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Jarhead-HD DVD

Start with a look at Marine boot camp not much different than what we've seen in countless war movies. Move on to a boring look at bored Marines killing time in the desert in the buildup to the 1991 Gulf War. They're depicted as dumb, disorganized, rowdy, and undisciplined. The promotional copy for the movie, included in the cover art, says that the troops are "in a country they don't understand, against an enemy they can't see, for a cause they don't fully grasp. Believe me, the troops in the first Gulf War were fully briefed on the country they were going to, could usually see the enemy (his back, typically), and understood that they were fighting to free a country occupied by the forces of an expansionist dictator. That promotional copy was clearly written as a not-too-subtle analogy to the current Iraq war.

But this film isn't a political screed, apart from two or three comments about oil. More than anything else Jarhead, based on a best-selling memoir by ex-Marine Tony Swofford who served in the 1991 Gulf War, is a psychological study. And not a particularly well done one. It swings wildly from one incident to the next. There's little actual fighting, and the characters are not drawn in a way that makes us care much about them as they sit around waiting for something to happen.

And when things finally do happen, the only thing we take away from it all is that that Swofford is crushed because he never fired his rifle in combat. Poor baby. Him and, I suspect, at least half of the other troops in the four days of ground combat in that war. The film is a condensed version of the book (which I have not read), but either the character development wasn't in the book or it was lost in translation to the screen. Many of the performances are outstanding, but they're essentially wasted here.

It takes a while to fully appreciate the quality of the video transfer on this HD DVD. It isn't achingly sharp. Details don't jump out at you. The photography is beautifully done, but in a way that emphasizes the bright sun and brown, sandy colors of the desert at the expense of "correct" exposures and a wide color palette. But all that was certainly intentional. The video here is a solid effort, if not the first HD DVD you'll pull out to show off your new player.

The most striking images are also probably the most unlikely to be factual. (I question whether Marines were ever assigned to slog through burning Kuwait oil fields during the combat phase of the war, much less try to dig in there. The action in the Gulf War moved rapidly out of Kuwait and into southern Iraq.) But the night scenes in this portion of the film have a particularly hellish beauty that must have been difficult to produce and photograph, even with the special effects that were clearly added in post production.

The sound is solid and clean. There's not much to write home about until we move into the war action, but the music track (some of it wildly anachronistic—was rap really popular with the troops in 1991?) is nicely done, and the dialogue sounds natural. When the fighting begins, the dynamic range becomes much wider, but without the grating edge that has often accompanied many Dolby Digital war-movie soundtracks of the past.

The extras include more than 35 minutes of deleted scenes.

Video reviewed on a Yamaha DPX-1300 DLP projector, 78-inch wide Stewart Studiotek 130 screen, and Toshiba HD-A1 HD-DVD player set for 1080i upconversion. Audio evaluated via the player's digital output to an Anthem D1 pre-pro, Proceed AMP5 amplifier, and Revel F52/C52/M22/B15 loudspeakers.

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