This review was originally written for Blueprint: Review.
Almost twenty years after the US intervened in the Serbian/Bosnian conflict, two opposing veterans run into one another in the mountains of Georgia. One of them, American Colonel Benjamin Ford (De Niro) has become a recluse, living out his days away from his son (Ventimiglia) and his family, but bears a constant reminder of the war by way of the shrapnel still lodged in his leg. The other, Serbian soldier Emil Kovac (Travolta), initially seems friendly, but soon shows his true intentions.
There are some films that you can kind of tell will be bad movies before you’ve even started watching them. Generally they come with a poor reputation, some have terrible trailers, others have stories so ridiculous that your eyes roll so far back in your head you can see out your nose. Then there are films which have a decent premise, actors who, in the past, have proven world-renowned and award winning, and set up characters that make you think you’re onto a winner, but soon pull the rug from under you and set you on a downward spiral that you long to be over far sooner than it is. Alas, this is such a film.
It’s difficult to know really where to begin. Firstly, the acting. De Niro and Travolta have between them nine Oscar nominations and two wins, all of which seem a long way from the performances they give here. Travolta wrestles with a Serbian accent as thick as the ridiculous chin-strap neck beard he sports, and his character seems utterly incapable of appearing as anything other than sinister and leering. De Niro, on the other hand, can’t quite decide whether he should have an accent or not, so places a redneck twang on every fourth word, just in case. His Benjamin Ford is set up as the hero of the story, at least initially. He is the isolated-by-choice guy attempting to go about his life in peace, to whom we should be drawn to because of his family issues, and the horrors of warfare still keeping him awake at night, yet De Niro plays him stony and at a distance. This means that when revelations eventually arise that potentially pose him as a more villainous character than we were initially led to believe, instead of creating a dilemma wherein either of the two leads could be our protagonist, instead we are left with two antagonists and no care as to who will eventually prevail.
Some scenes are painfully edited, such as an early phone conversation between De Niro and Ventimiglia, which is so stilted and disconnected that it’s clear the two actors were never even close to talking to one another. Elsewhere, a point-of-view technique is overused and under-budgeted, as the shots all appear to be taken directly from a below-par cameraphone, and seem present to simply showcase the surrounding countryside. The script suffers from being far too short – the entire film clocks in at 78 minutes before the end credits roll – yet still feels dragged out. There’s nowhere near enough story to fill out a feature length, so much of the film is spent idly drifting around the admittedly beautiful landscapes of the Appalachian Mountains. The narrative is extremely repetitive, with the conceit of one man being captured by the other, breaking free and fleeing, only to turn the tables at their next encounter being repeated on several occasions, with elements of torture porn thrown in for good measure, which don’t even escalate – the most gruesome is probably the first scene of torture, which did have me wincing, but then I’m not exactly a horror fan. Character motivations are spelled out in the opening scene, and the ‘surprise’ revelations languorously built up to are assumed from the outset as well. There is one genius moment of originality during one of the captive fight scenes, in which an impromptu weapon is brilliantly utilised, but alas one burst of inventiveness is not enough to redeem the film from it’s many other flaws.
This could have been an update of First Blood, or perhaps a continuation of De Niro’s character from The Deer Hunter, but instead it opted for sporadic gore and cruelty amidst a nature documentary and adverts for Jägermeister. Some script re-writes could have saved it, especially if they involved a third act which lasts more than a couple of minutes. It’s not so-bad-it’s-hilarious, it’s just disappointing.
Choose Life 3/10