Rules Of Engagement

Rules Of Engagement

***1/2

Reviewed by: Angus Wolfe Murray

Within the structure of a courtroom drama, it is hard to avoid cliche. Hollywood studios prefer star-driven pictures to be safe, even if they pretend to be controversial. And so you have the sharp, acidic prosecuting lawyer (Guy Pearce), the nervous, divorced, ex-alcoholic defence lawyer (Tommy Lee Jones) and the accused (Samuel L Jackson), who was once a hero. These people are also soldiers.

The essence of this case is an important one. Can the action of a commander on the battlefield be judged by rules laid down by Pentagon desk jockeys? When is killing justified? How can a riot escalate into a terrorist attack? At what point, if any, is a slaughtered child acceptable as a casualty of war?

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Col Terry Childers is sent to Yemen to rescue the American ambassador (Ben Kingsley) and his family from a crowd of Muslim fundamentalists that is turning nasty. It sounds like a routine helicopter snatch job, but when the marines get there, the situation on the ground is entirely different. Not only are snipers shooting into the embassy from other buildings, but the stone-throwing crowd in the street is infiltrated with gunmen.

Childers does what he has to do, finds a petrified ambassador cowering under his desk, escorts him, his wife and son to the helicopter before going back to bring his men out. Pinned down on the roof, with casualties being taken, Childers orders the Marines to return fire. Over 80 men, women and children are killed in the street. The incident becomes world news. The American government is appalled and embarrassed. Pressure is put on the army to make a public example of Childers and so he is court martialled and accused of murder.

Jones plays Col Hodges, who fought with Childers in Vietnam. As a friend, he agrees to lead the defence, much against his will. "I'm a shot up marine," he tells Childers. "I'm also a weak lawyer." The stage is set for a classic legal spat, even more predictable than A Few Good Men.

The film is so much better than that, due in part to strong performances from Jackson and Jones, an intelligent script by Stephen Gaghan and director, William Friedkin (The French Connection, The Excorcist), keeping sentiment in check. The flaws belong to the formula itself, not the argument. If there has to be a bad guy, make him a smoothie and a government official. That's the Hollywood way. What matters is whether the atrocities of war can be contained by law.

Reviewed on: 19 Jan 2001
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Courtroom drama about an army officer facing trial over a botched rescue mission.
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Director: William Friedkin

Writer: Stephen Gaghan, based on the story by James Webb

Starring: Tommy Lee Jones, Samuel L Jackson, Guy Pearce, Ben Kingsley, Bruce Greenwood, Anne Archer, Blair Underwood, Philip Baker Hall, Dale Dye, Amidou, Mark Feuerstein

Year: 2000

Runtime: 127 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: Canada, Germany, US, UK

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