Rules Of Engagement, somewhat surprisingly, is not a particularly bad movie. Not surprisingly, it's not a particularly groundbreaking movie either. Here, director William Friedkin (The Exorcist) briefly enters what can only be described as the most interesting terrain the seemingly geriatric military/courtroom drama genre has to offer - - namely, exploring the role of the military in the post-Cold War world. When soldiers are ordered to serve as policemen, should we be truly surprised when they behave like soldiers? Can the best-designed - - if theoretical - - "rules of engagement", which meter appropriate responses for dealing with hostile civilians (armed and unarmed), be expected to work in the actual chaos of conflict?
While Friedkin dips his toes in these uncharted waters, he unfortunately gets cold feet all too quickly and beats a hasty retreat to the tired conventions of the military courtroom drama. Once again, the specifics rest on such familiar antics as suppressed courtroom evidence, bureaucrats doing whatever it takes to protect their sagging asses, obligatory stars-and-stripes waving, evil Arab hordes, some truly unabashed product placement and teary-eyed salutes - all delivered with the subtlety of a sledgehammer. Friedkin's depiction of battle is captivating enough, but he doesn't come close to Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan benchmark, leaving the movie looking all the more old hat.
Mercifully, any film which features the combination of Tommy Lee Jones and Samuel L Jackson can't help but be watchable. And the good news is they're in almost every scene, dominating the screen whenever they appear. And though their final fate is apparent enough to anyone who hasn't recently had a full-frontal lobotomy, their legal battle and deepening friendship remain gripping right to the finish line.
Jackson has the easier job here. His Colonel Childers is a soldier who's repeatedly risked his life for his country only to be set up as a sacrificial lamb and, as such, he builds steadfast empathy. Jones' Colonel Hodges, however, is more complex: a man at the end of a lacklustre career, he's compelled both to repay a wartime debt to Childers and redeem his lost sense of self. Thanks to this winning chemistry, delivered with a knowing wink, you can't help but stay hooked on Rules Of Engagement.
This is a well-spun military courtroom drama, but it fails to break new ground. However, Jones and Jackson bash out powerhouse performances, and their constant on-screen presence makes this more deserving of a decoration than a court-martial.