Relentlessly harsh in its images and language, ``Full Metal Jacket'' is nonetheless the most artful film yet made about the Vietnam war. Directed by the provocative Stanley Kubrick, it's more controlled than ``Platoon'' and subtler in its visual impact than ``The Deer Hunter'' and ``Apocalypse Now.'' This doesn't mean it will be as popular as its predecessors. It's more concentrated and streamlined, and Mr. Kubrick keeps its emotions - from humor to horror - on a very tight leash.
Conspicuously missing is the sweat-and-blood visual style of the hugely successful ``Platoon,'' shot on location in the Philippines and celebrated for its authenticity. Kubrick filmed most of his epic on London soundstages, where he could assure the cinematic precision that's his most renowned (and notorious) quality.
For all its battlefield realism, this is also an exercise in motion-picture poetics from the adventurous Kubrick, whose career has ranged from ``Lolita'' and ``2001: A Space Odyssey'' to the war-oriented classics ``Paths of Glory'' and ``Dr. Strangelove, or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.'' Kubrick wrote the new picture with Michael Herr and Gustav Hasford, based on a Hasford novel. It has an R rating.
The story of ``Full Metal Jacket'' is divided into two distinct parts, linked by the presence of Private Joker, a young recruit. The first portion takes place at boot camp on Parris Island, where newcomers are stripped of their hair, their dignity, and even their real names, which are replaced by ironic nicknames.
Joker becomes the confidant of his most inept colleague, known as Gomer Pyle to the other mocking soldiers. Pyle progresses with Joker's help. But his backwardness seems incurable, and one night the whole unit - including Joker, crushed by peer pressure - turns on him viciously. The incident pushes Pyle into madness, and the movie's first chapter ends in a bloodbath involving him, his sergeant, and two combat-grade bullets with deadly ``full metal jackets.''
The scene changes to Vietnam, where Joker works in a journalism unit. He and his photographer buddy, Rafterman, have mixed feelings about their position ``in the rear, with the gear.'' But violence soon erupts all around them, as North Vietnam launches the unexpected Tet Offensive that will prove a turning point in the war. Through a gradual series of events, Joker finds himself in the thick of combat, fighting a blind battle with a lost and leaderless patrol.
``Full Metal Jacket'' works partly in symbolic terms. In its Vietnam portion, Joker wears a helmet inscribed ``Born to Kill,'' and also a dove's-foot peace insignia. Asked about this, he says wryly that it's a comment on ``the duality of man.'' This makes for an ironic scene - a shouted philosophy lesson on the battlefield - but it's on the level. The contradictory human urge toward destructiveness and healing is one of Kubrick's chief subjects. The film's ending bears this out, as Joker kills a Vietnamese woman to end the suffering that American gunfire has inflicted on her. He stands over her, his face half in firelight and half in darkness - humanity's ``duality'' made visible - anguishing over his decision to bestow peace by an act of killing. Then he marches off with his unit, rejoicing in his lack of fear, psychologically wrapped in a ``full metal jacket'' of his own.
Provocative as this is, what makes the film stunning is less its metaphorical scheme than its cinematic style. Always a master of flowing camera movement, Kubrick has photographed much of the action with long ``traveling shots'' that capture time and space as a seamless whole, not fractured into the bits and pieces of standard editing techniques.
At other key moments, such as Pyle's plunge to insanity, shot-to-shot cuts are used with hard-hitting effect. The settings are also imaginatively designed, especially in the Vietnam scenes. They have a down-to-earth realism that's more intimate than the grander environments of ``Platoon'' and ``Apocalypse Now.''
The performances help Kubrick's achievement, as well. Matthew Modine, known from ``Birdie'' and other films, is a splendid Joker, his intelligence etched with gentleness and a touch of youthful skepticism. Kevyn Major Howard plays Rafterman with just the right air of genial bemusement. Other young Marines are handled skillfully, and Lee Ermey is a marvel as the boot-camp sergeant. A real-life Marine officer turned actor, he doesn't dodge or transcend familiar stereotypes of the character he plays. Rather, he crystallizes them into a definitive portrayal that dominates and defines the movie's blistering early scenes.
``Full Metal Jacket'' has some problems. Kubrick is a ham behind the camera, and at times his shots take on distracting lives of their own. His humor is often more raunchy than revealing, too. And worse, there's a cold streak in Kubrick that occasionally squelches human values. Kubrick's visual control is impressive, but it's also obsessive, robbing important scenes of warmth and spontaneity.
One forgives Mr. K. such failings, though, if only because cinema has too few artists of his seriousness and caliber. ``Full Metal Jacket'' marks his return to the directorial big leagues after an ambitious disappointment (``The Shining'') and seven years of silence. I hope we needn't wait so long again.