It’s easy to understand why any director with a good eye–and Sam Mendes (“American Beauty,” “Road to Perdition”) certainly fills the bill– would want to take on “Jarhead,” the story of a Marine’s experiences in the first Gulf War of 1991 based on Anthony Swofford’s autobiographical book. It offers a wealth of opportunities to create striking images–especially in the last forty minutes or so. There’s the amazing sight of the Kuwaiti oil fields, set afire by the retreating Iraqis, burning red and yellow in the dark desert night, for example. And the vision of the famous “highway of death,” littered with the skeletons of cars and trucks–and the cremated remains of human beings–by U.S. air power. And a surrealistic scene of bodies similarly struck by American bombs in the middle of the desert, turned to cinder so instantaneously that the charred remains are still literally sitting around the remnants of dead campfires. Mendes and ace cinematographer Roger Deakins take advantage of them all, fashioning jewels of surrealistic beauty from such moments. In the earlier portions of their film, too, they achieve a great many remarkable visual effects.

But to succeed a film needs to be more than a succession of images, however entrancing they might be. It requires expertly developed characters and a narrative arc that actually goes somewhere. Unhappily, “Jarhead” lacks those necessities. It’s more like a random assemblage of sequences that individually might impress but taken together don’t convey much beyond a general impression that, from the perspective of infantry soldiers in the war, the conflict was an unholy mess that afforded them no opportunity to utilize the skills the services had gone to such extraordinary lengths to inculcate into them. (In the case of Swofford, he was trained as a precision sniper, but since the war was won pretty exclusively by air power, he never got a chance to fire his weapon in actual combat.) Even more problematical is the fact that while the film apparently wants on the one hand to suggest the absurdity of the war in almost “M*A*S*H”-like terms (hyped up feverishly, of course, in line with the passage of a full quarter-century), it also wants to glorify the combatants who (as with the platoon in Samuel Fuller’s “The Big Red One”) we remain almost exclusively focused on for the full two hours. (At one point, for example, Jamie Foxx, as Swofford’s hard-nosed sergeant, suddenly turns sensitive enough to deliver a speech about being so devoted to the military life that he’d set aside good opportunities in civilian life to remain a member of the Corps.) Yet the picture never endows even the major characters with the complexity and heft they need in order to engage us; they’re given no backgrounds of consequence, and come off as fundamentally cardboard figures even actors with the talent of Gyllenhaal, Foxx and Peter Sarsgaard (as Swofford’s sniper spotter) can’t bring to life. The lesser ones in the troupe, moreover, are little more than caricatures–the redneck (Ewan Jones), the wimp (Brian Geraghty), the expectant father (Laz Alonso), the gruff commander (Dennis Haysbert), the pumped-up lieutenant (Chris Cooper), and so on–notable for little more than their quirks. (It’s particularly painful to watch veterans like Haysbert and Cooper struggling with such cliches.) It’s symptomatic of the film’s failure to build a strong bond between the characters and the audience that when one of the men dies at the end, the dramatic resonance of the event is practically nil. We’re being asked to mourn for someone who obstinately remains a stranger to us.

So one has to admire the technical flash and elegance of “Jarhead.” Mendes certainly knows how to compose an image, and Deakins knows equally well how to shoot it. The Mexican and American locations stand in convincingly for the Middle Eastern ones, too, and the production design by Dennis Gassner is first-rate. Even Thomas Newman’s score offers effective support.
But while beautifully crafted from a purely visual standpoint, the film remains structurally chaotic and emotionally remote. And though the lack of thematic coherence and finished characterization may be an intentional artistic choice, designed to express the mixture of high-tech perfectionism, personal frustration and tactical sloppiness that marks modern warfare (it’s hardly accidental that titles are used to keep us informed about how many days the Marines are stuck in the Kuwaiti desert waiting for the action to begin), all it succeeds in doing is to distance us from the narrative and send confused signals about what it hopes to convey. “Jarhead” is smart about trying to deflect invidious comparisons by itself citing great past war films–at one point we watch the troops cheering the famous helicopter assault scene from “Apocalypse Now,” and at another a brief glimpse of “The Deer Hunter.” But it never matches those pictures in its focus or impact. And perhaps predictably, it avoids alluding to the film it most resembles, “Full Metal Jacket.” That’s entirely understandable, given that compared to Kubrick’s final statement on war, one of the most compelling films on the Vietnam experience, “Jarhead” isn’t even half “Full.”