Rules of Engagement

In courtroom dramas, audiences hate “smoking gun” scenarios, where the situation seems hopeless until, at the last minute, someone bursts in with a damning piece of evidence, or a witness suddenly starts telling the truth, or whatever.

But at least a movie with a smoking-gun ending HAS an ending. “Rules of Engagement” has the most anti-climactic outcome of the year (at least so far, and it would take some serious work in the remaining months of 2000 to top it). In a tragic case of movie birth defects, this film was born without an ending. Instead, it just sort of stops going, in an extremely disappointing and dull fashion.

Samuel L. Jackson plays Colonel Terry Childers, a much-decorated war hero sent to maintain peace at a protest outside the U.S. Embassy in Yemen. Things go awry, though, and he winds up ordering his men to open fire on the crowd. Hundreds are killed or wounded, and when the clean-up crew arrives the next day, the official word is that the protesters were unarmed.

Weaselly government guy Bill Sokal (Bruce Greenwood, playing the part in a way that manages to be both over-the-top and vague at the same time) doesn’t want the U.S. to take the heat for the apparent screw-up, thus ruining relations with every country in the Middle East; he wants to pin it on Childers, who ordered the attack. Childers is court-martialed, and calls upon his Vietnam War buddy-turned-mediocre-lawyer Hayes Hodges (Tommy Lee Jones) to defend him.

The question at hand is, was the crowd armed? Childers — the only man left alive who could actually see them — says they were, and that they were shooting at the Marines. Yemen says they weren’t, and the only ones shooting were the rooftop snipers across the street, and that the Marines should have aimed at THEM, not the crowd.

That leaves a surveillance video of the whole thing, which Sokal gets a hold of and hangs onto, as it shows clearly that the crowd had weapons. There’s your smoking gun — either the video; or the guy who delivered it to him (Gordon Clapp), who knew its contents; or the ambassador’s wife (Anne Archer), who knows that her husband has perjured himself in saying that Chidlers was behaving irrationally. The movie has all of these as possible ways of exonerating Childers. (Well, you could also look at all the bullet holes in the embassy building and see they were coming from the ground and not from neighboring rooftops, but never mind.)

But the movie uses none of these. Instead, by trying to play on the idea that sometimes you have to break the “rules of engagement,” the movie just kind of lets things resolve themselves. We’re glad to see Childers let off the hook (well, as glad as we can be, considering we don’t care much about him or his lawyer friend), but we wish it had been done in a more creative, suspenseful manner. This is a movie where critics can’t be accused of giving away the ending, because there’s no ending to give away.

C- (; R, graphic and bloody war-related violence, heavy profanity.)