Full Metal Jacket is a film of big swings. Director and co-writer Kubrick hits them all. The three most prominent are the structure, the character study, and the whole arc. The structure and arc are different because the film's got two distinct sections. Minutes one to forty-five or so is a "We're in the Marines Now!," anti-propaganda picture slash character examination (not study), and the rest is a "Week in the Life" picture, just for Marines in 1968 Vietnam.
That rest is split into two parts, a survey of the Vietnam War through the very focused eyes of Marine "Stars and Stripes" reporter and then an impossibly taut war action sequence for the third act. Both parts share a narrator: Matthew Modine. And Modine's the protagonist, in a traditional sense. The story follows Modine from boot camp and his experiences there to Vietnam and his experiences there. Modine passively brings the new characters into the film, with Kubrick often—gently—shifting the narrative focus to follow another character for a while here and there. Or maybe Kubrick just makes Modine too good an observer, and personalities take over the focus.
It's precise pacing, plotting, and cutting. For a while, in the first twenty minutes or so, Kubrick even allows the film to be playful. Always serious, but there will be a particular cut during a specific pop song, and it's just to create a positive coincidence. Because the first half of the film is harrowing. Modine and his fellow recruits suffer under their drill instructor, R. Lee Ermey, for their eight weeks in boot camp, without any character development for the recruits outside their training. At the very end, there's a tie-in reveal for Modine, which sets him up for the second half, but it's the last few minutes. Otherwise, behaviors inform Modine's character, not exposition. So we're watching him and seeing the character change without knowing where he's starting. Same for Arliss Howard, who gets some minor reveals in the second half, giving his personal arc a little more tragic vibe. And, then, of course, for Vincent D'Onofrio.
The first half of Full Metal Jacket is about D'Onofrio not doing well during training, Ermey abusing him, and how it affects the other recruits. Except for his inclusion in the opening montage of guys getting their buzz cuts, Jacket will only show D'Onofrio from other characters' perspectives, whether in scene or through editing, until the last ten minutes of part one. We see how other people see D'Onofrio, and Kubrick only ever allows the briefest peek along the way.
Ermey assigns D'Onofrio to Modine because Modine's a smart-mouth, making Modine responsible for D'Onofrio's success. And D'Onofrio does succeed (for a while), and Kubrick shows all the working to those successes in montage. He only shows the most objective scenes, just subjectively selects them, which actually sums up the film overall as far as style. The film moves over the existing narrative, pausing for specific events, ignoring almost all others. Because there's room for more traditional character development, Kubrick just doesn't want it there.
When the film reintroduces Modine in part two, now in Vietnam and reasonably successful as a "Stars and Stripes" reporter, reestablishing the ground situation includes information not revealed in the first half. The film held back the information to let Modine's physical performance inform the later reveal. It's so good. Kubrick and company's character work in the second half is phenomenal and completely different from in part one.
Modine's sympathetic in part one, funny in part one; he's not likable until part two. Because it doesn't matter if he's likable. Even after he's likable.
Part two has Modine and new sidekick Kevyn Major Howard on assignment in the war zone just after the Tet Offensive. There are no history lessons in Full Metal Jacket, with the film skimming over Modine trying to get boss John Terry to cover rumors about it and Terry blowing him off. There's no "ah-ha" moment. There are never insight moments for Modine. Even when he gets interviewed for the news back home. The other characters reveal something. Modine doesn't.
There's also a short, superior Tet Offensive war movie sequence, which ought to be having significant effects on Modine, but Kubrick won't show it. The protagonist and narrator is a mystery as far as details. But they don't matter because even with more exposition and details, Kubrick focuses on the physical performances, not the dialogue exchanges.
Modine and Howard meet up with Howard, now in the infantry, and tag along with his squad. The squad gets an introduction sequence, with Dorian Harewood and Adam Baldwin being the most prominent. Baldwin's a loud-mouth racist, and Harewood's his Black best friend. There's a lot of racism on display in Full Metal Jacket, even as the characters explain they just hate everyone. One of the themes is how some of them figure out why that equation doesn't work, though only for the Asian Vietnamese, not their Black compatriots. It's simultaneously a defect and just more character development.
The third act is Modine and the squad on patrol. It's very third act—almost epilogue—and spectacular action filmmaking. Kubrick does this whole thing with the sunset and tying it back to other night scenes (there are only a few). But just superb direction. And cutting and lighting and sound and so on.
And the music. Wow, the music. Vivian Kubrick (with a pseudonym) does the music. There's not a lot of it, but it's exceptionally well-done. The pop music soundtrack's great too, with Kubrick letting himself have a little fun for the end credits in particular.
Incredible photography from Douglas Milsome, production design from Anton First. Martin Hunter's editing is actually divine. He makes some peerless cuts in Jacket. Kubrick's direction is always great. It's a spectacular well-made motion picture, as well as a superlative one overall.
The best acting is D'Onofrio. There are some really good short performances, and the main cast for part two is all excellent. Ed O'Ross, Kieron Jecchinis, and Bruce Boa all get single standout scenes. They may be in more of the movie, but they get single spotlights. Main players get more—Modine, Baldwin, Harewood, then two Howards (no relation).
In the first half, Ermey's great too. It's hard to describe how Ermey exists in the film. Like everyone else, he's a caricature, but not. Broadly put, he's more a force of nature than anything else, but he's also very much not. Not even when Kubrick could use him like one. D'Onofrio's the best performance, but Ermey's the best-directed performance. Kubrick does something really singular with Ermey.
Full Metal Jacket's great. It's never not unpleasant, but also never not exceptional.