Semper feisty: Jarheads ain't Rambos

U.S. Marines are proud to be known as "jarheads," a reference to the shape given their skulls by their regulation haircuts. It also implies, according to the protagonist of Jarheads, that their heads are empty vessels. (That's not far from the truth. Boot camp/basic training is designed to break down a soldier's will so they'll obey orders without thinking, a second's hesitation potentially making the difference between life and death.)

Back when we were fighting good wars for noble causes– or at least believed we were– the war movie was a Hollywood staple. It followed a bunch of raw recruits through training and into battle, where they kicked the butts of the Krauts, the Nips, or whoever was the enemy du jour. Comedies usually focused on training so they wouldn't have to show people dying.

Probably the last of these was The Green Berets, John Wayne's attempt to sell America on the Vietnam War. Except for the occasional action-adventure (e.g., Rambo) about a rescue mission, it became difficult to apply a good guys/bad guys formula to war movies, even when they were set in an earlier era.

The next step was dark comedy (M*A*S*H, Catch-22) on the way to the modern war movie (Apocalypse Now, Platoon, Full Metal Jacket) and the post-modern war movie (Three Kings, Tigerland, and now Jarhead).

Jake Gyllenhaal stars as Lance Corporal Anthony Swofford, whose memoir was the basis for the screenplay. His father served in Vietnam, and now it's his turn. In 1989, at the age of 20, he trains at Camp Pendleton.

When he gets to his permanent station, Swoff is assigned to Golf Company, which is "full of retards and f***ups." "They greet him by beating him up, duct-taping him to his bunk and pretending to brand him.("You have to earn the real brand.")

Swoff's commanding officer, Staff Sergeant Sykes (Jamie Foxx) assigns him "the best f***in' job in the Marine Corps," that of scout/sniper. It's a team effort, spotter and shooter, and he's partnered with his best buddy, Corporal Alan Troy (Peter Sarsgaard). Sykes trains them: "We've all learned 'Thou shalt not kill,' but... f*** that sh*t." (Sorry if you have a problem with the language, but these guys talk like Marines, not nuns– at least not the way we think of nuns talking.)

The men spend most of their time masturbating and waiting for Dear John letters from their wives and sweethearts back home, until one night on the news they see that Iraq has invaded Kuwait. Troy exclaims, "We're goin' to f***in' war!"

Well, yes and no. They're soon sent over as part of Operation Desert Shield, with the mission of protecting Saudi oil fields, not engaging the enemy until the bureaucrats in Washington get Saddam Hussein in their gunsights.

So they spend more time masturbating and waiting for Dear John letters from their wives and sweethearts back home (although most of them have already gotten the letters by now). Four months pass, and they get drunk on Christmas Eve. Two more months, and they're officially in Operation Desert Storm.

In a precursor to the current war, the men complain of faulty and inadequate equipment. They're forced to sign waivers before they take untried pills that may (or may not) protect them from enemy nerve agents. The enemy's out there, but our guys don't see him, only the "krispy critters" he's left behind. Even in war their worst enemy is boredom. "Are we ever gonna get to kill anyone?" Swoff wonders.

Maybe and maybe not– no spoilers here. But soon the war ends, and the Marines say things that seem ironic in retrospect: "Saddam Hussein is history. We'll never have to see this f***in' place again."

Jarhead has a slender storyline and few if any characters to care about. Gyllenhaal is good, but for all the time we spend with Swofford he feels incomplete. (Where did he learn to speak Arabic?) Sarsgaard acts well, but he seems vaguely out of place. Foxx is terrific at barking orders but rarely gets to show the human being behind the uniform. Dennis Haysbert and Chris Cooper have two scenes each as officers, and very few other enlisted men make enough of an impression to be recognizable in the closing credits.

As the Marines use yelling to build morale, director Sam Mendes uses silence to build tension in certain scenes. He creates some great moments, but the whole is less than the sum of its parts. Certainly Jarhead isn't in a league with his American Beauty and Road to Perdition. It doesn't earn his brand.