The opening scenes of Sam Mendes’s deadpan thinkpiece “Jarhead” play like a trip through classic cult-war films, from the “Full Metal Jacket” boot-camp lineup and TV confessionals to an actual projection of the famous helicopter-attack sequence from “Apocalypse Now.” The film, oddly uneventful for a war movie, freely adopts and casually manipulates iconic and horrific images from its predecessors, leading into a movie that couldn’t be more different from them.

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Why does Santa look like that guy from “Donnie Darko?”
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Of course, those are Vietnam movies, inspired by a war during which few who were there didn’t have the opportunity to kill. But the bored-on-a-sunny-day Marines that populate “Jarhead” are left in the 112-degree abyss of the first Gulf War with little to do that doesn’t involve sleeping, football and, as the film goes to almost bizarre lengths to inform us, the extensive use of their right (and sometimes left) hands.

For them, the only thing that’s worse than killing someone is having no one to kill; as the trademark voice-over muses, “Every war is different. Every war is the same.” Fair enough, but try telling that to these guys.

“Jarhead,” based on the book by Anthony Swofford, is meticulously structured in the image of war-cinema archetypes, so we expect a confused, detached, one-man central focus. Here it is Swoff (often-overlooked talent Jake Gyllenhaal), disillusioned by the boredom of a war that was never really meant to be and often left to obsess over the gorgeous prize girlfriend he left at home (“I am 20 years old was and stupid enough to sign a contract,” he quietly tells a TV reporter).

Normally in this equation, there’s a turning point involving a stunning moment of violence, but it becomes clear that this is a different kind of war movie. About the closest thing to an explosive climax is a scene in which two characters are ordered not to kill someone.

In a way, then, the hackneyed framework early on seems counterintuitive; we expect the same large-scale violence the Marines do and are dumbfounded when it never comes A-A– so that void becomes the film’s narrative arc. It’s a clever device.

But that doesn’t mean the movie works. Mendes clearly intended to steer it away from the war’s political implications: “Fuck politics. We’re here; all the rest is bullshit,” says Troy (Peter Sarsgaard, “Garden State”), Swoff’s Hemingway-quoting war buddy, and maybe he’s right. Thing is, the movie builds and builds to a big revelation that never comes. A film like “Jarhead” can support war or oppose it, be conflicted or undecided but it can’t turn a blind eye, and, above all, it can’t not care. The movie, for all its provocations, doesn’t make much of a point about anything.

Coming from a filmmaker as fiercely articulate as Mendes (“American Beauty”), it’s hard not to wonder what he was thinking. The film is surely among the year’s most technically accomplished, with images haunting no matter how botched their treatment, and there’s yet another performance of astonishing grace from Jamie Foxx. The screenplay is artfully crafted, too, but what’s really missing here is a credible follow through on the overarching angst of the story. Like Ridley Scott’s “Kingdom of Heaven” earlier this year, “Jarhead” means well but forgets to tell a compelling story, and that makes all the difference.

Film Review: 3 out of 5 stars

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