Jeremy Pope stars in this impressive debut film from writer-director Elegance Bratton about a young homeless gay man who sets out to become a marine. Based on a true story, The Inspection is a personal and deeply felt film about the intense process of breaking oneself down in order to survive. Ellis French (Pope) is hoping for salvation, wanting to die in uniform as a hero rather than dying a nobody. It can be a grim film of bullying and strife but the film finds honest hope and joy by the end.
French was kicked out of his house by his mother (Gabrielle Union) when he was only 16. Set in 2005, the film opens as French is now 25 years old. He has struggled for years, living in a shelter in New Jersey. After seeing news about the war in Iraq, he decides to enlist. He has already seen too many friends die and he doesn't want to join them. French wants to be remembered. He returns home to get his birth certificate. His mother Inez (Union) berates him, telling him his proof of birth is the only thing left of her dreams for him. Their brief conversation shows the disappointment and resentment she is holding onto and the ways in which it breaks French.
From there, French is bussed to boot camp where one of the first questions barked at him is whether or not he is a homosexual. Bratton's steady direction illustrates that French has perhaps left one hell for another. Staff Sergeant Laws (Bokeem Woodbine) is as hard as their come and lets the recruits know from the get-go that he intends to break them. When French is showering with the rest of the recruits his body betrays him and the others see his erection. Bratton shows us French's fantasies here and there, never suggesting that military training is going to change his sexuality. Raúl Castillo plays Rosales, an instructor who becomes the only force of kindness for French at boot camp.
What follows is a series of brutal bullying and grueling physical tests. Any film focussing on boot camp will have comparisons to Full Metal Jacket. By keeping the focus on French's journey to prove to himself and others that he can make it to graduation, The Inspection has its own take on the trials of boot camp. The critical tone the film has about the "don't ask, don't tell" era is also refreshing. French's erotic fantasies are often juxtaposed against the other men bonding over nude photos of women or masturbating after lights out. The film's unique mixture of showing French's exterior hardening while his inner self remains sensual helps the film break from the conventions of the genre.
If the film stumbles a bit, it is in the scenes that break away focus from French's perspective. These moments feel like Bratton is filling in gaps that don't need to be filled. A few scenes with Laws explaining his extreme approach to new recruits feel like the film doesn't trust audiences to understand character motivations. The film also gets a little repetitive in its depiction of the brutal conditions French is facing.
When the film is at its best, it features some stunning visual sequences that show French's transformation. Pope's thoughtful and magnetic performance is the best element of the film. While the role requires a great deal of physicality from the actor, it is his eyes that sell French's emotional journey. French has to repress so much of himself in order to achieve success. The cost this takes on him and the forces that drove him into the military are never lost. The ending offers a hint of salvation and a moment of camaraderie but The Inspection doesn't end without a reminder of how the systems of America have pushed French into this situation.
The Inspection is a film rich with introspection and honesty. Grounded by a terrific performance from Jeremy Pope, this is a confident and promising debut.