Marine Pride – The Inspection

Like several other films this year, the debut feature from Elegance Bratton, The Inspection, is largely autobiographical, with character names being changed for dramatic license and/or legal protection. Unlike a lot of those other movies, this one is not about the magic of cinema itself. Instead, it’s a deeply personal tale of pulling oneself up by their literal bootstraps in a world designed to stymie progress for members of marginalized communities, which gives it a degree more credibility than its situational contemporaries.

Is it a guaranteed smash? Not really. It’s been out in theatres for about three weeks and I’m only just now getting around to it, mostly because it’s garnered multiple nominations from the Independent Spirit Awards, and lead actor Jeremy Pope is up for a Golden Globe, which means there’s at least a fair-to-middling chance that it gets recognition from the Academy as well. That said, this is a solid, entertaining film that occasionally has something important to say even as it treads very familiar ground, and the main performances are compelling enough to keep your attention.

Pope plays Ellis French, the analog for Bratton. In 2005, two years into the Iraq war, French has decided to enlist in the United States Marine Corps as a means to get himself off the New York City streets, where he has been living for the past decade after his mother Inez (Gabrielle Union) kicked him out of their home at age 16 for being gay. This echoes Bratton’s personal history, and Pope effectively translates the self-loathing and desperation to the audience through minimal dialogue. An embrace of a drag queen in a subway station while barely holding back tears shows just how much he’s suffered, and how much he cares about a sense of belonging and fellowship, a theme that carries throughout the story, and a common one for movies about servicemen.

Seeing the military as his only possible outlet to end his homelessness, he reluctantly visits Inez to request his birth certificate, and the first major heartbreak of the movie is laid bare in a really well-orchestrated scene. Initially hesitant to even open the door for her own son, Inez subjects him to snide remonstrations as she fulfills his request. Prominently displaying a crucifix around her neck, she tells Ellis that she’s made peace with “losing him,” barely looks him in the eye, and even goes so far as to lay out newspaper on her couch before he sits down, as if her own offspring is diseased, with her television blasting the sermon of an evangelical minister in the background. With the sternness of her profession as a prison guard, she presents Ellis with an ultimatum as she hands over the document, “If you don’t come back as the boy I gave birth to, consider this certificate void.” Ouch. Just, ouch.

Both principal actors play the moment about as perfectly as possible. Ellis is cordial yet assertive, making sure his needs are known and pushing back ever so slightly on his mother’s biases and the debunked theory that sexuality is a choice he made. And as ever, his circumstances (and Bratton’s by extension) continue to give lie to the idea, because he is a living counterargument that no one would choose to be gay knowing these were the consequences. Still, Pope remains just reserved enough to make sure the sequence doesn’t drift into melodrama, because Ellis knows he has to take a little bit of abuse to achieve his goal. On the other side, Inez projects an aggressive, passionate conflict (one she states plainly in another gut punch scene later on), because no matter what she says, you can see in her eyes that she feels she’s failed as a parent with her son turning out to be a homosexual. She presents an authoritative front, but you can tell her heart is shattered, even if the cause of the emotion is woefully misplaced. This is particularly strong coming from Gabrielle Union, who in real life has a transgender stepchild and is a fierce advocate for LGBTQ rights.

When Ellis arrives at Parris Island, he learns immediately that no one will protect him, and that few rules, if any, apply. As soon as he gets off the bus, his senior drill instructor, Leland Laws (Bokeem Woodbine, who you basically hire if you want someone who looks like Dave Chappelle could beat the shit out of you and would keep controversial comments confined to the script), promises to “break” each and every member of the platoon, and (along with his assistants) demands that all of the recruits openly state that they are not gay, even though that’s a blatant violation of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy in place at the time.

Life at boot camp begins promisingly enough, with Ellis excelling in some areas and leaving room for improvement in others. He’s even a finalist to be squad leader at one point. That all changes when he accidentally lets his mind wander and pops a boner in the shower, leading everyone to correctly presume his orientation (even though he could easily say he was thinking about his girlfriend back home or something). From that point on, the film basically unfolds like the first half of Full Metal Jacket, with Ellis as the Gomer Pyle of the group and Laws putting in a concerted effort to make him quit or rig it so that he fails, going full R. Lee Ermey with shades of Louis Gossett, Jr. thrown in for variety as he attempts multiple times to outright sabotage French’s progress.

There are a few good scenes here and there during this main section, and Woodbine makes for a convincing antagonist, but when Bratton leans so hard into what is literally my favorite movie of all time (and cheekily tries to buy it back by saying that all films about Marines are bullshit except for Jarhead), it kind of takes me out of the picture. Part of this is because we’re repeating plot beats from much better projects, but mostly in this case it’s because the homage misses the point of Stanley Kubrick’s classic, which is to demonstrate the dehumanizing effect of war and the military industrial complex.

There are a couple of times when Laws will say something about wanting to make monsters out of his recruits, which echoes Full Metal Jacket and the desire for “killers,” “weapons of war,” and “men without fear,” but mostly the motivation for Laws (and his subordinates) is just to be a dick as a foil for French’s innate sense of empathy. This mostly manifests in the forms of fellow recruit Ismail (Eman Esfandi), the lone Muslim in the platoon who bears the brunt of all the xenophobia born from the War on Terror, and Laws’ second-in-command Rosales (Raúl Castillo), who offers French some subtle encouragement as he is also gay but by law must remain closeted.

A lot of the material is very ho-hum, again because we’ve seen these tropes a number of times in other films. Hell, there’s even a scene where the new Marines discuss their first assignments, including French as a photographer and journalist that had me whispering, “You gotta be shitting me, Joker! You think you’re Mickey Spillane? You think you’re some kind of fucking writer?” to myself in the back row. That’s how derivative some of these moments feel. I can’t discount them too much, because these are drawn from Bratton’s own experiences and they are still entertaining. I just wish there was more to them. Again, the performances are strong, and his overcoming of adversity is inspiring, but if the director will forgive the play on his own name, there is a certain elegance lacking from the story to have it rise above the fray.

Grade: B

Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? What are your favorite military movies? Do you have any weapons named Charlene? Let me know!

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