MAN DOWN (2015) review
written by: Adam G. Smith and Dito Montiel
produced by: Dawn Krantz and Stephen McEveety
directed by: Dito Montiel
rated: R (for some disturbing violence, and language throughout)
runtime: 92 min.
U.S. release date: December 2, 2016 (limited)
“Man Down” finds Shia LaBeouf reuniting with writer/director Dito Montiel, their first work together since 2009’s “A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints”, a semi-biographical coming-of-age tale which introduced me to both of them. That was also the movie in which I noticed Channing Tatum’s star potential, an actor who would go on to work with Montiel a couple more times. Montiel’s filmography has taken some interesting turns, working with the likes of Al Pacino, Dwayne Johnson and Robin Williams, yet none of them hit on all cylinders like “Saints” did, despite working with some big names. In “Man Down”, which premiered at the Venice Film Festival over a year ago and is now getting a limited release in the States, Montiel is concerned with delivering a modern-day combat post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) drama and throughout the movie there is obvious potential and it’s easy to see how the material could’ve been engaging, but it comes across as very amateurish and almost ten years too late.
The movie opens with an intense bushy-bearded LaBeouf, decked out in military gear, who is apparently trying to save a young boy from would-be captors in an abandoned two-story warehouse. He rescues the boy, despite exchanging fire with unseen pursuers, but something’s not right. None of the dilapidated buildings, sparse roads and empty houses feel very real. And that’s okay, because it could be a flashback or a vision, but no. Supposedly, this is post-apocalyptic America that U.S. Marines Gabriel Drummer (LaBeouf) and his boyhood friend and fellow Marine, Devin Roberts (Jai Courtney), have come home to. They’re as unclear as to what’s going on as we are. Needless to say, this opening doesn’t bode too well for the rest of the movie.
We soon learn that Gabriel had served a tour in Afghanistan recently, leaving his wife, Natalie (Kate Mara), and their precocious son, Johnnie (Charlie Shotwell “Captain Fantastic”) back at home with Devin to look after them until he’s able to join Gabriel as soon as he’s recovered from a fractured arm. If you think it’s too predictable that Devin will develop a thing with Natalie, well guess again. Before all that though, there are boot camp montages which include a typically hardcore in-your-face drill sargeant (Tory Kittles), who is out to break the psyches of new recruits like Gabriel (yet the pressures of training seem to have very little affect on Devin). Of the inseparable pair, Gabriel is clearly more rattled, whereas Devin is the calm and calculated (yet kinda psycho) of the two.
As expected, something tragic happens on a routine excursion in Afghanistan, which lands Gabriel in an extensive therapy session with Counselor Peyton (Gary Oldman), an empathetic listener who’s trying to get the rattled Marine to open up. Peyton also wants to learn more about who Gabriel is and what he has to look forward to at home, while getting to the heart of what transpired during the “incident” that left Gabriel shell-shocked. The movie goes back-and-forth to present-day post-apocalyptic America where Gabriel is trying to rescue his Johnnie and Natalie (it’s uncertain from who or what) to the recent past in Afghanistan, the source of his PTSD.
This could’ve been a really compelling movie if Montiel had jettisoned the post-apocalyptic angle. There are multiple reasons why its problematic. First, what’s immediately noticeable is how the present-day, supposed post-apocalyptic America looks fake. The sepia-tinted, often out-of-focus, environment looks like unfinished (or sloppy) CGI or like something out of video games like Fall Out or Call of Duty. It’s hard to get invested the story when it starts out in an atmosphere that doesn’t right – even if it was a dream sequence or flashbacks, it could’ve been more convincing. We’re just left with LeBeouf and Courtney’s bushy facial hair (as well as the pointless character Clifton Collins Jr. plays) to differentiate ourselves with present-day and their clean-shaven past, which is how we see them at home before they leave, during training and while they’re in Afghanistan. The unbelievable aura this post-apocalyptic present-day exudes does not sell the twist that Montiel and co-writer Adam G. Smith drop within the last 15-20 minutes of the movie. That reveal winds up being obvious, leaving the drama of it to be quite forced and unconvincing.
The performances here aren’t that great, but they’re not bad either. The cast would have a better chance in a movie with a more convincing production and a different narrative altogether. The characters they portray may be kind of familiar to viewers who’ve seen current military movies from the past fifteen or so years, but there’s a good enough cast here (except for Jai Courtney) that could’ve benefited from a different approach by a better director. The casting director must not be aware that Courtney hasn’t really stuck a landing in any of his performances, yet he still shows up in movies – good for him/bad for us. Mara is good as usual here, although it seems like there could’ve been more to the character than what is shown. At one point, before LeBeouf’s Gabriel is about to be deployed, she tells him she can’t do it alone, she can’t be a single parent. It seems to me that kind of anxiety could’ve been explored more, to give Mara something dig into beyond the worried-wife-at-home role. There also could’ve been more Oldman here, who spends most of his scenes seated behind a desk, talking to LaBeouf. His character is interesting, but Montiel and Smith are apparently fine with that man remaining down (literally).
LaBeouf in the lead role may be a deal-breaker for some, depending on how you feel about his off-screen antics (he’s not quite Mel Gibson, but give him time). I’m fine with his on-screen presence, but I will say he does seem to be defaulting to some of the same mannerisms, gestures and outbursts here in his depiction of an internally wounded warrior who can’t seem to cope or open up about the tragic incident he was part of. While I haven’t seen everything he’s done recently, LaBeouf’s work in “Man Down” feels committed albeit repetitive.
Between 2005 and 2007, there were quite a few movies that dealt with the Iraq/Afghanistan war, that took place on the battlefield and back home after a tour of duty. That’s the main reason why this movie feels like it was taken off the shelf and dusted off. Movies like “Redacted”, “Rendition” and “In the Valley of Elah” – to name a few from that time period – all dealt with the similar forms of combat PTSD that Montiel tried to tackle, but with more character and story development. Movies like these are important reminders of the debilitating trauma and anxiety of war, but “Man Down” aesthetic is off and it ultimately needs what all movies need, a good script.
“Man Down” closes with the following statement – 1 in 5 veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars are diagnosed with PTSD. 200,000 veterans go homeless each night. 20 veterans commit suicide every day – that, again, feels kind of dated.