Before the miniature renaissance director William Friedkin garnered for himself in the new millennium with films like the experimental Bug and Killer Joe, he took one of his last cracks at a big, mainstream studio feature with 2000’s Rules of Engagement, a muddy treatise on war masquerading as a classical courtroom drama. It’s a strange film to revisit 20 years on, given its jingoistic leanings and anachronistic standing as one of the last pre-9/11 war flicks.

Tommy Lee Jones stars as Colonel Hayes Hodges, a middling JAG lawyer hired by his friend Colonel Terry Childers (Samuel L. Jackson) in a court martial trial. Childers has been charged with the murder of 83 Yemeni citizens in an assault outside a US Embassy, an onslaught he ordered because his men were taking fire from the crowd while evacuating a diplomat (Ben Kingsley). Lawrence isn’t half the attorney necessary to get Childers off, but the man saved his life in Vietnam, so he’s bound by duty in addition to friendship.

The true meat of the film lies in the actual trial, where Friedkin flexes his chops presenting a true throwback of the genre. Throughout the court proceedings, he slowly transforms the legal drama from straightforward Grisham-level intrigue and simple framing to canted angles and a high-intensity showdown between Childers and prosecutor Major Mark Biggs (Guy Pearce, here presaging a 2020 Chris Cuomo impersonation). The film builds to gut-churning cross examination designed to get Childers to snap and incriminate himself, with Jackson unleashing verbal fury in a climax that must be the entire reason he was cast in the first place.

In microcosm, it’s an incredible bit of drama, the sort of scene-stealing turn we used to regularly expect from movie stars in adult dramas back when these still got made and released in theaters. But taken with the rest of the film’s jumbled political commentary, it doesn’t quite work. Twenty years on, it’s certainly the only scene from this movie the average viewer is likely to remember (“You said waste the motherfuckers!”), but taken in context, the sequence plays like a cloying response to the climactic confrontation from A Few Good Men.

Like that film, Rules of Engagement wrestles with the complexity of following orders and the stringent code of military conduct, but where Sorkin’s nimble and moralizing script indicts Jack Nicholson’s Colonel Jessup for crossing a line, Stephen Gaghan’s writing here employs cloying acrobatics to construct a narrative that makes Childers’ transgressions above reproach. It positions Bruce Greenwood’s maniacal NSA Director as a mincing bureaucrat trying to cover the country’s ass by sacrificing one of its own men.

This structure and approach would be fine if the film was committed to making any kind of statement about how the system of American imperialism has always put soldiers last in the pecking order, but it only seems to focus on the political expediency of “framing” Childers, not any of the political implications of what was going on in Yemen or why there was unrest in the first place.

In the end, the chemistry between Jones and Jackson is the only thing that keeps the film alive and not so woefully outdated and a low point within Friedkin’s storied filmography. The two men, bound by a shared history and conflicting feelings of accomplishment and survivor’s guilt, command the screen with a pathos and a magnetism that overpowers the film’s otherwise mixed signals. Movies made in this particular vein would go on to get worse and worse throughout the Bush II Years, so it’s lucky that this last bastion of a bygone era is anchored by such exemplary acting.

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