Duck and cover: Finally for big-budget Hollywood, it’s Giuliani time. William Friedkin’s bathetic flag-fucker Rules of Engagement is as dogged and concise an apologia for using militarist might to control civilians as any City Hall publicists could ever concoct. Here, the Diallos in question are 83 Yemeni civilians, mowed down from a rooftop by marine honcho Samuel L. Jackson during an embassy evacuation. Lip service is paid to the pile of corpses, or at least to the one or two presumably innocent Arabs among them (the rest are merely yowling wogs), but the movie concentrates on the poor schlubs with the ordnance, and the holy obligation to use it. Friedkin and writers Stephen Gaghan and James Webb train in on the old-‘Nam-buddy bond between Jackson and Tommy Lee Jones’s laconic lawyer (looking a few Rhesus years older than his movie mom Bonnie Johnson), and the clichés lap like bay waves, from the salutes to the brotherly brawl to the olive-oil tear streaks semipermanently painted down Jackson’s cheeks.

Like an evil lawyer, the movie withholds the scenario’s crucial information, just as the evil U.S. federal bureaucrat (Bruce Greenwood) does so that Jackson’s seasoned hothead will take the fall. But the buried evidence is logistically and morally meaningless, making the hell-bent prosecutor (Guy Pearce, doing an impression of someone doing an impression of Christopher Walken) sound like the voice of reason even though he’s intended to be the punkass pencil pusher. While studio films usually strive to slouch left, occasionally we’re witness to reactionary bunco like this, rallying round the flag as it marks its own cards—we’re even treated to a close-up of an evil five-year-old Yemeni girl shooting an automatic pistol. Even the chickenshit needs of government are secondary to the noblesse oblige of firefight-scarred marines. (G. Gordon Liddy even makes a cameo as a talk-show host.) “Innocent people always die!” Jackson hollers in court—for all he cares. War is, of course, hell, but for Friedkin and troops, it’s not because the innocent die (as it is in all war = hell movies from Arsenal to Attack! to The Thin Red Line) but because we have to kill them. Poor us. Who’s talking this neo-con psycho-talk, exactly—Friedkin, producers Scott Rudin and Richard Zanuck? Probably no one—there’s no limit to how cynical you should be about Hollywood.

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on April 11, 2000

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