MAN DOWN – Review
With just a few weeks to go in 2016, it’s time to hit the sand with another film set in the (seems like) ongoing hotspot of the world, the Middle East. And while the recent ALLIED was set in the days of the second world war, this one deals with the current conflict. This time of year has been the release time for several of those armed forces features. Winter of 2013 had LONE SURVIVOR while the following year AMERICAN SNIPER was a surprise box office smash. Odd, that this year we’ve seen three comedies use the war as a backdrop. There was WHISKEY TANGO FOXTROT, WAR DOGS, and BILLY LYNN’S LONG HALFTIME WALK (it might be a comedy, who knows?). But things are very grim and dour as Shia La Beouf reunites with writer/director Dito Montiel nearly ten years after A GUIDE TO RECOGNIZING YOUR SAINTS for the drama MAN DOWN.
But there’s more than a touch of I AM LEGEND/ MAD MAX desolation at the start of the film. A major metropolis appears nearly deserted as heavily bearded soldiers Gabriel (LaBeouf) and Devin (Jai Courtney) scour the empty streets, chatting on their shoulder-coms while gripping their firearms. As night falls, they see a light in a building. Gabriel evades guards and finds his nine year-old son Johnathan held as a prisoner. As they escape the film quickly flashes back to earlier days as clean-shaven marine Gabriel is in the mobile office of Counselor Payton (Gary Oldman) for an interview. Peyton needs to know all about “the incident” that occurred a few weeks earlier on the ground in Afghanistan. We flashback once more to Gabriel and Devin enduring the rigors of basic training at an US marine camp. Luckily Gabriel’s wife Natalie (Kate Mara) and young son Johnathan have an apartment near the base. He dotes on his little boy as Natalie fears for her hubby. Finally she hears the news she’s been dreading: Gabriel is going overseas. He’s relieved that his pal Devin, nursing a busted arm, will be looking in on his family for a few weeks. And soon Devin joins Gabriel on the battlefield, just in time to be part of a policing mission that turns deadly, the earlier mentioned “incident”. Could this ambush and its aftermath be the reason for that urban wasteland at the film’s opening scenes?
LeBeouf brings his usual hyper-focused intensity to the role of the tragic soldier/father. With his buzz-cut and haunted eyes, Gabriel is almost an avenging spirit in the battlefield and post apocalyptic sequences. But the sad loner fades when interacting with his friends and family. Courtney’s gregarious Devin is a good counterpoint to the often sullen Gabriel, although their scenes too often devolve into an “I love you man!” “bro-mance”, full of “busting b*#ls” and supportive glances. There’s a better interplay with Mara as the tough and tender Natalie, particularly as she shaves her hubby’s head while talking about standing up to the mom of a bully (“yeah, I’m a thug!”). Ultimately she’s becomes another distressed “woman on the phone” (Skype in this case). Oldman has little to do behind his desk (they almost meld) throwing out vague questions and inquiries that try to chip away at the stoic Gabriel. Clifton Collins Jr. shows up as a squirrely obstinate scavenger in those future scenes who sets the final action bits in motion.
But the cast is fighting a losing battle with the meandering, often incoherent, script from Montiel and Adam G. Gibson. The abrupt shifts in time almost inflict narrative whiplash and derail any dramatic flow. Montiel’s choice to film nearly everything in a hazy sepia tone makes almost every shot visually inert. The extended training sequences feel like warmed-over bits from AN OFFICER AND A GENTLEMAN, while the backlot-looking wartime scenes could have been dropped in from a basic cable docudrama. However, the worst is saved for the last as the film makers employ a twist that would make M. Night Shyamalan wince, followed by a denouncement incredibly overwrought and heavy-handed. A somber PSA before the end credits doesn’t make up for the wasted 90 minutes enduring this choppy, muddled mess. The creators may have had good intentions with their “message”, but they’re not served by MAN DOWN. Medic!
1 Out of 5