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Sunday, May 11, 2014

Lone Survivor

Marky Mark goes Apocalypse Now! The result's a lot less funny than you'd think.

This review is also up at Channel 24

What it's about

Navy Seal, Marcus Luttrell, and his team embark on a mission to capture or kill a Taliban terrorist leader but their mission is soon compromised as a group of mountain herders happen upon them. Before long, the hunters become the prey as the Seals are faced with a fight for their very lives against overwhelming Taliban forces. Based on a true story.

What we thought

Lone Survivor is a difficult film to review. On the one hand, it's technically impressive as veteran director Peter Berg (Friday Night Lights, The Kingdom) bounces back from the utterly atrocious Battleship with a war film that actually convinces as a realistic depiction of the horrors of war. It's well acted (it's pretty much impossible to dislike Mark Wahlberg these days), beautifully shot and boasts some of the year's best sound design. Unfortunately, it's also a total bore.

First and foremost, while it's all very well that it's based on a book of the same title, which is itself based on largely true events, the film's title is a total spoiler that robs the action of even the slightest amount of suspense – and that's not even taking into account the fact that the first five minutes of the film reveal exactly who survives (hint: he's on the poster). This may be a “serious” war film but it's unquestionably the case that, at least on one level, it's trying to work as an action thriller. Not that it comes close to succeeding. The action scenes are well shot but because you know exactly what's going to happen, it's hard to get too invested. Worse though, are the quieter moments that are theoretically supposed to amp up the tension but, as there's no actual tension, they end up being merely excruciatingly tedious.

As a war drama, it doesn't really do much better, either. The actual storyline is very bare bones, which would, of course, be perfectly fine but it's backed up with neither compelling characters, nor any sense of having something to say. On the former point, our heroes are entirely undeveloped and show little in the way of real personality, while the Taliban soldiers are little more than a faceless evil. Even the civilians that are caught between the two are strictly two-dimensional – if, admittedly, inspiringly heroic as they often stand up to the brutish Taliban. There are clearly plenty of heroic people in this cast of real-life characters so it feels churlish, if not outright disrespectful, to dismiss them but, whatever you might say about them as flesh-and-blood real life heroes, they are utterly inert as dramatic constructs.

Then there's the “message” of the film. This is clearly not a movie of moral complexity or political intrigue but is, very simply, a recount of a group of young soldiers trying to survive against impossible odds. The American soldiers are the goodies, the Taliban guerillas are the baddies and though that may be broadly accurate, it certainly doesn't reflect any of the complexities of the situation and, despite only really focusing on a handful of soldiers, it never really gives us a sense of an individual's view of the war. Yes, there are also the brave villagers but the film has little more to say about them than the fact that they are heroic and that, hey, not all Afghanis support this fringe extremist group. Who knew, right?

The only thing, then, that the film really has to say is that war is, like, bad, m'kay? Again, who knew? I mean sure, it's a point that is damn near impossible to argue against but how many war movies do we have to see with this exact same theme? Especially when so many war stories do it so much better than it is here. Stuff like Apocalypse Now or Garth Ennis' war comics, show just how powerful the “war is hell” theme can be but that's because they're always backed by strong characters, thematic richness, memorable stylistic choices and/ or a powerful emotional under- (or over-) current. Lone Survivor tells us that “war is hell” but that's all it tells us. That may be enough for war-movie junkies, but it certainly isn't enough for me.

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