War zone reporters and the dangerous, adrenaline-fueled lives they lead are not new topics in narrative cinema. They’ve been around as long as there have been movies, but the 80s seemed to be the genre’s heyday with films like The Year Of Living Dangerously, Salvador, and The Killing Fields all providing political commentary and harrowing drama. Recent years have seen far fewer films on the topic even though there appears to be just as many international conflicts in need of documenting. Richard Gere took a stab at it in 2007 with the Bosnia-set film The Hunting Party, but that may just be it for recent non-documentaries focused on journalists under fire. (Well, unless we’re counting Uwe Boll’s Far Cry of course.)
The past year has seen a slight uptick though as two new films hit screens with stories about members of the press on the front lines of battles around the world. The first one, The Bang Bang Club, was released earlier this year (and arrived on DVD this week) and focuses on photographers covering the fall of apartheid in South Africa. The second film starts a limited theatrical run on Friday and explores the conflict around Russia’s invasion of neighboring Georgia in 2008, but what starts as an earnest and important look at a real-world travesty quickly fades into a generic series of action scenes and setups. Should we have expected more from a post-millennium Renny Harlin film? Probably not, but it never hurts to dream. (Unless you’re a Dream Warrior of course.)
“I have an upload ve-hicle. I would have driven it here but I didn’t feel like blowing up.”
Thomas Anders (Rupert Friend) returns to the US after losing a fellow reporter and girlfriend to an Iraqi bullet, but when he’s informed that something is building in the Eastern European nation of Georgia he and his cameraman Sebastian Ganz (Richard Coyle) head back into the field. They arrive just in time to witness the Russian invasion and soon find themselves on the front line of war that the rest of the world doesn’t seem to care about. The trade-off though is that they also get to hang out with the lovely Emmanuelle Chriqui as a local woman searching for missing members of her family and a very funny Val Kilmer as a big-boned photog whose sole purpose is to crack jokes, drop the mic, and walk off stage.
The story follows the group’s efforts to alert the world that the invasion is happening and that the Russians are to blame, but they’re met with resistance at all turns thanks in part to the focus paid to the coinciding Olympic games in Beijing. News organizations were apparently more interested in organized flag waving than they were in a giant nation steamrolling across the border into a smaller neighbor’s backyard. The film’s third act turns Anders’ quest from one of morality to a cliched game of “find the memory card” containing photos that will prove to the outside world how nasty these Russian bastards are. Various action set pieces take the place of legitimate discussion and argument that may or may not even be valid.
The message isn’t entirely lost, but it is relegated to a much smaller subplot that sees a potentially miscast Andy Garcia as Georgia’s President Saakashvili. I say potentially because he immediately seems like the wrong choice for the ethnicity and real life character, but Garcia slowly convinces us by giving the film’s best and most heartfelt performance. His efforts to stand strong against the Russians while pleading with the outside world for assistance struggle to keep a passionate focus on the issues instead of the explosions and genre conventions. Unfortunately though Garcia’s scenes are only a small part of the film.
The rest is focused on Friend, who at his best is a bland Orlando Bloom. Which is redundant, obviously. He just isn’t strong enough to carry a film, even an action oriented one. It’s a problem of charisma. He has none. The supporting cast fairs slightly better led by the aforementioned Garcia and Kilmer. I’m not sure what’s going on with Kilmer’s exercise routine, but the guy is still capable of some stellar line delivery. He’s first seen in a bubble bath, and he continues to entertain in every subsequent appearance consisting mainly of an action scene of some kind followed by him driving/walking/rolling up and offering a wisecrack… then disappearing again.
Which actually leads into the film’s other major problem. Harlin knows how to shoot and stage entertaining action scenes and the proof can be found in many of his films before 2000. He retains some of that skill here, albeit on a smaller budget and scale, and crafts some visually fun attack scenes involving Hind helicopters. What doesn’t work as well during these scenes though are the repeated descents into deus ex machina by way of the glorified and idealized heroics of the Georgian soldiers. Multiple instances of imminent danger are extinguished by the nick of time arrival of Georgian troops swinging in through windows or rounding a corner guns blazing. They are painted as pure, clean shaven white hats against the violent, disheveled Russian black hats. It’s cartoonish and unfortunate.
5 Days Of War opens with onscreen text stating that 500 war reporters have been killed in the past decade, and then dedicates the film to them. Like the attempt to share the importance and truth behind the invasion itself Harlin’s intention here is a noble one, but it also works more as an idea than a reality. The action scenes (along with Garcia and Kilmer) make the film watchable, but the attempts at being a message film are lost amidst the gunfire, explosions, and generic posturing.
The Upside: Battle scenes are impressively staged and executed; Andy Garcia makes the most of a minor role; Val Kilmer’s character may be pointless but his appearances still entertain; Tbilisi is a beautiful city; can’t go wrong with Emmanuelle Chriqui
The Downside: Rupert Friend is not charismatic or strong enough to carry viewers through the story; characters and nations are too black and white; we’re told how important this all is but rarely shown it
5 Days of War opens in limited theatrical release starting August 19th.