Like many of the rest of us, former U.S. Secretary of the Navy James Webb has apparently seen "A Few Good Men." (1992) But he obviously felt cheated by the ending. In "Rules of Engagement," the seaman-turned-author gifts us with a suspiciously similar story that differs only in its intent to let the good guys win this time.
Of course, in Webb's cosmology -- as given final form by screenwriter Stephen Gaghan -- the good guys are the renegade Marines who occasionally have to violate the law and kill innocent people because it's good for America. Hey, you can't have everything.
A bloodthirsty polemic thinly disguised as an even-handed, soul-searching drama, "Rules of Engagaement" makes an unlikely hero of Col. Terry Childers (Samuel L. Jackson), a Marine who's put on trial for 83 counts of murder after a rescue mission goes horribly awry. Assigned to save an American ambasador and his family from an unruly mob that's threatening the U.S. embassy in Yemen, Childers orders his second-in-command, Captain Lee (Blair Underwood) to open fire into the crowd.
True, there are snipers on the rooftop next to the embassy, and a few of the Yemenis on the ground are armed as well. But we know right away that Childers is breaching military code by condemning the other, more peacable demonstrators -- many of them women and children -- to death.
How do we know? Because Lee is stunned by the order, which he tries in vain to make his superior retract. Because the resulting carnage ends in a tableau of dead bodies that's almost ridiculous in its horror. And because we've already been shown a Vietnam-era prologue in which Childers desposits a bullet into the head of a captured Viet Cong commander who won't tell his men to cease fire.
Any sensible audience will immediately recognize Childers as a hot-headed wacko. But Webb, Gaghan and director William Friedkin aren't courting the sensible; they're out to appeal to right-wing hawks whose talons outnumber their I.Q. points. So the film does everything in its power to set Childers up as an excitable but courageous soldier (huh?) and discredit those who would bring him to justice. Upon his return home, Childers is "hung out to dry" by a duplicitous White House -- a Clinton-era White House, natch -- that's more interested in yellow-bellied international diplomacy than in standing by its decorated military men. Later, a gang of angry peaceniks surrounds Childers' car. (And this is all happening on what planet, pray tell?)
For his defense counsel, Childers chooses Col. Hays Hodges (Tommy Lee Jones), an old combat buddy who's spent the past 28 years cooling his heels as a Marine Corps lawyer after a battlefield injury relegated him to the sidelines. His scars were won in the aforementioned Vietnam shoot-out; neither Jones' nor Jackson's character looks substantially older almost three decades down the road.
Webb and crew allow story and character to take such a back seat to saber-rattling that their utterly evil film is rendered almost harmless. A better friend than a litigator, Hodges benefits from more strokes of luck -- audiotaped evidence laying around the scene of a crime, a wife who's willing to an offer off-the-record contradiction of her husband's testimony-- than Perry Mason enjoyed in his entire career.
Jones and Jackson aren't asked to do anything more than perform their customary tough-guy schticks; Jones in particular looks as if he's about to slip and start quoting lines from "The Fugitive" at any minute. Their attorney-client relationship reaches its apotheosis when Hodges and Childers debate the finer points of their case the old-fashioned way: by beating each other bloody in a bare-knuckled brawl that's the most ludicrous bout of friendly fisticuffs since "Rowdy" Roddy Piper and Keith David went at it in John Carpenter's "They Live" (1988).
If "Rules of Engagement" had brains, it'd be dangerous. Thankfully, it doesn't, and we doves can all go back to watching "A Few Good Men" on VHS for the hundredth time. Whew.