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Renny Harlin’s ‘5 Days of War’ Succumbs to Action Clichés

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HollywoodChicago.com Oscarman rating: 1.5/5.0
Rating: 1.5/5.0

CHICAGO – “5 Days of War” is a stark reminder of the atrocities that can occur when a B-movie director tries to tackle serious material. The Russo-Georgian War of 2008 was largely ignored by the U.S. government and media, so it was only a matter of time until filmmakers attempted to raise belated awareness about the devastation. Too bad director Renny Harlin is skilled solely in the art of action-packed kitsch.
 
This is the sort of low-budget imitation of a Michael Bay-sized blockbuster that would seem to have been destined for a direct-to-video release. Harlin went through the trouble of shooting the film in actual Georgian locations, but his approach to the material is so simple-minded that it causes the audience to become completely detached. It doesn’t matter how authentic the locales are if the audience can’t believe what’s happening in front of them. Some of the animated fire and smoke are so poorly superimposed that they look as if they were stolen from “Birdemic.”
 
Yet the real problem with “War” is its utterly forgettable characters. There isn’t a person on the screen that doesn’t appear to be a hybrid of archetypes recycled from other mediocre pictures. Though the film opens with a dedication card to the “500 war reporters killed in the last decade,” it doesn’t seem like the filmmakers put forth any effort into attempting to portray the psyche of reporters who would actually take such life-or-death risks in capturing a vital story. The hero of the piece is American journalist Thomas (Rupert Friend), a Loose Cannon Who Has Trouble Relating To People. He’s joined by cameraman Sebastian (Richard Couple), a Portly Food-Addict With a Heart O’ Gold, and Tatia (Emmanuelle Chriqui), an Exotic & Emotionally Damaged Hottie. They are each so tidily developed that the entirety of their personality could fit snugly on a 3 by 5 index card. I didn’t believe them as people for an instant, thus causing the entire production to nosedive past the point of no return. Perhaps Harlin made a conscious decision to utilize these mainstream caricatures in order to reach a wider audience, though that decision backfired once the film was relegated to art houses, and I doubt that it will find much of a following on DVD or On Demand. I can’t imagine this film pleasing anyone, let alone the Georgian extras whose reenactments of their nation’s recent tragedies are treated as background fodder.

Rupert Friend and Emmanuelle Chriqui star in Renny Harlin’s 5 Days of War.
Rupert Friend and Emmanuelle Chriqui star in Renny Harlin’s 5 Days of War.
Photo credit: Anchor Bay Films

The only effective shot in the film is the very first one, a handheld glimpse at the outbreak of hell in the back of a car. Thomas and Sebastian are traveling in Iraq when they fall victim to a hail of bullets that kill Thomas’s girlfriend, played in a super-brief cameo by Heather Graham. It’s one of the few well-staged moments in the picture, enhanced by the visceral cinematography from former news cameraman Checco Varese (“La Misma Luna”). Yet as soon as the film abandons its POV perspective, the candy-colored carnage engulfing the photogenic stars starts to create an all-too-palatable, Bay-style composition. Of course the real action begins a year later when Thomas and Sebastian head to Georgia for the pivotal five days of historic slaughter.

As soon as Thomas lays his eyes on foxy Georgian schoolteacher Tatia, it’s blatantly obvious that he fancies her. Yet the lousy script by celebrated documentarian Mikko Alanne (“Voice of Dissent”) attempts to create phony suspense by using his Trouble Relating To People as a roadblock toward romance. Of course, Thomas did just witness his girlfriend getting blown to bits in the previous scene, but Friend seems incapable of appearing truly nervous or wounded. He just looks stuck-up and horny most of the time, even as impending doom literally knocks on his door. Oddly enough, Friend looks most uncomfortable when his character is required to deliver a report in front of a news camera. His line delivery is so stilted that it sounds like the clumsy English dub of a foreign film.

However, in Friend’s defense, Alanne’s awkward dialogue does none of the actors any favors. A typical example occurs early in the film when a random soldier plunks a locket in Thomas’s hand and says, “This saved my life once,” before promptly vanishing. Alanne’s fatal lack of subtlety is also apparent in a would-be tense sequence between Thomas and the evil South Ossetian militia leader Col. Demidov (Rade Serbedzija). The two foes can’t merely engage in a game of verbal chess, they have to actually be playing chess at the same time.

What’s worse is the script’s utter lack of context in regards to its central conflict. Though Georgia technically started the war with Russia by bombing the Ossetian capital of Tskhinvali, the film depicts Georgians as pure-hearted victims and Russians as cold-blooded sociopaths. The appalling offenses made by Russian forces and the Ossetian militia against innocent Georgian civilians (30,000 of which became refugees) are glimpsed at by the protagonists, who shake their heads in disgust. But Harlin seems wholly uninterested in exploring the complexity of the war, and is all-too-eager to assign characters the one-note roles of “hero” and “villain.” It’s a shameful simplification of recent controversial events.

5 Days of War opened Sept. 2 at the Landmark Century Centre Cinema.
5 Days of War opened Sept. 2 at the Landmark Century Centre Cinema.
Photo credit: Anchor Bay Films

Star cameos by Andy Garcia (as the teary-eyed Georgian president) and Val Kilmer (as a fellow renegade journalist) register as mere distractions, though Kilmer’s presence in the film is not only unwelcome but entirely inexplicable. Looking like “Twister”-era Philip Seymour Hoffman and sounding a whole lot like Jack Black, Kilmer has the undesirable task of functioning as the picture’s comic relief. Every time the maddeningly lackadaisical Kilmer wanders into a shot, he acts as if he had just stepped off the set of “Tropic Thunder.” At one point, he merrily runs up to the bloodied stars while chirping, “Hey! So glad you guys didn’t die!” On the other hand, Kilmer does earn points for being the only person in the picture who seems aware that he’s in a turkey. His comedic machismo is only fitting for a war epic that accompanies rousing explosions with exuberant fist bumps, and settles for concise messages such as, “The trials that we face lead us to our purpose.”

It isn’t until the film’s end titles that the tragedy of the real events starts to seep through, as Harlin jarringly cuts to the faces of real survivors who lost loved ones in the war. The unmitigated despair exuding from their eyes makes the film’s cartoonish nature all the more enraging. Yes, Alanne’s finger-wagging speeches are correct when they argue that the American media doesn’t seem to care about genocide and isn’t even capable of adequately covering its own war. That assessment is spot-on, and with trite garbage like “5 Days of War” wasting space on cinema screens, the mainstream public will remain unenlightened and unstirred.

‘5 Days of War’ stars Rupert Friend, Richard Coyle, Emmanuelle Chriqui, Johnathon Schaech, Rade Serbedzija, Andy Garcia and Val Kilmer. It was written by Mikko Alanne and directed by Renny Harlin. It opens Sept. 2 at the Landmark Century Centre Cinema. It is rated R.

HollywoodChicago.com staff writer Matt Fagerholm

By MATT FAGERHOLM
Staff Writer
HollywoodChicago.com
matt@hollywoodchicago.com

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