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Judge Zane: "Sergeant Highway, drunk and disorderly. Fighting in a public establishment. Urinating on a police vehicle?"
"Gunny" Highway: "Well, it seemed like the thing to do, sir."
Clint Eastwood stars in this film as Gunnery Sergeant ("Gunny") Tom Highway, a highly decorated but trouble-prone Korea/Vietnam veteran who is getting close to military retirement, and seen by the younger Marines as an anachronism. He is sent to train an unruly Recon platoon, who think they run things because their former sergeant was soft on them. His methods rub his CO the wrong way, but he gets great results and a handful of laughs as well.
The film was apparently endorsed by the military... until they saw the first cut. There was too much graphic/sexual-overtone-laden language and negative portrayal of military personnel, so they pulled their support. Many military members vouched for the authenticity of the character types shown, though.
- The Alcoholic: Gunny Highway.
- Armchair Military: Major Powers, who has spent most of his military career in an office. Not played completely straight, as Powers is portrayed as eager to experience combat and makes comments like "I, as of yet, have not the privilege of combat" or when he tells his CO, "My men and I are ready to fight to the death to protect our country", but his inexperience leads to him being a poor leader when he's in combat in Grenada.
- Armed Farces: Recon Platoon before Highway takes command.
- Badass Bookworm: Lt. Ring becomes one in the end.
- Bawdy Song: The platoon sings one of these in cadence form, right as they pass Major Powers and a female Marine. She's more amused than he is.
- The Big Guy: Swede.
- Camp Follower: Highway mentions this when he talks about his experiences in Vietnam.
- Captain Smooth and Sergeant Rough: Sergeant Major Choozoo and Gunny Highway.
- Catch Phrase: "You improvise. You adapt. You overcome." (and variations thereof)
- Cluster F-Bomb: They certainly got this right about Marine Gunnys.
- Colonel Badass: Colonel Meyers. Never shown but implied with his contrasting attitudes towards Highway and Powers and when he mentions having a rifle company in the same unit as Highway in Vietnam.
- Cut His Heart Out with a Spoon: Gunny Highway has a lot of these, almost as if he's channeling Dirty Harry.
- A Date with Rosie Palms: Highway tells Recon as they're getting ready for the day in the head (Marine term for bathroom);
Highway: Just one shake of those wangs, ladies. Any more than that constitutes pleasure, and we're not in that business.
- Deadpan Snarker: Highway.
- As the film progresses, more and more of Recon platoon follow his example.
Jones: Gunny, I think Powers has the hots for you. Better watch out.
- Defeat Means Friendship: Swede, a marine who is built like a wall, ends his career of going in and out of the brig after being beaten by Highway, who Recon had initially picked to knock Highway down a few notches.
Swede: I'll wait outisde for the MPs to come.
Highway: Negative, Johansen. You're gonna become a marine right now. Fall out.
- Designated Victim: Recon Platoon begins as this. Highway is the only person who disagrees.
- Desk Jockey: Major Powers.
- Drill Sergeant Nasty: Gunny Highway.
- Effective Immediately:
Major Devin: "...you are out of here, effective immediately."
- Elites Are More Glamorous: It was actually Army Rangers who performed the military actions seen in the movie.
- Ensign Newbie: Lieutenant Ring
- For Inconvenience Press One: The telephone call where they try to get close air support... and have to supply a credit card for the call.
- Frying Pan of Doom: Highway's ex-wife threatens to hit him with a frying pan. He comments that it wouldn't be the first time; she replies, quite pleased with herself, that he's exactly right.
- Good Feels Good: A variant, after Recon win the platoon contest, they realise that acting like marines and training like marines lets them feel like badasses.
- Good Looking Privates: Highway doesn't look quite as rugged when he and Sergeant Major Choozoo are in their dress uniforms. This is probably why Highway says he hates wearing it.
- Gunship Rescue: Recon Platoon gets one in Grenada after a struggle to call one in due to a busted radio.
- Groin Attack: Actually a major plot device when the last recon marine still in a contest takes down the last two of his team's opponents with one in each hand. He is then accused of cheating and the resolution of this argument is Badass.
- Gung-Holier Than Thou: Sgt. Webster to Recon.
- How to Survive a War Movie: Surprisingly subverted. Numerous rules are broken, but only one member of Recon Platoon is killed.
- I Just Shot Marvin in the Face: On the gunnery range, Profile tells Highway, "Gunny, my gun's jammed," turns around and sprays the line with bullets, narrowly missing Major Powers.
- Later, in an actual warzone, he shoots a skeleton in a medical school. Highway comments that he's improving.
- I Lied: Highway gives this as one of his several reasons when Recon Platoon is annoyed at being woken up at 5 in the morning, despite him telling them yesterday that wake up was at 6.
Highway: So I lied. So I can't tell time. So maybe some communist bastard's going to make an appointment pop you a new asshole in your forehead.
- Kinda Busy Here: In the scene where Highway and his men are holed up in a church, they try to make a call while being fired on.
- Kiss of Life: When Highway is wounded in Grenada, Stich gives him CPR. Results in a Crowning Moment of Funny:
Highway: "Just because we're holding hands doesn't mean we'll be taking warm showers together until the wee hours of the morning."
- Meaningful Echo: During a training exercise, Highway fires an AK-47 at his Marines.
Highway: "This is the AK-47 assault rifle, the preferred weapon of your enemy. It makes a very distinct sound when fired."
- Later, during another training exercise, this time with their Platoon Leader, Lieutenant Ring, with them, they get fired on by Highway with AK-47 again. As they hit the dirt, Ring yells, "What the hell was that?!" to which the members of the platoon respond in succession;
Recon: "That's the AK-47 assault rifle, sir. The preferred weapon of our enemy. It makes a very distinct sound when fired."
- Meaningful Name: Gunnery Sergeant Highway. Major Powers.
- Military Maverick: Gunny Highway tells off his superior officers, shoots live rounds at the dirt near his men, gets in brawls, and generally does whatever he wants. Good thing he knows a colonel who sees things his way...
- Early on it is said that he was booted out of his unit years before for insubordination and conduct unbecoming and has been sending numerous requests to get transfered back in. His behaviour is the reason he starts the movie in a rather unglamorous position. He doesn't completely flaunt authority, as he is well behaved with his CO. Most likely his record (and his Medal of Honor) keep him from being discharged so they just kick him under the rug instead and he (mostly) stays out of trouble on the job.
- It could explain why, despite his Medal of Honor, and his excellence as a combat leader, he's still -after more than thirty years of service- just a Gunnery Sergeant, while his friend Choozoo is a Sergeant-Major. It's obvious that his attitude has held him back in getting promotions.
- Modern Major-General: The Lieutenant in charge of recon platoon. He gets a little better by the end.
- Mood Whiplash: When Highway visits his ex-wife, Aggie, they have a heated conversation about them and their marriage but nothing too bad. He starts to give her a neck massage, which she seems to be enjoying at first, but then suddenly gets extremely angry and accuses him "giving up on the old frontal assault and deciding to try outflanking her."
- Mundane Made Awesome: Jones's credit cards when they need to make an emergency landline call in a warzone.
- The Neidermeyer: Major Powers and Staff Sergeant Webster.
- New Era Speech: Highway gives Recon Platoon one when he first meets them.
- Obstructive Bureaucrat: Major Powers. Sergeant Major Choozoo comments that before Powers mounts his old lady he consults his Marine Corps manual just to make sure he performs in an orderly, proficient, military manner.
- Old Marine: Highway and his buddy Sgt. Major Choozoo, as well as Colonel Meyers, to name a few.
- Opposing Combat Philosophies: Highway and Powers. The latter prefers a slower and much more cautious approach, the former not so much.
- Overranked Marine: Highway is a Gunnery Sergeant (E-7) in the US Marine Corps, which is more than plausible given his age and how long he's been in. However, given his conduct, it's hard to believe that was allowed to stay in to close to mandatory retirement and not forced into retirement, if not court martialed and discharged from the Corps. In addition to showing little respect for the rank and authority of his superiors, he's shown being arrested twice for drunk and disorderly conduct, and both the judge and his CO in the beginning of the film mention that it's happened multiple times before.
- His Medal of Honor probably gets him some degree of slack. This also explains Jerk Sue and Military Maverick, above.
- Passing the Torch: At the end, unlikely but credible.
- Reasonable Authority Figure: Colonel Meyers.
- Lieutenant Ring also qualifies as one. He recognizes Highway has far more experience than he does and backs him up -taking the heat for Highway- when they are dressed by Major Powers.
- "The Reason You Suck" Speech: Highway gets one from Powers when they first meet, Powers gets one from Colonel Meyers at the end of the movie, and Highway gives them to Recon Platoon continuously.
- Took a Level In Badass: All of Recon platoon, including Lieutenant Ring who goes from a by the book strategist to leading a charge on an enemy stronghold in violation of a direct order and taking it.
- Semper Fi: The whole point of the movie.
- Sergeant Rock: Highway, once Recon gets to Grenada.
- Shout-Out: Various permutations of "I'm gonna rip off your head and shit down your neck"
- Only Heartbreak Ridge came out about a year beforehand.
- Smoking Is Cool: As Highway portrays, though he isn't willing to break regs by smoking a contraband one.
- Sound Off: During their first physical training with Highway in charge, he orders them to chant a cadence. They sing a rather suggestive one right as they pass by a female Marine and a not too pleased Major Powers.
- That's an Order: Repeated line from Major Powers.
- Things Get Real: At the end of the movie, the platoon gets to show how far it has come because of this.
- This Is Not a Drill: Both subverted and played straight. There's two times in the movie where the Marines are put on alert. The first one turns out to just be an exercise, but the second time is the real thing.
- Training From Hell: Really, not that bad. The training that Highway puts his Marines through, at least what's shown, is probably pretty standard, or even less than standard, for most infantry Marines, but they view it as so after being allowed to slack off for so long.
- Tyrant Takes the Helm: Recon Platoon considers Highway being put in charge of them to be this.
- Bait and Switch Tyrant: They later come to realize he's actually this.
- Veteran Instructor: Highway, again.
- War Is Hell / War Is Glorious: Highway believes the latter but is training his Marines for the former.
- Why Did It Have to Be Snakes?: Both Highway and Swede are afraid of heights. Highway points out that this is entirely rational as long as you don't let it get in your way.
Highway: Jumping out of a perfectly good aircraft is not a natural act.
- With Due Respect: Highway does this to Major Powers, when he's getting yelled at for taking a hill after being ordered not to.
Major Powers: "Well, you disobeyed an order. I told you to stay in contact and not take this hill without me. Damn it! Get on your feet, Highway!"
Gunnery Sergeant Highway: "With all due respect, sir, you're beginning to bore the hell out of me."