The film focuses on the relationship between Colonel Hayes Hodges (Tommy Lee Jones) and Colonel Terry Childers (Samuel L. Jackson). Both men fought in the same Marine unit in Vietnam, where Childers saved Hodges' life. Fast-forwarding more than 20 years, the film reintroduces Hodges and Childers, who now both occupy comfortable military clichés. Hodges has been broken by his experiences in Vietnam and is merely an adequate Marine lawyer one step away from retiring. Childers is an overachiever who lives for the corps and has just been given his first command, which is to lead a rescue mission into Yemen to evacuate the personnel of the U.S. embassy, which has been besieged by a mob of angry demonstrators. During the evacuation, Childers orders his men to open fire on the crowd, and in the process, 83 demonstrators, including women and children, are killed. The death of these demonstrators becomes the foundation for a court-martial against Childers, who turns to Hodges and asks him to defend his case.
The premise of the courtroom battle centers on the question, "Was Childers justified in shooting into the crowd in order to save his men?"--a query that opens up the possibilities for an intriguing debate on the ethics of violence. Unfortunately, this is the point when the plot really begins to collapse underneath the weakness of the script. Supporting characters are underdeveloped, subplots are introduced that never come close to reaching fruition and beneath it all there is the uncomfortable specter of stereotyping and bigotry towards Islam. There are plenty of images of Muslims screaming, chanting, shooting and demanding death to America, while the larger political issues that exist outside the courtroom are never touched upon or hinted at.
Yet, despite the film's inadequacies, much credit must be given to Jackson and Jones, who do considerable work with limited characters and whose chemistry drives the film much more than its story. Also redeeming the many narrative dead-ends are some scenes of extraordinary strength and tension--most notably the pressure-cooker moments leading up to Childers' decision to open fire--temporarily elevating "Rules of Engagement" and hinting at the much better film that could have been made. Starring Tommy Lee Jones, Samuel L. Jackson, Guy Pearce, Philip Baker Hall, Bruce Greenwood, Blair Underwood and Ben Kingsley. Directed by William Friedkin. Written by Stephen Gaghan. Produced by Richard D. Zanuck and Scott Rudin. A Paramount release. Drama. Rated R for language and violence. Running time: 118 min