Starring: Shane West, J.K. Simmons
Directed by: Alex Carter
For some reason, as I read the back of the DVD casing for this movie and seeing it was set early into the war in Afghanistan, I felt the words "too soon" forming in my mind. I think that's due to the fact that I can't recall previously seeing any movies set in the time period of the current Afghan war, and I felt this movie wasn't likely to provide a satisfactory "first step" into that venue. I had never heard tell of it until I saw it on the shelf, and I found very few reviews for it online, so my expectations deflated even more before sitting down to watch it.
The movie starts off with Shane West's character, an American soldier recovered from a failed mission, being debriefed by a superior, played by J.K. Simmons. He's the lone survivor from his unit and his story isn't adding up. From there, the ninety minute flashback begins, and I already have a fairly certain idea for how it is going to end. Very rarely do I find this setup works in storytelling--the main character either retells or is forced to retell how he is the sole survivor of some calamity. You're basically told from the outset that all supporting characters are cannon fodder, so don't get attached.
So, the movie's barely started and I'm already emotionally detached from everyone. Shane West and his unit are given guard duty over a desolate stretch of desert road--a road they can't even see from their post--to watch out for any Taliban activity. After a brief skirmish with unseen assailants, they wind up in a gully where there's an ancient sculpture in the rock face. Fortunately, one of the soldiers just happens to be a translator and a road scholar of mythology, so he tells the rest of the boys it could be a dijinn's prison behind the sculpture. Being a horror movie, the sculpture is immediately shot to pieces by one of the soldiers, foretelling the inevitable carnage.
What follows is some pretty standard and pretty forgettable paranormal suspense. I use "suspense" charitably, because the effects were so distracting and the scare tactics so run-of-the-mill, I found myself spending more time anticipating each event than engrossing myself in the story. It all boils down to a body count film, as evidenced by that opening scene where we find out only one soldier survives. The only mystery is guessing in which order they're picked off. There is the use of haunted memories being exploited for most of the soldiers, as each seems to have a skeleton in his closet, and the dijinn uses those memories against the soldiers as they're killed off one by one. And the increasing tension among the remaining soldiers was fairly believable, but the hillbilly bigot soldier, who is suddenly out to rape the female Afghani prisoner and cuss out his black commanding officer felt, so clichéd that I couldn't count him as genuine among the other characters.
If you're a Shane West fan, you probably aren't going to care for this film. If you're a horror fan, I doubt you will either. Watching the screenwriter's diary, as part of the DVD extras, we learn that the budget for the picture was slashed. That's a shame because it really shows in the CGI effects. The practical effects, however, were well done, so that's one in the plus column. Like a soldier's boots, this movie really needed a good spit and polish, so it's too bad my first experience with an Afghan war picture had to be Red Sands.