on August 3, 2011
This is a complex film to review, because there are a few factors involve that bias the creative influences and the critics' reception, so for those who just want to know if it's any good, I'll cut to the chase: Is it any good? Yes. But for I'd strongly recommend you ignore the age rating and don't allow anyone under 18 to watch it.
For those who are interested in a fuller review, read on: (Don't worry, no spoilers here).
Director Renny Harlin is often dismissed as a hack by critics, but let's not forget he's directed some of the most exciting action pics ever made, including the terrific 'Die-Hard 2' and the astounding 'The Long Kiss Goodnight'. However, he's prone to inconsistency, and even those films had their flawed moments, including a cringe-worthy syrupy ending tagged onto the back of Die Hard 2. He also directed the disappointing 'Cleaner' and the god-awful 'Driven'.
So it's a relief to say that this is his best film in 10 years.
The opening is terrifying - the kind of visceral gut-punch that started 'Scream', and Rupert Friend does a great job of portraying a war reporter who has conquered his trauma externally, but still carries the scars in his heart.
Dragging himself and loyal buddy cameraman Sebastian back into the firing line, they set off for Georgia to document the rumblings about a possible Russian invasion, but before they can even get into the supposed danger zone, all hell breaks loose and they find themselves roped into helping a local girl find her family, for reasons personal and professional. They end up in a small rural town, and one war atrocity captured on camera later they're on the run from an army of mercenaries sponsored by the Russian military intent on stopping the footage from getting out.
I was expecting fairly 'by-the-numbers' stuff here, but was constantly surprised. The film is full of unexpected local colour, and isn't afraid to throw in some slightly unexpected behaviour to try to confound the typical war movie cliches. We're treated to a very elaborate and colourful Georgian wedding reception, and more complex villains than normal. We also get a political point of view from the panicked 'South Ossetians' in their capital, courtesy of Andy Garcia as their leader, and an almost unrecogniseable Dean Cain (fairly chubby) as an American political advisor.
The real stars are Friend, giving a complex and nuanced performance as a damaged and angry man, made even more determined to get the truth out by his history, and Richard Coyle, who brings terrific humanity to his role and reflects a combination of deep professionalism and real fear at the situation they're plunged into. Val Kilmer is okay but pointless in a role anybody could have played, Rade Serbedizja does 'rent-a-villain' pretty well, but his Leiutenant (played I believe by Mikheil Gomiashvilli) is superb - a genuinely terrifying and brutal presence covered in tattoos and with red-rimmed dead eyes. Responsible for most of the atrocities in the film, he makes an utterly believable monster - human, casual and detached.
The film makes a point in its opening credits that journalists have suffered many casualties in recent conflicts, and you really do get the sense that while there used to be a certain code of honour about not killing them, nowadays it's been abandoned and you really feel the sense of danger here.
The fact that the film is based (loosely) on real events lends a great deal of gravity and shock value to the action, and although he's known for fluffier fare Harlin pulls no punches with his depictions of the callous cruelty and barbarism of the invading Russians and their cold-blooded mecenaries. The gore and violence are breathtaking in their ferocity and definitely not for the weak-stomached. Children are shown with their legs freshly blown off, old women are tortured on camera. It's sickening stuff. But this is a very angry film, rivalling it's hero for determination, and while it feels very one-sided, at least it's honest about being so. Let's not forget that Harlin is Finnish - a race not without their own issues with the Russians, and the film was co-financed by Georgia.
What may surprise people however, is that somehow Harlin has managed that most difficult of feats: - he's made a very tense and exciting movie, where the action is fast, explosive and frightening, somehow without diluting the seriousness and point of the message.
The Russians come out of this looking terrible - painted as a bunch of monstrous liars who hired killers to try to inflict genocide on the South Ossetians and then cried self-defence in the international arena. The EU come out of it looking hamstrung and ineffective. And the rest of the world comes out looking disinterested and heartless, more interesting in the Beijing Olympics than widespread slaughter.
It's clearly a polemic against the Russians and a cry for international attention. How much that affects your enjoyment of the film will depend on you.
As it stands it's a terrifying, brutal, gory, upsetting and adrenaline packed thriller with a lot of military action and a lot of human emotion.
And the end-credits, packed with several interviews with traumatised survivors of the war, are heartbreaking.