Soldiers are born twice. They come into the world as babies, scared and hairless, and are born again as recruits, scared and hairless. The men who come to Parris Island are stripped of their name and identity, left only with a nickname to remember their former selves. From that point on, the humanity is slowly stripped away from these men as they are rebuilt to kill. However, can any kind of re-education prepare a man to do what is required of these marines?
In the context of this movie, all women are either hookers or they're trying to kill you. All the higher ups are going to do is get you killed. Your family, if you have one, is a world away. The only sanctity and support the marines have is with each other, with their brothers. As a marine, when you're not killing, you can fuck, masturbate, swap stories, or argue. The one thing you can't do, Kubrick seems to tell us, is question.
It's this questioning that separates our protagonist from the group. The sarcastic and contradictory Joker wears a peace button on his chest and "Born to Kill" on his head. Asked what he means by wearing the two, he responds, "I don't know sir," followed by "I think I was trying to suggest something about the duality of man, sir." Joker tells us he joined up to kill, yet he seems to go to great lengths to avoid killing. Whether he changes over the course of the film, or is being contrary for the sake of it is left up to the viewer. However, the contradiction of war emerges time and time again throughout the film. God loves the marines, because they keep heaven full. Lee Harvey Oswald, a man of distinction because of his excellent shooting. Animal Mother, the heavy gunner who, "under fire, is one of the finest human beings in the world. All he needs is somebody to throw hand grenades at the rest of his life."
At it's heart, Full Metal Jacket is about soldiers. The war is a disease the men have to cope with. The movie steps back and lets the characters define themselves, struggling against war. Some rebel against authority and crack jokes, some take their aggression out on the Vietnamese, some can't cope. You can find this squad dynamic in nearly all war films, but what separates this movie from every other war medium is Kubrick. The director clashes the jungle of Vietnam against loud American pop music, shows us silhouetted recruits climbing obstacles against a morning sky, and makes every line an icon of American culture.
So, amidst all the explication, is it a good movie? It's certainly well made, well shot and well written. Personally, my complaints lie in the characters. Deliberate or not, each character feels like another grunt to me. I cared what happened to two characters, and felt nothing about any of the others. I didn't know their back-story, hell, I didn't even know their name. The characters are given good lines, typical army posturing, but I just felt like I didn't know enough to really emphasize with them. Overall though, it's a stellar movie that shows us what it takes to turn men into marines, and what happens to the men after the process has finished.