The Barenaked Archives – Jarhead

From 2003 up until 2007, I was lucky enough to have “movie reviewer” as my job description. As such, I’ve built up a *lot* of reviews for just about every movie that came out during those years, as well as reviews of classic movies.

The Barenaked Archives are reviews that I did for two previous websites. Sadly, they are both gone, so this is now the only place online you can see these old columns.

Jarhead posterThe only problem with having a tagline with the word “suck” in it is that, should your movie wind up being terrible, critics who think they’re being cute and clever will have a field day with puns during their vilification of it, and it’s your fault for handing them the words to describe the movie on a silver poster, as it were.

Fortunately, Jarhead didn’t suck, so I don’t have to worry about anybody coming after me with torches and pitchforks for succumbing to the overwhelming urge to use the most obvious puns. It’s probably not the best war movie ever to grace the screen, but it’s still entertaining and actually pretty funny, if occasionally slow.

Based on Marine Anthony Swofford’s book, Jarhead is about Swoff (Jake Gyllenhal), a new Marine recruit who joins the sniper squad and is then shipped off to Saudi Arabia to be part of Operation Desert Shield. He and his team battle heat, boredom, doubts, and scorpions while waiting for a war that might wind up missing them completely.

Although Jake Gyllenhal does a very good job in this movie, and deserves all the attention he gets, my favorite character was Jamie Foxx’s staff sergeant, a tough, unflinching and unintentionally funny man, a realistic badass. He loves what he does and he will beat that same love into your brain with a wrench if he has to. His first appearance, walking in on Swoff in the toilet to ask him to come out for the sniper squad, is classic.

The other performances in the film are great, too. Underused are Chris Cooper and Dennis Haysbert, making little more than cameos in two scenes apiece. It’s kind of a shame and a bit surprising, especially since Cooper was featured so prominently in the trailer. What also stinks is that aside from Swoff, most of the other guys in the squad seem interchangeable. I wish we’d gotten a chance to get more attached to some of the other characters.

This being a movie about Iraq Pt. 1, you’d think there would be more parallels to our presence in Iraq and the Middle East today, but it really doesn’t seem like it. Instead, the movie treats us to a psychological study of what happens to a bunch of soldiers when you stick them in the middle of the desert for months on end, preparing for a war that they don’t get to fight.

They build up the boredom and the suspense, the underlying knowledge that you never know when the call will come and you’ll have to move out. They make these soldiers eager, almost rabid, to fight, and then yank away the chance. Couple that with the fact that a lot of them doubt their girlfriends’ or wives’ fidelity, and it really wreaks havoc on the group’s sanity, and, as Swoff mentions in his voice over, they’ve got no instructions for what to do when you’re losing your mind. Just about everyone suffers some sort of mental breakdown at some point in the movie.

Speaking of breaking down, the middle of the movie gets very, very slow, when they’re stuck in the desert with nothing to do aside from invent games, have pseudo-philosophical conversations, and masturbate (a lot). Yes, we get it. They’re bored. However, that doesn’t mean that we have to be bored, or that it has to feel like it’s taking forever to make that point. Granted, this is probably what real war is like: lots and lots of waiting.

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