Jarhead takes a perverse pleasure in confounding your expectations of what a war movie should be. For starters, there's not much actual, you know, war. Having joined the Marines more or less by accident, Jake Gyllenhaal's smart-aleck sniper spends most of his time hanging around in the desert dying of boredom, as the fighting stubbornly refuses to get started. A wonder to look at and expertly performed, it's nonetheless a difficult movie to like.
Kicking off with the usual brutal training sequence - mouthy sergeants, ritual humiliation, you know the routine - Jarhead quickly progresses to the Saudi Arabian desert, where Jake and his fellow squaddies stave off the hot, sandy tedium with illicit booze, football matches and war flicks. Desert Storm, when it finally arrives, is frustrating and incomprehensible, with soldiers plagued by faulty equipment and friendly fire long before they see the enemy. Some critics have attacked Jarhead because it refuses take any stance on America's intervention in the Gulf, but amoral despair is kind of the point; Jarhead looks into the desert and sees absurdity. It's like Waiting For Godot with a special effects budget.
But is it any good? Well, yeah, grudgingly. Gyllenhaal, a proper star, makes no attempt to be friends with the camera but remains fascinating anyway, and he's well supported by Peter Sarsgaard as his sniping chum and Jamie Foxx, finding a few gracenotes in a badly written role as a tough staff sergeant. The main problem is Sam Mendes' direction, which strains for Kubrickian cynicism but comes across as youthfully jaded.