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Saturday, Aug. 5, 2000


Natural born bully goes in for the kill

One of the thoughts that keeps me awake at nights is: If I could marry anyone in the movies, who would it be? After many hours of deeply concentrated effort, I decided this weighty question went beyond my mental capacities. The pickings are just too numerous. It's a lot easier to come up with the unmarriageables and the No. 1 guy on the "Don't Marry, Not on Your Life" list is -- and I think I'm not alone in saying this -- Tommy Lee Jones. Imagine sitting across this man at breakfast. See? Already your hands are shaking as you hand him the coffee.

It's not that Tommy Lee Jones is unattractive. He is -- in a craggy, gnarly, tree-bark kind of way. He's obviously a hard and dedicated worker (he once said in a press conference that vacations depressed the hell out of him) and seems totally immune to scandal.

The problem is, he reminds me too much of Mr. Rabinowitz who taught sixth-grade math and ran the classroom like a drill sergeant. Mr. Rabinowitz made you do push-ups, 10 for every missed homework assignment. He held that a 3-km jog at dawn was the best prelude to solving algebra. Mr. Rabinowitz had only two modes of speech: yelling and yelling louder.

I don't know how Tommy Lee Jones feels about algebra, but he and Mr. Rabinowitz have this in common: When they come after you, you may as well curl up and die. They will come after you with every last fiber of their being and nothing, nothing, will make them stop. If you've ever seen Tommy Lee on screen, you know that this man is the reincarnation of the Hound of the Baskervilles. If they showed his movies in reform schools with a voice-over message: "Be good or Tommy's coming after ya," the effect would be enormous.

So as a former detention-room regular, I was trembling in my seat as the lights went out for "Rules of Engagement," which is Tommy Lee's latest coming-to-getcha movie. Suffice to say, he does not disappoint, not for one frame. He's bit older, a bit creakier, but there's no mistaking that glint in his eye: He's after someone.

This time, though, it's not some fugitive of the law. His quarry is the National Security Adviser, a U.S. ambassador and a couple of sorry-assed military bureaucrats. You will see them, at first arrogant and blustering, gradually start to crumble under Tommy Lee's barrage of yelling, accusing and yelling some more. Not a film for the faint of heart.

Directed by William Friedkin (who made "The Exorcist" and is an expert on fright), "Rules of Engagement" pairs Tommy Lee Jones and Samuel L. Jackson as Vietnam War buddies, now on the brink of military retirement. Col. Childers (Jackson) spent most of his career on battlefields around the globe, but Col. Hodges (Jones) became a military lawyer after injuries in Vietnam bumped him off combat work. As a result he's a bitter, cynical alcoholic.

When local rioters surround the American Embassy in Yemen, Childers and his troops are sent to rescue and evacuate the U.S. ambassador (Ben Kingsley). But the violence gets out of hand and Childers orders an attack on the public, many of whom are women and children. In a matter of minutes, 83 are dead and the U.S. Army is left to reckon with the political consequences. Childers is accused of murder. He immediately turns to his old friend Hodges to represent him in court. ("I don't want no Starbucks drinker who's never been in combat.") Reluctant at first, Hodges then throws himself into the case full force. He flies to Yemen for some shred of redeeming evidence. He visits the clinic where the survivors convalesce. He sees little kids with missing limbs, moaning with pain.

For all this, he is convinced that Childers is innocent and had every right to open fire. Still, turning the tables on ace prosecutor Mark Biggs (Guy Pearce) and National Security Adviser William Sokal (Bruce Greenwood) is no easy task, especially when worldwide public opinion is baying for Childers' blood. Even the ambassador, who owes his life to Childers, refuses to testify in his favor.

Until the last half hour, things look pretty bleak for the pair, but Hodges forges ahead, and snaps up the truth like a bulldog even as opponents try to hold him back.

Friedkin and writer Stephen Gagham tread on thin political ice with such a story, and there is a sense of discomfort (for non-American audiences anyway) in all the military flag-waving. In the end, though, what "Rules of Engagement" boils down to is two middle-aged men giving everything to their jobs. To emphasize this point, neither of the characters ever takes time even for a glass of water, let alone to sit down to eat or sleep.

Not the slightest hint of love interest, either. (There are no women in the movie apart from Anne Archer, who makes a brief appearance as the ambassador's wife.) You're going to see a lot of uniforms, weapons, gray courtroom chairs and not much else.

Tommy Lee Jones swims around in this like a dolphin in the South Atlantic. It's his movie, all the way.

"Rules of Engagement" opens Aug. 12 at Shibuya Tokyu Theater and other theaters.

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