Common discourse tends to hold Full Metal Jacket as the inferior film of Stanley Kubrick's post-2001 career, but I feel that that designation is a true disservice to an otherwise excellent movie. Yes, there is a strict divide between the truly inventive and engrossing first half and the more familiar genre exercise in the second. R. Lee Ermey's unforgettable portrayal of Gunnery Sergeant Hartman overshadows the rest of the film, despite the excellent performances by Matthew Modine and especially Vincent D'Onofrio. Although I understand that the source novel is structured this way—it being chronological—Kubrick nevertheless did himself no favors by editing the film in such a severe way.
But the fact remains that not only does the progression of the film make complete logical and thematic sense, but it also is necessary for the second half to be successful in any remote way. There has been much hay made about the Vietnam War over the course of the late 1970s and 1980s, what with Coming Home, Apocalypse Now and the Best Picture-winner of the previous year, Oliver Stone's Platoon, along with the same director's Born on the Fourth of July in 1989. These films all engage the war in different ways, with the easiest comparison to Jacket being Platoon, a film that has much more of an emotional connection on its mind than the engagement with psychosis that seems to be Kubrick's agenda here. Ultimately, the two films chart the course of a group of men who are hardly prepared for the horrors they are to face in Vietnam, with their focus on a particularly young and inexperienced soldier, who is presumably our entry point into the movie.
In comparison to Modine's Private Joker, Charlie Sheen's Chris is a principal weak point of Platoon. Sheen may have intentionally been cast a sort of blank slate onto which the audience could project his or herself, but his nonspecific performance ends up detracting from our interest and making us wish the film zeroed more in on the interesting parts of the cast, namely Willem Dafoe and Tom Berenger. But from the very beginning, Modine plays the most interesting character in Full Metal Jacket, Ermey notwithstanding. He is the true protagonist, the one who undergoes a change from the start to the end. And Platoon more tells than shows Sheen's transformation, usually in the form of Samuel Barber's overbearing Adagio for Strings, but Kubrick is far more of a technical and crafty director, lending credence to Modine's shift in character.
Modine receives his moniker for the ill-timed John Wayne impression he makes when initially in the presence of his gunnery sergeant. He has a flip attitude towards the war he has entered, donning a helmet with "Born to Kill" written on it, while simultaneously sporting a button with a peace sign. Even when he's questioned on why he has chosen to do this, his response is confusion. He's got no idea what he's doing in Vietnam, much less why he is dealing with his experience the way he is. The most we get from Sheen is a deer-in-the-headlights look that remains plastered to his face for most of the film's running time. Modine's attitude also fits the devil-may-care posturing performed by the rest of the men in the film, which is reflected in the incongruous music choices that dot the film.
Unlike Stone's repeated use of Barber's dirge, we instead get the "Mickey Mouse March," "These Boots are Made for Walkin'," and the Rolling Stones' "Paint It Black." The effect is one that is used to distance the audience from the horror we have just witnessed, in the same way that the only way for the soldiers to cope with the horror is through gallows humor and hoping against all hope that Ann-Margret will make an appearance at their base. Despite the emotional hammer it wields, Stone's film nevertheless places us in the role of a pitying, outside observer because it treats us like one. Kubrick involves us in the grieving process by giving us the same tools as the soldiers. This is a far more complicated effect to achieve, making Full Metal Jacket a far superior film, and better than it has received credit for.