vietnam, after watching him explode during his cross examination (the prosecutor is Mark Biggs, played by Guy Pearce, who looks downright uncomfortable being in the film) - at one point, Biggs shows him a photograph of the dead Yemeni children and asks, "are these the motherfuckers?", to which Childer's responds "yes! they are the motherfuckers!" - and the incompetent and troubled Hodges not being able to offer any other defence than "he saved my life" (back in 'Nam), Childers walks away from the courthouse and the film ends ignominously.

Now, all this would have been acceptable if the film had been about how a bad man gets away scot-free, but the overall feeling that comes across is that a hero did his duty by massacring innocents and that the botched cover-up somehow exonerates Childers from blame.

I really hope this doesn't say something about the military mind-set, or the current levels of war-mongering bravado amongst Hollywood film makers, because it can't get much worse than this.

This review is part of the film reviews Everything quest. I noted that a lot of people had noded reviews about good films; I wanted to node a bad film.