Rules of Engagement

USA/Germany 2000

Reviewed by Mark Kermode


Our synopses give away the plot in full, including surprise twists.

Vietnam 1968. Approaching Ca Lu, US Marine Terry Childers executes a Vietcong soldier, terrifying the Vietnamese Colonel Cao into calling off an ongoing attack on his platoon, thus saving the life of wounded comrade-in-arms Hays Hodges.

Present day. Colonel Childers leads an airborne mission to the besieged US Embassy in Yemen. Having evacuated Ambassador Mourain and his family, Childers orders his men to open fire on a crowd of demonstrators, killing 63 of them. Back in the US, Childers is charged with murder and asks Hodges to be his defence council. National Security Adviser William Sokal destroys a tape from Yemen Embassy security cameras showing the crowd firing weapons and insists Childers was under fire only from rooftop snipers. Hodges travels to Yemen, where he meets children crippled by gunfire and observes the undamaged security camera from which the tape is now missing.

In court, prosecutor Mark Biggs paints a damning picture of Childers, calling Cao to testify as to his illegal warfare tactics. Hodges argues that Childers was protecting US territory, and that the disappearance of the surveillance tape points towards a cover-up. He gets Cao to agree that he would have done the same as Childers in Ca Lu were circumstances reversed. The jury finds Childers guilty of breach of the peace but not guilty of murder. Outside the courtroom, Childers and Cao salute one another.


After some years in the Hollywood wilderness, director William Friedkin returns to big box-office form with this unevenly edgy and exciting film. Pitched somewhere between thoughtful courtroom drama and gung-ho actioner, Rules of Engagement fires off in numerous directions simultaneously, hitting only some of its intended targets, but spraying enough explosively scattershot cinematic shells to draw flak away from the cracks in the design. Most of these cracks are the result of flaws in the screenplay which lacks a degree of cohesive credibility despite - or perhaps because of - several rewrites. But reliably rugged performances from Samuel L. Jackson as Childers, the US colonel accused of firing on innocent Yemeni demonstrators, and Tommy Lee Jones as Hodges, the officer charged with defending him, provide a solid foundation for the drama. Guy Pearce, whose cadaverous features are used to show-stealing effect, contributes a mincingly menacing turn as the prosecutor Biggs and a brace of well-chosen cameos add international spice, most notably Amidou (seen previously in Friedkin's underrated Sorcerer, 1977), whose melancholy gravitas lends a powerful emotional pull to his few fleeting scenes.

As is usual with a Friedkin film, Rules of Engagement attracted a fair deal of controversy when it was released in the US. Public battles between James Webb (who served in Vietnam and receives a story credit on Stephen Gaghan's final screenplay) and military technical advisor Dale Dye were reportedly patched up during production, thus side-stepping potentially damaging claims of inauthenticity. Later, skirmishes flared between the film-makers and Yemeni officials who condemned an allegedly racist bias, provoked doubtless by the use of such provocative sights as a little Arab girl brandishing a machine gun or a Vietcong colonel saluting an American officer.

It is ironic, then, that a film which has been labelled racist should be distinguished by a cinematic gaze which lavishes so much love on its non-US locations, far more, indeed, than on its American ones. Nicola Pecorini's haunting views of Morocco (doubling for Yemen) provide the visual core of the film, showcasing Friedkin's flair for the exotic. Like the lyrical Iraqi opening sequence in Friedkin's The Exorcist (1973), the long-lensed images of Arabic faces and facades in Rules give the impression of observation without intrusion. Even during the action-packed siege sequence, Friedkin seems more interested in shooting the big picture than nailing the specifics of the crossfire, unlike the Vietnam sequence (shot with aplomb entirely in North Carolina), in which the location is little more than a bland canvas on which to paint the bloody violence of warfare.

For the courtroom sequences, William Fraker displaces Pecorini (who himself replaced an uncredited Dariusz Wolski), lending a more polished sheen to the close-up showdowns. Ironically this underlines the protagonists' claim that clean-cut legal niceties have little to do with the nuts-and-bolts nastiness of the battlefield. Although this change to hiscrew was unplanned, Friedkin seems to thrive on the tensions it produced, conjuring a crackling sense of conflict between the rules and realities of engagement. It is on this level that Rules works best, reminding us what an exceptional eye the director possesses, and how much his film-making has depended on gut reaction rather than calculatedly clinical cutting.

It is a shame, therefore, that for all his visual brilliance, Friedkin rarely finds scripts worthy of his attention. Although Webb and Gaghan's work is an improvement on the drooling drivel of Joe Eszterhas' Jade (1994), it is a far cry from the rigorous writing of William Peter Blatty's The Exorcist, the free-form improvisation of The French Connection (1971) or even the incohesive rambling of Friedkin's own script for Cruising (1980). Perhaps it's a mark of changing audience expectations that a film which would doubtless have ended in despair and disarray in the 70s (witness the detective Doyle's conclusively hopeless off-screen gunshot in Friedkin's police thriller The French Connection) must now win viewer approval by neatly tying up all its loose ends. Still, although the arrival may be ultimately unsatisfying for die-hard cynics, there is enough about this journey that is unsettling and eye-opening to make it worth the fare.


William Friedkin
Richard D. Zanuck
Scott Rudin
Stephen Gaghan
James Webb
Directors of Photography
Nicola Pecorini
William A. Fraker
Augie Hess
Production Designer
Robert Laing
Mark Isham
©MFP Munich Film Partners GmbH & Co./ ROE Productions KG
Production Companies
Paramount Pictures presents in association with Seven Arts Pictures
a Richard D. Zanuck/ Scott Rudin production
In association with MFP Munich Film Partners GmbH & Co. ROE Productions KG
Executive Producers
Adam Schroeder
James Webb
Arne L. Schmidt
Production Supervisor
Carlos H. Sanchez
Production Co-ordinator
Nanette Siegert
Unit Production Managers
Arne L. Schmidt
Roberto Malerba
Richard H. Prince
Location Manager
David R. Israel
Production Consultants
Phil Strub
Lieutenant Melissa Schuermann USN
Assistant Directors
J. Michael Haynie
Newt Arnold
Martin Jedlicka
Michael Salven
Script Supervisor
P.R. Tooke
Denise Chamian
Mark Fincannon
Barbara Harris
Camera Operator
Ray J. de la Motte
Camera Operators/
Steadicam Operators
Mark R. Van Loon
Peter Cavaciuti
Special Visual Effects/ Digital Animation
Digital Domain
Additional Visual Effects
Cinema Research Corporation
Special Effects
Paul Lombardi
Richard S. Wood
Art Director
William Cruse
Supervising Set Decorator
Rick Simpson
Costume Designer
Gloria Gresham
Costume Supervisor
Mitchell Kenney
Key Make-up Artist
Robert Ryan
Key Hairstylist
Gail Ryan
Title Design
Nina Saxon/New Wave Entertainment
Cinema Research Corporation
Music Performed by
The London Metropolitan Orchestra
Solo Trumpet
Mark Isham
Music Editor
Tom Carlson
Music Recordist/Mixer
Stephen Krause
"On the Threshold of Liberty" by Mark Isham, contains a sample performed by
Mark Isham
Sound Design
Steve Boeddeker
Sound Design Consultant
Gary Rydstrom
Sound Mixer
Russell Williams II
Re-recording Mixers
Kevin O'Connell
Greg P. Russell
Supervising Sound Editors
Steve Boeddeker
Mike Szakmeister
Sound Editors
Chris Scarabosio
Ron Eng
Dialogue Editor
Carin Rogers
Dean Drabin
Supervising Editors:
Robert Ulrich
Kerry Williams
Sarah Monat
Robin Harlan
Randy K. Singer
Supervising Editor:
Tom Small
Tammy Fearing
Scott Curtis
Military Adviser
Captain Dale Dye
Warriors Inc
Stunt Co-ordinator
Buddy Joe Hooker
Tommy Lee Jones
Colonel Hays Hodges
Samuel L. Jackson
Colonel Terry Childers
Guy Pearce
Major Mark Biggs
Bruce Greenwood
National Security Adviser William Sokal
Blair Underwood
Captain Lee
Philip Baker Hall
General H. Lawrence Hodges
Anne Archer
Mrs Mourain
Mark Feuerstein
Captain Tom Chandler
Ben Kingsley
Ambassador Mourain
Dale Dye
Major General Perry
Doctor Ahmar
Richard McGonagle
Baoan Coleman
Colonel Cao
Nicky Katt
Hays III
Ryan Hurst
Corporal Hustings
Gordon Clapp
Hayden Tank
Ahmed Abounouom
William Gibson
Hodges' radio man
Tuan Tran
John Speredakos
Scott Alan Smith
another lawyer
Jihane Kortobi
little girl
David Lewis Hays
bailiff, NCO
Peter Tran
Cao's radio man
Bonnie Johnson
Mary Hodges
Jason C. West
Childers' radio man
Attifi Mohamed
Zouheir Mohamed
Chris Ufland
ambassador aide
Thom Barry
chairman joint chiefs of staff
Kevin Cooney
4 star general
Helen Manning
Sarah Hodges
David Graf
ARG commander
Conrad Bachmann
secretary of defense
Aziz Assimi
little boy
Robert Pentz Jr
courtroom spectator
Laird MacIntosh
radio op
Baouyen C. Bruyere
Colonel Cao's granddaughter
Steven M. Gagnon
Richard F. Whiten
Tom Knickerbocker
Terry Bozeman
Mary Wickliffe
Jody Wood
Elayn Taylor
Todd Kimsey
Lawrence Noel Larsen
Stephen Ramsey
G. Gordon Liddy
talk show host
Mike Stokey
John Barnett
Laird MacIntosh
Freddie Joe Farnsworth
Jim Boensch
Jay Galle
Mike Bedmiston
Mike Gerald
Dennis Fitzgerald
Brian Maynard
Captain Dale Dye's cadre
United International Pictures (UK) Ltd
11,471 feet
127 minutes 28 seconds
Dolby Digital/DTS
Colour by
Prints by
2.35:1 [Panavision]
Last Updated: 20 Dec 2011