Reel Reviews | Rules of Engagement

by Joe Barber

This movie reminded me of that great line from On The Waterfront; Rules of Engagement “could have been a “contender.” Put the blame on a script that runs out of smarts and guts in the last act. Before that act arrives, however, Samuel L. Jackson and Tommy Lee Jones deliver the goods with enough star power to get the film over its limp, lumpy conclusion.

Jackson and Jones are Marine buddies who served together in Vietnam, where Jackson saved Jones’ life. Thirty-two years later, Jackson is a top commander while Jones, who returned to the States to become a military lawyer, is about to retire. The duo comes together again when Jackson is sent to Yemen to evacuate the U.S. Embassy there.

He finds the place under attack. When several of his men are mortally wounded he orders his troops to fire into the crowd of men, woman and children in front of the embassy. Jackson swears he was returning fire from the crowd, as well as snipers, but the Yemen government claims the crowd was unarmed. Upon his return to the U.S., Jackson is charged with multiple counts of murder. The U.S. government would like to make an example of him to get themselves off the hot seat with their Middle Eastern allies. Forced into a quick court-martial, Jackson calls on Jones to defend him. Despite his doubts about the case and his own skills as a lawyer, Jones agrees.

To its credit, “Rules” tries to be fair. It attempts to paint a balanced portrait of all parties involved. Even the prosecutor (played by L.A. Confidential’s Guy Pearce) is no rabid dog, but a decent man who sincerely believes Jackson made a terrible mistake. Director William Friedkin (The French Connection, The Exorcist) does a great job of staging the scary and powerful battle sequences. But the script has far too many holes that begin to show most notably during the courtroom scenes when the film should be taut and tense.

Good supporting work by Pearce, Blair Underwood, and Ben Kingsley is wasted. Jones’ usual flair for drama is watered down in his closing speech. And, please, Sam, in the name of God, stop doing that visual cliché, your “screaming-my-lines-at-the-top-of-my-lungs-and bugging-my-eyes-out-to-show-you-how-serious-I-am routine.” You do it in almost every film and it’s gotten tiring. Jones and Jackson do manage to make “Rules” engaging. But it could and should-have-been so much more.

Grade: B-