Col. Terry Childers (Samuel L. Jackson), a decorated 30-year Marine veteran now facing court-martial, doesn’t bellow ”You can’t handle the truth!” during his trial in Rules of Engagement. But he thinks it. How could civilians or deskbound military types — ”Starbucks drinkers who’ve never seen combat” — know what it’s like to be under fire? Childers knows: He served in Vietnam, Lebanon, and the Persian Gulf. And when he’s sent to Yemen to rescue the American ambassador (Ben Kingsley), cowering in the embassy under assault from violent demonstrators and snipers blasting from rooftops, Childers does what he has to do: evacuate the family and protect the men under his command. After three Marines die and the colonel thinks he sees ground fire, he orders his troops to shoot into the crowd. More than 80 Yemeni men, women, and children are mowed down.
Did Childers violate authorized U.S. military rules of engagement? Desperate to avert an international dustup, the national security adviser (Bruce Greenwood), with his Starbucks-drinker’s sleek haircut, wants the military’s prosecuting attorney (Guy Pearce) to prove he did. To help with his defense, Childers calls on Col. Hays Hodges (Tommy Lee Jones), the old Vietnam buddy whose life he saved some three decades earlier. Retired from active duty, a mediocre attorney but first-rate cynic, Hodges at first demurs. ”I’m a shot-at Marine and a weak lawyer,” he says. But coming from Jones, you just know there’s hoo-ha in the tough leatherneck yet.
Directed by William Friedkin (The French Connection) with an old Hollywood vet’s command of action and story building, Rules of Engagement is a traditional crisis-and-aftermath, flashback-and-trial military thriller, not unlike A Few Good Men and Courage Under Fire. The commanding gravitas of Jackson (who always raises a movie’s game, whether the project’s worthy of him or not) is comfortably met by Jones’ bulldog cussedness; the two actors are soldiers of hard-headed substance at attention in a field of milder actors at ease.
And with such a mature team, Rules has countless opportunities to go deep — to really look at the warping of right and wrong that’s an inevitable part of combat, and of diplomacy, too. But the movie backs off each time there’s an opportunity for us to be challenged by ambiguity. For every unnerving hypothetical out of a Fred Friendly seminar — what if the U.S. ambassador to Yemen is a weakling and stays that way? What if the Americans really do lack an understanding of Arab culture? — the drama ultimately retreats to safer, duller, more illogical, and more reactionary impulses and stereotypes. Friedkin and screenwriter Stephen Gaghan (The Practice) construct an intricate card tower of evidence collection and trial detours. Then they blow the cards down in a gust of hoo-ha meant to satisfy Starbucks drinkers and leathernecks alike.