American Soldiers: A Day in Iraq Review

Come join the United States army! It’s the best job in the world, and as a member of the military you will get the opportunity to serve in some of the most famous conflicts around the planet and shoot people you don’t know. Afghanistan, the Balkans, the Middle East, all places you can visit tomorrow when you sign up today while, if you’re really lucky, you’ll get the daddy of all postings, old Saddam’s stomping ground itself, Iraq. Come to Baghdad and you’re guaranteed a non-stop thrill-ride from morning to night, a constant fire fight against those nasty Jihadis, the Enemy, who will, contrary to what you may have heard, willingly line up and let you shoot, stab or do anything else the hell you like to them. Worried about being killed? Don’t be, they’re so incompetent, even if you’re standing right next to one armed with an RPG they’re more likely to hit Washington DC than you - and, as we all know, they’ve not got much chance of hitting that, in forty-five minutes or not! You’ll team up with the best darned Sarge a guy could possibly have, one you’d willingly lay down your life for because, as we know, a stereotypical Sarge will instil stereotypical pride in you, a stereotypical soldier, in this, a stereotypical warzone. And the great thing is, you don’t even need to worry about hitting civilian targets in your exciting battles with the radicals; after all, it’s not your fault you’re there, it’s the Commander-in-Chief’s, so any collateral damage can be placed at his door and you can leave at the end of your tour of duty with a smile on your face and a hardon in your pants, knowing you’ve done the right thing. So don’t delay, join today because remember: War is Swell!

Septuagenarian Sidney J Furie has a long and varied directorial career behind him, but sadly it’s been one of resolute mediocrity. Ranging from directing Cliff Richard in The Young Ones in 1961 to Superman himself in Superman 4: The Quest for Peace, in 1987 he’s only really struck gold once with The Ipcress File in 1965 and in recent years has been consigned to directing cinematic luminaries such as Dolph Lundgren and Casper Van Diem. His latest effort, American Soldiers: A Day in Iraq, written by Greg Melliot (who co-wrote with him the Lundgren vehicle Direct Action) goes one step worse and is downright awful. It sets out with the intention of showing how dangerous life in Iraq is for the military (no kidding) but swiftly gets carried away with the excitement of shootouts and explosions, degenerating into a boy’s own adventure that is offensive to both the real life soldiers it’s meant to be portray and to the people of the war-torn state. Set on a single day during April 2004 - the month the US military suffered more fatalities than any since the downfall of Saddam - we follow our “heroes” over a twelve hour period on what appears to be an excessively eventful shift, during the course of which they encounter multiple attacks from insurgents, fight to save the lives of two seriously injured colleagues, encounter an Abu-Gharib-style detainment camp, rescue its detainees, discover an endless series of car bombs, and even have time to josh around with each other, beat-boxing while waiting for a pick-up. Phew.

The pace is relentless, the narrative jumping nervously from one incident to the next, reflected in its frenetic camerawork that can’t stop twitching for a single moment. Never once does the film stop to take a breath, instead throwing battle after battle at the screen, as though concerned its viewers might grow bored if there’s more than five minutes before the next fight, creating a series of increasingly meaningless vignettes that neither instruct nor thrill, but ultimately bore in their repetitiveness. Oh look, it’s another insurgent with a rocket launcher. Oh look, he can’t hit anyone, even though they're standing less than fifty feet away. Oh look, now he’s been shot. Repeat ad infinitum. It also strikes one as deeply unrepresentative; never having served in Iraq I can’t say for sure but I’m pretty sure a typical squadron won’t engage in multiple gun battles from morning to dusk, and certainly not with such a high rate of bangs and booms. This is Iraq exaggerated, all the most visceral elements of the place condensed into one ninety-minute narrative. As such, it both glamorises and cheapens what’s really going on out there; turns a deadly serious theatre of war into just another action-packed thrill.

It’s not just the narrative that’s immature either; the characterisation, too, is a joke. It’s been very difficult to find any information on this film but the spiel at the end shows that at least three characters in it - those that perish - are based on real soldiers who lost their lives on this day. As such I hesitate to speculate, but it seems incredibly unlikely that they, or those who served with them, were the simple one-dimensional grunts we get here. In fact, I'd bet serious money on it; a conflict like this brings out many unexpected nuances of even a relatively straightforward character, leading to reactions and responses totally unexpected, but instead here we get simple cardboard cut-outs reacting exactly to type. There’s the Latino from Florida, the drawly Southern and so on and so forth. They spend their time yelling dialogue straight out of the Big Book of War Film Cliches, lines such as “I’d lose a strip for the Sarge” and “You’re not going to die on me now,” and other such things. (I know writer Melliot had just worked with Lundgren but really, surely he could done better?)

Compounding the problem is the fact none of the actors are able to rise above the substandard material they have to work with. An inexperienced group of actors (a quick glance at their other credits reveals most are in their first starring role, and none have more than a handful of other productions to their name), they seem unaware of the banality of what they are making and throw themselves into their parts with gusto, shouting out each line with that over-emphasis peculiar to the less-talented amateur productions. It doesn’t help that several of them look alike, making it difficult to tell who is doing what or which character is the latest one to be hit (not that one particularly cares), creating a curiously amorphous group of soldiers who exist as an entity rather than individuals. In gaming terms, they are the battalion you select to send into battle all at once in Real Time Strategy games, a group, not a collection of individuals. The one character who emerges as an individual (and hey, guess what, he’s the one with a conscience!) is Jackson, played by Curtis Morgan, but even he doesn’t get to do anything more than utter platitudes; when the extent of his protest is that “torture is bad” you realise you’re not dealing with anything very radical here, while Morgan’s playing is unremarkable.

Most offensively, the film actively spends its time absolving the soldiers of all blame for anything that happens over there. It seems nothing they do is actually their fault, because they shouldn’t be here in the first place. Kill a child? It’s okay, he had a gun. It’s okay because the stupid Iraqis don’t realise they’re here to help and as such fuck them - after a while I grew tired of making a note of lines such as “Good intentions don’t mean shit here,” because they were too numerous. Ultimately, it seems, the soldiers are sanctioned by the makers to be a force unto themselves, doing whatever it takes to survive the hell they find themselves in - after all, as one character says bitterly, “No one is coming to save us.” It’s the heartless Administration’s fault and as such blame any wrong-doing on them. There’s no consideration given to any other point of view, other than token protests when Jackson announces he’s going to free a group of prisoners being tortured apparently under the auspices of the CIA - there’s no actual debate or discussion beyond the risible “Don’t get involved” level. These soldiers are not given to thinking much about what’s going on, and the viewer is invited not to bother either, but just accept they all do their best in this deadly environment and are thus all heroes. (Hilariously, the film even goes so far to make the commandant of the Abu-Gharib-style prison not American, but a Latino. Our boys would never condone such torture, no sirree bob).

Admittedly, production must have been tough. As filming in Baghdad at the moment might be a bit tricky, one has to look elsewhere to recreate the Middle East. Now, I don’t know about you, but one of the places that wouldn’t be very high up my list of possible locations would be Canada. Call me a cynic, but it just wouldn’t seem very practical, and so it turns out. Although the set dressers do a reasonable job in finding sufficiently sandy areas and throwing in that old low-budget standby the signpost (one of the first shots of the film shows that this is Baghdad, in case we were confused), not for one moment does one believe this is the Iraqi heartland. It’s too lush for one thing - again, it might be a misconception but in all the recent pictures of the city I’ve seen there hasn’t been an overabundance of foliage - and the buildings are too clean and don’t bear the lived-in scars that speak of decades of repression as well as the more recent terrors. Even the side streets are wide rather than narrow, and only once do the interior set dressers come close to convincing, in the early scenes in a suitably grubby and chaotic hospital - all else looks just like what it is, a civilised suburb playing at dress-up for the day. That said, at least one would be hard pressed to identify it as Canada exactly, and it’s not exactly the makers' fault - one has to film where one can - but it does enhance the feeling of a group of mates heading off with a video camera to make their epic rather than a serious production. Fortunately, some effort goes into the actual battle scenes, which, the insurgents' ineptitude aside, have a certain raw authenticity about them. If this was purely a low-budget action flick it would score better as in that regard it's a success - it's certainly no worse than the latest efforts from Van Damme or Seagal - but as it's based on real people in a real situation the excitement of the firefights actually detracts from the film as a whole, demeans rather than enhances. While my opening spiel, with its summary of "War is swell" is not applicable to the soldiers especially - they are shown to suffer - it certainly is to the viewer, and it's just not right.

At the risk of sounding trite, it’s obvious that those stationed to Iraq - as at other hot points around the world - have an incredibly tough job. It’s true it’s not their fault they are there, and the morality of the situation is, of course, naturally very murky. In the heat of the moment, with the pressure of split-second decisions bearing down on even the rawest recruit, mistakes are made and tragedies occur. But there are also some bad eggs serving their time, more than bad eggs if the recent rash of potential prosecutions that are now springing up are any indication. The military is not always blameless. Nor is it always at fault. War zones are an incredibly complex place to be, Iraq more so than most, and as such those in an uniform deserve to have their story told properly, not in this crass, one-dimensional way. This is cheap film-making in all its forms, from scripting to acting to locations, and reminds one of nothing more than a film made by a group of enthusiastic Sixth Formers with time on their hands, ones who can’t act, can’t write and can’t direct but have a whale of a time making their production anyway. The men and women out there deserve better than this. Every conflict produces great films, and in time a Francis Ford Coppola or an Oliver Stone will come along and make a great Iraq picture, consigning rubbish like this to the oblivion it richly deserves.

The Disk
The film is presented in an anamorphic 16:9 ratio on a single dual-layered disk, the film split into twelve chapters. As ever these days, one first has to endure the anti-piracy advert before reaching the menu, the arrival of which is heralded by a brief montage of explosions from the film; an explosion also accompanies entry into each sub-menu, which suggests the film’s purported aim of showing war is hell is slightly missed by the disk writers. The menus themselves are fairly sensibly arranged, with the Main Menu having four standard options, namely Play, Scene Selects, Set Ups and Trailer. These are set against a background image of two soldiers in a tank with a fireball behind them, the fireball strobing in an animated fashion, the image accompanied by a very short piece of music looped. Both sub-menus have the fireball motif in the background as well.

The Video has a layer of intentional grain but detail in anything but the foreground is not splendid, with faces at even a medium distance become an indistinct smudge. The transfer struggles with the dankly-lit interiors lacking definition, not helped by the slight fuzziness of the picture as a whole. That said, the palate, while not exactly varied, is very vivid in exteriors, with the different hues coming across nicely, and while the action remains out-of-doors and close to the camera it’s reasonably pleasant to watch. A mixed bag, in other words.

At least the Audio's not too bad. Although it won't utilise your surround sound system, both dialogue and music are clear and audible, and the rattatattat of the gun battles resonates satisfyingly. The explosions are a little lacking in depth and are therefore a little faint, but otherwise a fairly decent job.

The only extra is a single Trailer which, once again, is full of explosions, but does a reasonable job of disguising what a rotten film this is.

The main film is subtitled but the trailer is not.

Unsurprisingly for a film of this quality, this is a fairly perfunctory vanilla release, with variable picture quality and a lack of extras. Even at its cheap retail price, this is one to avoid.

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Last updated: 19/04/2018 05:05:23

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