Welcome to the Suck: The Inexplicable JARHEAD Trilogy

Yes, there is a whole JARHEAD trilogy.

François Truffaut was often said to have claimed that there could never truly be an anti-war film, since the very cinematic nature of war, with exciting battle sequences, made war and combat entertaining. How to solve the potential problem of making war seem exciting? Take away the war. That’s just what Sam Mendes did with 2005’s Jarhead. Adapting Anthony Swofford’s memoir, Mendes created a war movie where the soldiers spend the bulk of their time waiting. And waiting. And waiting. It was the antithesis of action. What does one do with such a film? Why, make two sequels that are brimming with combat mayhem and gun fights. Somehow, Mendes’ thoughtful, character-driven drama spawned two mindless, direct-to-video shoot ‘em ups, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

Mendes’ Jarhead finds aimless Anthony Swofford (Jake Gyllenhaal) joining the Marines in the 1980s for reasons he doesn’t fully understand. His father was in the Corps, but Swofford has no real allegiance. When a drill instructor questions why Swofford is even there, Swofford shoots back: “Sir, I got lost on the way to college, sir!” Swofford works his way up to becoming a sniper, a hollow distinction when you have nothing to shoot at. The Marines that make up Swofford’s unit ache for violence. They crave it the way someone dying of thirst craves even the tiniest droplet of water. They gather together to watch Apocalypse Now, and quiver with excitement as they watch the "Ride of the Valkyries" sequence: up on the screen, the helicopters come swooping in, and the men in the audience are screaming at the screen, begging for the bombs the start dropping. They burst into rapturous applause when the on-screen carnage begins. But real-life battle alludes them.

“The Marine must learn to kill,” Swofford says in his voice over narration. “He may wear a tattoo, or display his medals, or tell lies in bars. But he is not a true Marine until he has seen combat.” When war does come -- in the form of Operation Desert Shield -- Swofford and his fellow Marines are primed and ready. But their deployment in Saudi Arabia is little more than a waiting game. They wait, and hydrate, and wait some more in the desert heat. Swofford loses his grip on reality playing the waiting game. The war he’s waging is inside his own head, rife with paranoid thoughts that his girlfriend back home is unfaithful. There is the terrible sense that all of Swofford’s anxieties, all of his existential dread would easily vanish if he just got to shoot something -- as if pulling the trigger on his rifle would activate a pressure release valve. It’s a disquieting thought, as is the tension Mendes builds in putting you right there and wanting Swofford to start putting his weapon to use. “[T]here's a sense in which you are training the audience, you're willing them to want him to kill someone,” the filmmaker told The Telegraph. “[T]hen taking that away and asking the audience, 'What is it that you just wanted?' Are you so desperate for him to achieve the kill that you're now disappointed that somehow he hasn't…”

Swofford does finally get a shot at bloody glory. He and his spotter Troy (Peter Sarsgaard) are tasked with a mission to take out a high-ranking Iraqi Republican Guard officer at an airfield. Swofford and Troy are almost giddy at the prospect, moving into position and lining their target up in their sights. They’ve spent so long milling about their base, never truly seeing any action, that it’s almost surreal for the men to finally lay eyes on an actual enemy. “So that’s what they look like,” Swofford remarks as he stares through his scope. But it’s not meant to be -- before the trigger can be pulled, a superior -- Major Lincoln (Dennis Haysbert) -- arrives and orders the men to stand-down so he can call in an airstrike. This causes a complete mental breakdown from Troy, who angrily proclaims, “That’s my kill!” Swofford and Troy look on, crestfallen, as fire rains down from the sky and obliterates the area where their target resides. “Are we ever going to get to kill anyone?” Swofford sadly asks later. The answer is no: by the time the two men get back to base from their aborted mission, the war is over. Swofford’s combat lasted a total of 4 days, 4 hours and 1 minute. “I never shot my rifle,” he mutters.

While there are smatterings of combat through Mendes’ film -- the aforementioned airstrike and an earlier sequence where the men are accidentally attacked from above by “friendly” forces -- Jarhead has no interest in action. Instead, Mendes and screenwriter William Broyles Jr. are more focused on the psychology of their characters, like when Swofford and his fellow Marines come across the chilling sight of the Highway of Death, and Swofford simply does not know how to fully process what he’s seeing. Aiding the film is the painterly cinematography from master DP Roger Deakins, who conjures up imagery that burns itself on your retinas, such as when the men watch oil wells go up in flames in the distance. Swofford, alone at night, illuminated by the flickering distant flame, comes upon a stray horse trotting across the desert, the animal coated with a sheet of oil: nature tarnished by humanity. It’s an overall introspective movie, but an introspective war movie may not have been what audiences were looking for at the time. Jarhead takes place in the ‘80s and ‘90s, but it was released into a post-9/11 world, two years after the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

Early drafts of Jarhead’s screenplay had more direct political statements, but Mendes stripped them from the final film. There are shadows here and there -- the film ends with Gyllenhaal’s Swofford ominously intoning “We are still in the desert.” -- but Jarhead attempts to stay apolitical. At one point, Sarsgaard’s Troy even says, “Fuck politics. We're here. All the rest is bullshit.” Mendes wasn’t trying to avoid controversy by avoiding statements; he claimed that distance was needed to truly unpack current events. “It's very difficult to understand this Gulf War while it's going on,” the filmmaker told NPR. “It takes 10 years to 15 years to get some distance on a war.” Even with Mendes’ attempt to de-politicize the film, audiences weren’t entirely in the mood for a film about desert warfare. Critics praised Jarhead, and it made modest box office numbers, but it was not a staggering hit. After its release, it faded from view.

And then somehow spawned two sequels.

On the surface, one sequel, let alone two, to Jarhead is ludicrous. There’s no story to continue, no franchise potential to build on. The film has a definite conclusion: Swofford leaves the Marines, but can never truly leave. No matter where he is in life, he’ll always be out in the desert somewhere, the weight of his rifle in his hands. What more is there to say? If you’re Universal Home Entertainment, the answer is: lots, as long as it involves jittery gun battles set to terrible blues rock music.

Direct-to-video sequels aren’t an anomaly, but Universal Home Entertainment has made it something of a gonzo art form, spawning direct-to-video sequels to The Scorpion King, Honey, Darkman, and more. Why keep pumping out sequels when a new story might be more compelling? The reasoning is simple: an already-established title, even one as obscure as Jarhead, already has name recognition. “It does some marketing for you,” said Glenn Ross, executive vice president of Universal 1440 Entertainment, in an interview with Grantland. “You come to it with a built-in consumer. You go on Facebook and people are constantly having dialogue about it.”

Aside from the use of Jarhead in the titles, and the focus on teams of Marines, the Jarhead sequels -- Jarhead 2: Field of Fire and Jarhead 3: The Siege -- are strangers to Mendes’ film. Field of Fire follows a ragtag team of Marines in Afghanistan attempting to protect an Afghani woman marked for death by the Taliban. The woman, Anoosh, has obtained an education, defying Sharia law and making her a powerful figurehead of opposition to the Taliban forces. The film moves from one location to the next, with the team engaging in multiple shoot-outs in their attempts to get Anoosh to safety so she can deliver a speech to the United Nations. For all its mind-numbing usage of gun-blazing glory, Field of Fire at least tries to develop its Marine characters and give them personality -- the reluctant new Corporal in command, his hot-headed second in command who resents the new Afghani member of the team, the lone woman in the group, and so on. The same can’t be said for the maddeningly silly Jarhead 3: The Siege.

Like Michael Bay’s 13 Hours, Jarhead 3 strives to turn the infamous 2012 Benghazi attack into action movie fodder, with none of the mega-budget that Bay had. Focusing on a group of Marines guarding a United States Embassy in Saudi Arabia, Jarhead 3 first plays with Jarhead’s theme of bored soldiers playing the waiting game -- the Marines guarding the embassy are little more than glorified security guards, spending their days Windexing windows and knocking back some Coronas on the roof. Any pretense of this boredom is blown to smithereens when militants attack the embassy. The Marines are able to quickly round up the ambassador and his staff, including a comic relief video blogger who is there to annoy both the characters in the film and anyone unlucky enough to be watching this, but that plan goes south when it’s revealed that the Ambassador has a terrorists cellphone in his safe with information that “could stop the next 9/11.” Endless shootouts ensue, along with an overwhelming amount of anti-Arab sentiment. Jarhead carefully handled its potential racism by having any character who expressed such sentiments be painted in a negative light. Jarhead 2 isn't as tactful, but does attempt to balance things by having an American character start out suspicious of an Afghani character only to become close with him. Jarhead 3 nukes any attempt at diplomacy by having characters spout lines like “Suck it, Alibaba!” and painting the American ambassador as weak for his empathetic approach to winning hearts and minds. It takes this a step further by eventually revealing the ambassador has been bribing people in the region with the help of the CIA.

The most important message to be gleaned from the Jarhead franchise (besides “Please, stop making Jarhead sequels”) is that more action does not make for a more exciting narrative. For all of Jarhead 2 and 3’s bluster and bravado, neither film comes close to the raw energy pulsing off of Jarhead. Scenes in Jarhead of characters bored out of their minds, waiting for combat to start, are ten times more exciting than any firefight in the two Jarhead sequels. Part of this is the result of how pedestrian the action is in the two follow-up films. There’s no artistry at work; no sense of space, or blocking, or life.

Jarhead 3 had the foresight to cast Scott Adkins, expert face-kicker and no stranger to direct-to-video sequels. Adkins starred in one of the direct-to-video Universal Soldier sequels, Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning. But the extremely well-directed Day of Reckoning is basically an art film compared to Jarhead 3, which doesn’t even let Adkins kick anyone! Such an action (or inaction) is tantamount to casting Gene Kelly in your musical and not letting him dance. One could argue that the differences between Jarhead and its sequels are justifiable because of disparities in the wars they’re covering. Jarhead was focused on Desert Storm, which -- in American eyes -- came and went on the wind. Jarhead 2 and 3 are set during the ongoing, seemingly endless Middle East conflicts of the post-9/11 world. But that would be giving too much credit to the direct-to-video sequels, which instead don’t seem to have given much thought to their themes one way or another.

There’s no message to these sequels, beyond “Guns are loud, and isn’t it exciting when they go off? I hope this never ends!” By limiting the combat angle, Sam Mendes’ Jarhead managed to be inherently anti-war while remaining apolitical. War isn’t just hell in Jarhead; it’s dull and unrewarding. Jarhead 2 and 3 could never understand that message. Near the end of Jarhead, after Swofford realizes he’s never fired his weapon and the war has ended, he shoots into the air, shouting to the night sky as he does so. It’s a cathartic moment, and other Marines join in. As the bullets fly and the cheers sound, one of the men incorrectly remarks that Saddam Hussein had been killed and that they would never have to come back here again. The firing of the weapons in that moment was meant to be a period, not an ellipsis.

Comments