We’ve seen decades of boot camp movies over the decades, most taking their cue from 1957’s “The D.I.,” with Jack Webb playing the titular Marine Corps drill instructor. More recently, the bar was set by R. Lee Ermey in “Full Metal Jacket,” another D.I. charged with changing recruits into soldiers, no matter what their background, disposition or fitness for the job.
But we’ve never seen a version of this coming-of-age/making-of-a-soldier tale as seen through the eyes of a not-wholly-closeted gay man. Writer-director Elegance Bratton makes his semi-autobiographical drama “The Inspection” both a classic underdog-in-boot-camp story, and a blunt and unblinking look at a gay man’s experience in the military’s “Don’t ask, don’t tell” era, which ended in 2011.
Bratton and his alter ego, Newark recruit Ellis French (Jeremy Pope) lean into ugly tropes that opponents of gay enlistment trot out every time their bigotry gets the better of them. A just-effeminate-enough gay man putting himself in an all-male environment, living with and showering with his comrades in arms?
Let’s just say Bratton dares to put the “phobia” back in homophobia by some of what his protagonist experiences, does and dreams of doing in this world of testosterone and muscles.
Ellis is homeless when we meet him. He may have his gay “fam” as a support system, but they aren’t feeding, housing and caring for him or giving him options for taking care of himself.
At 25, he has to beg his estranged, disapproving prison guard mom (Gabrielle Union, wearing her mileage and her ferocity) for the paperwork that’ll let him join the military.
It’s 2005, near the post-9/11 peak of military activity, and lipstick-wearing Ellis wants to be a Marine.
Mom’s an embittered mess and cruelly-skeptical of how his “life style” will fit in the Corps.
“Come back” as “the son I gave BIRTH to,” she snaps, and that’s that.
Sure enough, the bullying starts on the bus ride to basic training. But Ellis shows his first hint of mettle when he sits next to a targeted recruit.
His on-base greeting (Parris Island is never named) is the cliched litany of yelling, spittle and intimidation from the two assistant drill instructors. Chief Gunnery Sgt. Laws (Bokeem Woodbine) is sparing in his shouting, but not in his threats.
“I will break you,” he promises one and all. “I HATE recruits. But I LOVE Marines.” He’s duty-bound and old school enough to do whatever it takes, above or below board, to weed out the weak from his Beloved Corps.
Woodbine gives Laws a temper that he controls, a cunning that he rarely gives away and a gaydar that is a little slow on the uptake. He praises the faintly fey “French” and his commitment, before finding his ready-made excuse for cutting him.
“The Inspection” thus sets up as the standard war-of-wills story, but with a generic boot camp “system” vs a culture willing to bend and modernize that system twist on that.
It’s fascinating, if perhaps a tad triggering for some old soldiers who can’t see how “this sort of thing” could happen, when of course it’s been happening all along.
Pope, of Ryan Murphy’s “Hollywood” mini series, pays dividends as an actor who is both believably gay and convincingly fit, flinty and tough enough to stand up to grueling training and savage bullying.
Raúl Castillo plays a D.I. who makes an intriguing argument for finding the Marine inside the man, picking up on French’s determination, focus, loyalty to his comrades and intelligence. If Laws is willing to do what it takes to make the “sissy” wash out, French and Sgt. Rosales are willing to call him out about crossed-lines and “psychopath” behavior.
Speaking of bullying out of control, McCaul Lombardi is just as realistic as the anointed squad leader in the class, willing to mete out peer-punishment at the D.I.’s instigation to force French out.
But “The Inspection” is best appreciated as a showcase for Woodbine and Union, each taking her or his best big screen dramatic role in years and bringing it home in scene after scene. She almost quivers with contempt for her own child. Woodbine gives Laws the cocksureness of his own prejudices, certain that this less butch recruit won’t pass his every test.
They make Bratton’s film a metaphor for American ignorance faced-down with first-hand experience. He sets up the character to fail, even taunts us with the obvious traps society long-expected recruits like Ellis French or Elegance Bratton to fall into. He then transforms them into further tests for a homeless, desperate gay man who wants to change his future and serve his country as he does.
Bratton makes it not just believable but acceptable for Ellis to be seen as among “The Few, the Proud.” Because gay men, as this Marine Corps vet realizes, know a little something about “pride,” too.
Rating: R for language throughout, sexual content, some nudity and violence.
Cast: Jeremy Pope, Bokeem Woodbine, Raúl Castillo, McCaul Lombardi.
Eman Esfandi and Gabrielle Union.
Credits: Scripted and directed by Elegance Bratton. An A24 release.
Running time: 1:35