||Renny Harlin certainly leaves behind the mindless action-adventure mode he’s famous for with this earnest, well-meaning drama about the 2008 conflict between Russia and the former Soviet republic of Georgia, since 1991 an independent pro-western state in the Caucasus. But the personal narrative embedded in the historical context is unfortunately so old-fashioned and hokey that it undermines the director’s good intentions, even if his skill in choreographing battle sequences is on ample display.
The perspective is unabashedly pro-Georgian, portraying Russian prime minister Vladimir Putin (shown in news footage) as a cold-eyed villain and the mercenary troops he unleashed on his neighbor, ostensibly to assist pro-Russian separatists in the South Ossetia region of Georgia but actually as conquerors, for the most part as murderous thugs. By contrast Georgian President Mikail Saakashvili (Andy Garcia) is portrayed as a freedom-loving nationalist willing to bend over backward to avoid a conflict he knows he can’t win without unlikely western intervention. And a coda, in which Georgian survivors of the war testify about their personal losses while holding up photos of wives, mothers, sisters, grandmothers, fathers, sons and brothers killed in the invasion, represents the most direct form of accusation imaginable.
In reality, of course, the historical circumstances were much more complex, in both local and geopolitical terms, though the brutality of the Russian action is indisputable. Still, one can imagine a powerful film being made using the brief 2008 ‘war’ as a backdrop. Unfortunately, this isn’t it. Apart from the simplistic presentation of the conflict (which goes so far as to include bland Dean Cain as an American advisor to Saakashvili—and, it would appear, a singularly ineffective one), the scenario concocted by Mikko Alanne and David Battle would have been a cliché back in the time of “Casablanca.”
It centers on Thomas Anders (dull Rupert Friend), a seasoned war correspondent whose stoic attitude conceals the turmoil he still feels over the death of his fellow reporter (and girlfriend) Miriam (Heather Graham) in an ambush by Iraqi militants. Encouraged to go to Georgia, where things are heating up, by wild-man colleague The Dutchman (Val Kilmer, very broad), Thomas and his cameraman Sebastian Ganz (Richard Coyle) soon find themselves in the thick of the invasion, witnessing the bombing of a traditional wedding party by Russian warplanes. They rescue one of the survivors, Tatia Medoevi (Emmanuelle Chriqui), the New York-educated sister of the bride, and pledge to help her find her family in the battle zone in return for her help as a translator.
That leads to their photographing a massacre of villagers by Russian irregulars led by world-weary Col. Demidov (Rade Serbedzia) who include the brutal Daniil (Mikko Nousiainen). A crux of the plot becomes the invaders’ efforts to locate the camera memory chip containing the photos of the slaughter—and they’re willing to use any means, including torture, to do so. Meanwhile the intrepid journalists are out to get the photos broadcast to the outside world to prove what the Russians are doing. Luckily they’re aided by a heroic Georgian captain (Johnathon Schaech), who just happens to have saved Anders’ life in Iraq earlier—a plot point obviously meant to reinforce his country’s friendship with the US.
In telling this story “5 Days of War” essentially becomes a chain of firefights, close shaves, hair’s-breadth escapes, explosions and confrontations that become staring matches, occasionally interrupted by strategy sessions in President Saakashvili’s office during which Garcia shouts out pious platitudes and haltingly romantic moments between Thomas and Tatia (and occasionally bromantic ones involving Thomas and Sebastian). It’s all terribly reminiscent of innumerable Hollywood war pictures of the past, and though Harlin handles the sequences involving planes, tanks, jeeps, machine guns and bombs very well, he deals much less adroitly with the more intimate material, whether it involves the reporters engaging in gallows humor, the unlikely couple making eyes at one another, the Russians threatening our captured heroes, nameless Georgians being victimized or huddling together in churches, or the president engaging in pompous harangues with his staff. And the ending, which involves not one but two startling turnabouts in characters—not merely to prove that there’s still some humanity left in the Russians (just as there were often some “good Germans” in movies about the Nazis), but to allow the heroes’ escape from what seems certain death, and a “whole world is watching” denouement—borders on the absurd.
As a result the cast are left pretty much adrift with cardboard characters, and their efforts range from innocuous (Friend, Chriqui, Schaech) to overblown (Garcia, Kilmer, Nousiainen), with Coyle and Serbedzia falling somewhere in between. But the physical production is impressive, with Checco Varese’s widescreen cinematography taking advantage of the locations and the visual effects team giving the action visceral power. Unfortunately Trevor Rabin’s score accentuates the cliches rather than downplaying them.
Other films that have treated similar stories set against earlier conflicts with far greater subtlety and impact than this one—Oliver Stone’s “Salvador,” and especially Roger Spottiswoode’s “Under Fire” and Michael Winterbottom’s “Welcome to Sarajevo.” All of them—particularly the last two—make their points far more truthfully and effectively than Harlin’s manages to do, however sincere his purpose.