True story: One of my first Blu-ray rentals featured a trailer for what looked to be a completely awful, straight-to-video action thriller. The only actor I recognized was Aidan Gillen, whom I knew from having almost finished The Wire at that point (he played Tommy Carcetti in three of the show’s five seasons), as well as from Jamie Thraves’s singular Brit indie from 2000, The Low Down. In the trailer, Gillen looked to be having a lot more fun than the clean-cut, barrel-chested, square-jawed actor who played the hero; the latter, I wasn’t surprised to learn, mainly earns his living as a “wrestler” for the WWE. All told, it looked to be something I could skip without any pangs to my conscience. One year later, curious to see what once-promising Finnish auteur Renny Harlin was up to, I rented 12 Rounds. Guess what? To paraphrase William Demarest in The Lady Eve, it was positively da same film.
The point of the story, which was underlined, highlighted, boldfaced, and Liked after making it through 12 Rounds (which proved to be, not surprisingly, an absolute chore), is that the director seems to have fallen on hard times. After making his breakthrough with the fourth Nightmare on Elm Street, often cited as the best of a very uneven franchise, he had a pretty good decade. His Die Hard sequel was a resounding success, such that nobody gave him too much of a hard time for The Adventures of Ford Fairlane; in 1993, Cliffhanger proved another big hit, giving Harlin an unlimited line of credit (and its star, Sylvester Stallone, a probationary account that he promptly squandered), which subsequently led toCutthroat Island, which, as of 2011, even adjusting for inflation, retains its championship as the biggest box office bomb of all time. Despite that, The Long Kiss Goodnight, his second collaboration with Geena Davis (then his wife) in as many years, remains an eccentric, semi-facetious, and well-directed variation on the La Femme Nikita narrative, while Deep Blue Sea takes the same tongue-in-cheek approach to the monster movie, somewhat successfully capitalizing on a genre that was enjoying a brief, not-quite-popular-enough-to-be-called-faddish vogue from the mid ‘90s through Snakes on a Plane in 2006. (And, arguably after that, Sex in the City 2.)
The sub-rosa transformation of Hollywood, in part catalyzed by Cutthroat Island‘s record-obliterating failure, from the country’s all-in-one cash crop, image of success, most valuable natural resource, and leading purveyor of headlines, to a cloud of desiccated brand husks, subsidized by international media concerns, of which movies are now simply “content,” where grotesque scandals about hotshot directors (Harlin, Verhoeven, others) are held to blame for blowing hundreds of millions in marketing and production costs, all thanks to vanity, now seem as quaint as dial-up Internet service. It’s not that the grosses and losses are under control so much as the theater of caring about such things has been dwarfed by the advancing age.
Unfortunately, such climate changes leave a guy like Harlin, an uncertain talent to begin with, holding the bag. Just before the ascension of Michael Bay, Harlin was the incumbent auteur-of-unnecessary-excess, only Harlin’s cruel streak was a little wider and ran all the way from the colorful deaths and mutilations in Die Hard 2 through Stellan Skarsgård’s comically protracted demise in Deep Blue Sea. After Deep Blue Sea broke even, the ratio of dud-ness to interesting-ness got out of hand: 12 Rounds, Mindhunters, a thankless job re-shooting almost the whole of Paul Schrader’s Exorcist prequel. While some auteurists will stand by Driven, it looks like Harlin’s directing career is on the skids.
If 5 Days of War is any indication, Harlin is looking to hoist himself up from the bottom of the barrel using the Blood Diamond template: gritty action boosted by an enlightened moral conscience. (The film is subsidized by Georgian concerns in much the same way 12 Rounds is “a WWE production.”) Unfortunately, he followed the recipe a little too closely, as it clearly calls for unrelenting awfulness that’s made even more fetid by the age-old, imponderably smug requirement that the protagonist be a white, hetero, male American, the better to help the target demographic process the exotic “other”-ness of the film’s far-off, war-torn (yet WiFi-hotspot-abundant) landscape.
There’s a half-good movie buried in here somewhere, about cocky-stupid journalists who treat the Russo-Georgian conflict as if it was the smoky newsroom in His Girl Friday, swapping shots between drinks. Val Kilmer’s blasé (and inexplicable) supporting turn as an obese, alcoholic Dutch journalist (his name, Dutchman, suggests that someone, somewhere along the line, was thinking of Only Angels Have Wings) only hints at the footloose, plotless comedy that could have provided welcome relief from the punishingly earnest, abjectly humorless, and lethally stupid slog that was made instead, where “[explosion]—the memory card!!—[machine gun fire]—it’s almost done uploading!!—[rain of brick fragments]” is the banner dialogue.
Kilmer’s fat layabout, Rupert Friend’s chiseled-cheekboned hero, the ping-ptow of ricocheting bullets, the hint of a really promising film that could have balanced irreverence and gravity as only few films have been tempted to try, the globe-trotting and derring-do of 1930s Hollywood, all of this calls to mind Ridley Scott’s 2008 Body of Lies, the first few reels of which count as that producer-director’s best film in ages—before it descended, as many seemingly promising Ridley Scott films do, into dramatic monotone and self-seriousness. Renny Harlin seems now incapable of taking a movie even as far as a few frames. His sensibility as a director—now stripped of all lap-of-Hollywood luxury—seems reduced to a cancerous indifference to scriptwriting and the occasional hardware shots (like a rocket launcher taking out a helicopter) that stand out due to their muscular physicality.
It’s this squandering of potential that’s perhaps even more grievous than the unearned high-mindedness the film expects will validate the ample bloodletting and thundering soundtrack. Early in the film, the hero’s cameraman sidekick captures beautiful images of a traditional Ossetian wedding. The reception is ruined—not so much tragically as idiotically-dramatically, for us as well as the guests—when fighter jets descend and massacre almost everyone. The SD card containing this and other footage becomes the story’s MacGuffin as the crew captures images of the ongoing war and tries to keep their work from falling into the hands of a bad-PR-fearing Russian general (Rade Serbedzija, who must have walked over from X-Men: First Class without changing his costume or anything). On at least two separate occasions, the journalist hero is told by a stateside contact that “they” don’t care about the war in South Ossetia. Assuming what’s on the memory card is roughly what Harlin depicts on screen, the bitter irony is too brutal to emphasize further.