Rules of Engagement (2000) - Plot Summary Poster


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  • An attorney defends an officer on trial for ordering his troops to fire on civilians after they stormed a U.S. embassy in a Middle Eastern country.

  • Hayes Hodges finds his career aspirations dashed when he's wounded in Vietnam. He returns to America and becomes a disillusioned lawyer who goes up against the Service to defend Colonel Terry Childers, who is accused of inciting an incident that leaves many demonstrators dead. Hodges is in no position to decline: Childers saved his life in Vietnam.

  • Colonel Terry Childers is a 30-year Marine veteran: a decorated officer with combat experience in Vietnam, Beirut and Desert Storm. But now, the country he served so well has put him on trial for a rescue mission that went terribly wrong. For his attorney, he has chosen Marine Colonel Hayes Hodges, a comrade-in-arms who owes his life to Childers. Hodges is not the best lawyer in the service, but Childers trusts him as a brother Marine who knows what it's like to risk death under fire. Bound by duty and friendship, Hodges reluctantly takes the case, even as he begins to doubt the man who saved his life in Vietnam three decades ago.

  • Colonel Terry Childers is a 30 year career Marine. He is ordered to go to the American Embassy in Yemen, when it's learned that the situation there is starting to unravel. After evacuating the ambassador and his family, Childers orders his men to fire at the crowd because he believes that they are armed. Back in the U.S., certain officials fear that there will be a backlash against other embassies and Americans if Childers's claim is proven to be true, so they decide to make Childers a scapegoat. Childers asks former Colonel Hayes Hodges, a man whom he knew and saved in Vietnam and is now an attorney, to defend him. While there is no evidence or witnesses that can back Childers's claim, Hodges feels that he owes it to Childers to do what he can to defend him.


The synopsis below may give away important plot points.


  • In 1968, a disastrous American advance in the Vietnam War has Lieutenant Terry Childers (Samuel L. Jackson) executing an unarmed prisoner in order to intimidate a captive North Vietnamese army officer into calling off an ambush of U.S. Marines. His act thereby saves the life of the wounded Lieutenant Hayes Hodges (Tommy Lee Jones), though many of Hodges' men die in the battle.

    In 1996, now a Colonel, Hodges is about to retire from the Marine Corps and is reminiscing about his years in uniform. As a result of wounds he sustained during Operation Kingfisher, he was no longer able to continue as an infantry officer, so the Marine Corps sent him to law school and he continued his career as a JAG officer. He subsequently enters the Camp Lejeune Officers Club, where numerous Marine officers wait to honor his service at a pre-retirement party. Hosting the event is his old friend, Colonel Terry Childers, who is now the Commanding Officer of a Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU).

    Subsequently deployed to Southwest Asia as part of an Amphibious Readiness Group, Col Childers and his embarked MEU are called to evacuate the U.S. Ambassador to Yemen from the embassy grounds, as a routine demonstration against American influence on the Arabian peninsula and in the Persian Gulf turns into rock-throwing and sporadic automatic rifle fire by snipers from nearby rooftops. After escorting the Ambassador Mourain (Ben Kingsley) and his family to a waiting helicopter, Childers returns to the embassy to retrieve the American flag; meanwhile three Marines are killed by snipers on nearby rooftops with more gun fire following. Childers then orders his men to open fire on the crowd and "waste the motherfuckers", resulting in the deaths of 83 civilian protesters and injuries to over 100 more.

    Back in the U.S., the U.S. National Security Advisor, Bill Sokal (Bruce Greenwood), pressures the military to proceed with a court-martial to try to deflect negative public opinion about the United States, shouldering all the blame for the incident onto Childers and salvage American relations in the Middle East.

    Childers subsequently approaches Hodges and asks him to be his defense attorney at the upcoming Court Martial. Hodges is reluctant to accept, knowing that his record as a JAG officer is less than impressive and Childers needs a better lawyer. But Childers is adamant, because he would rather have an attorney who has served in combat.

    With little time to prepare a defense, Hodges visits Yemen only to find uncooperative government officials and firsthand account of the serious injuries the crowd members endured after encountering hostile civilians. Most of the evidence is stacked against Childers, particularly the fact that no one else in his team can testify to having seen gunfire coming from the crowd, in particular Captain Lee (Blair Underwood) who hesitated to follow Childers' order.

    Sokal is determined for him to be convicted and is met by the overzealous prosecutor, Major Biggs (Guy Pearce) who believes Childers to be absolutely guilty and wants to make an example out of him. Sokal at one point, burns a videotape of security camera footage revealing that most of the protesting crowd were indeed armed and firing at the Marines; evidence that would potentially exonerate Childers. He also blackmails the ambassador Childers rescued into lying on the stand and saying both that the crowd had been peaceful and that Childers had been violent towards him and his family during the evacuation.

    Colonel Hodges meets with Mourain's wife after the Ambassador's testimony to hear her side of the story. Although she admits Childers had been valiant, she refuses to testify and destroy her marriage.

    Back at the trial, Hodges presents a shipping manifest proving that a tape from an undamaged camera which had been looking directly into the crowd-the tape Sokal had burned-had been delivered to Sokal's office, but failed to show up at the trial, arguing that this tape would have been damning evidence against Childers if it had, in fact, shown the crowd was unarmed.

    Captain Lee is grilled on the witness stand by Major Biggs and despite trying to give favorable testimony, leaves doubt of Childers' innocence.

    Childers himself eventually takes the stand, with he and Biggs locked into a fierce verbal battle. Biggs produces an audio tape which contains the recording of Childers' poor choice of words when giving his order. While defending his actions, Childers loses his temper while stating that he would not sacrifice the lives of his men to appease the likes of Biggs.

    Already at an advantage, the prosecution presents the Vietnamese Colonel, who witnessed Childers execute a POW in Vietnam, Colonel Cao, as a rebuttal witness, trying to drive home the idea that Childers is malicious. Hodges cross-examines him and gets him to testify that had the circumstances been reversed, Col. Cao would have done the same thing. After the trial, Hodges visits Sokal and asks him what had happened to the tape; Sokal denies its existence and Hodges replies "Have you ever had a pissed off Marine on your tail?"

    The film ends with Childers being found guilty of the minor charge of breach of the peace (for having disobeyed his order to just show his Marines' presence), but not guilty of the more serious charges of conduct unbecoming of an officer (eligible for Dismissal from the Service, similar to a Dishonorable discharge for enlisted personnel) and murder (eligible for life imprisonment, and even the death penalty). A final title card reveals that no further charges were brought against Childers and that he retired honorably from the Marine Corps. The title card also explains that both Sokal and Mourain lost their jobs after being convicted of destruction of evidence and perjury respectively.

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