In Afghanistan, US soldier Jim David was on the top of his game and in great demand for his ability to kill. Honourably discharged he is back in Los Angeles and unemployed. He wants to work for the police but usually spends his days with friend Mike getting wasted and into petty crime. Mike is also looking for work to keep his lawyer girlfriend happy. As the two of them drive round the city drinking, they get into minor scuffles and confrontations, with Mike dragged along as Jim slips between gaps in his personality.
The film opens really well and did an excellent job of establishing what I assumed the whole foundation of the film would be. Using night vision really well, we find ourselves in Afghanistan and join one soldier as he moves in close to a group of armed men. Base-heavy music kicks in just as he does, efficiently killing about 10 of them without flinching. It is slick, deadly and very cool and the audience feels the excitement and rush. When we step to the back of Jim's car in Mexico the effect is jarring and it did make me think how anyone can leave that type of life and return to everyday, 9-5 society. And this is really what the film is sort of about as we see Jim losing track of what is permissible in normal life versus what he does for a job. In this area the film was not as good as I had hoped because it doesn't bring this confusion out that well on the screen. The writing suggests it but when it comes to showing it, it resorts to quick cuts and flashes of colour to show turmoil in Jim's mind.
It is a rather lazy effect and Bale deserves better as his performance is impressive in balancing the three sides of this man. It took me quite some time to get over the "wigger" talk from him but, although I'm not familiar with this culture, I did accept that people do talk like this and gradually it became more convincing. His "Jim's" are very different in Mexico he is chilled, in interviews he is disciplined and on the street he is a lower but Bale links them, finding common ground and moving between them well. It is a shame that Ayer could not help him more by giving him subtler material and direction but Bale shines regardless. Where Ayer does work well is in the relationship between Jim and Mike. He has written convincing men; losers no doubt but it is interesting to see the posing and peer-pressure playing its part in every scene they share. This is brought out well by Rodriguez who was always good in Six Feet Under and is just as good here. He balances his loyalty to Jim well with his character's own weak spine and only gradually brings out his character's dawning. The film is at its strongest when the two are together and in the same way that Ayer fails to really look at Jim's psychological state, he paints a disturbingly real picture of the modern male relationship.
This keeps the film engaging and interesting but I wanted it to do the deeper work much better as it is a topical subject with so many people in Iraq etc who will someday (hopefully) find themselves back home in a country that doesn't really appreciate their action and doesn't really want to know what they did out there. As it is though, the characters and the tough, grim story drive the film forward well enough but without real insight into Jim, it does occasionally feel a bit superficial. Several UK critics embraced this film as if it was the Messiah but some seemed to be motivated by spite because it came out the same day as Snakes on a Plane (a film several critics were narked at for not being allowed to see). Instead of being brilliant the film is just good it does some things well but not all things.
Ayer's direction is visually very assured and he uses the close confines of the car well while also giving the streets a rough feel, Mexico an idyllic feel and the interviews an efficient atmosphere that all contrast nicely. As writer I did want a much more subtle touch and depth in terms of Jim's mental struggle but, although this is basic, he has done great with the relationships. Bale and Rodriguez were initially hard to swallow with their very heavy dialect and accents but once in their world you get past this and realise what brilliant work they are doing. With the film very much about them, the support cast don't have much to do but still have a good presence. Simmons is always a welcome presence and after being just a sexy wiggle at the start, Longoria does good work with her small role.
A tough and unhappy film that lacks the depth and insight it needed to be truly impacting, this is still a dark and engaging affair that has a strong heart in its lead two characters' relationship and the two great actors that deliver it. Sadly not as sharp as it should have been but an engaging ride nonetheless.
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