Man, now that title is how you sell a movie! By that, I am referring to the full title of "The Beast [u]of War[/u]", because the simple main title of "The Beast" is dull and generic... which, of course, makes it even more fitting for this film. Okay, maybe the film isn't that bland, but it's not quite as exciting as you might expect a film with a title as hardcore as "The Beast of War" (Tee-hee, that was a cute rhyme... Oh yeah, I sound like I'd be into hardcore action films) to be, although it is about as exciting as a Kevin Reynolds film can be. I guess Reynolds did, in fact, have a bit of an edge to him before Kevin Costner came in from out of nowhere with his tights and quarter-baked British accent, although it would appear as though he's always had trouble with working with accents. If the title doesn't pump you superficial, action-loving Americans up, then the concept of an invasion of Afghanistan ought to, up until you find out that this is just the Soviets' invasion, something definitely not reflected in these soldiers who seem about as American Army as... Kowalski. Jokes about generic American soldier surnames aside, I just appreciate the irony in the fact that Reynolds co-wrote a dramatization of a Soviet attack on the States in "Red Dawn", and then he made what appears to be a dramatization of Americans infiltrating the Soviet army, just in time for them to take on the Middle East. I knew we somehow got to Afghanistan first, although I wish our entrance was a little more satisfying, for although this film is decent, it's a bit held back by a couple of factors.
The pacing of the film is nothing if not sloppy in its leaping between problematic extremes, for when it is not too tight for its own good, it meanders, under the weight of dragging to William Mastrosimone's writing, and of a certain delicacy, if not dreaminess to Kevin Reynolds' direction which gets to be mighty dull, due to a thinness of material on which Reynolds' steady directorial hand might thrive. Even in concept, this film can't seem to figure out if it wants to be a harsh military thriller, or a nuanced study on the depravity of man during wartime, thus, it ends up being both overblown and dramatically lacking at the same time, with limitations to a potential for dramatic bite which go exacerbated by expository shortcomings. Like I said, just as this film drags its feet, it puts much less attention into the fleshing out of its leads than it should, being devoid of immediate development, and thin with gradual characterization in a manner which either tells you little about the leads, or superficializes leads of potential great layers. As things stand, all of the unlikable traits of the central focuses of this grimy character study feel less like genuine flaws to relate to, and more like blows to one's investment in leads who are instrumental in the heart of this drama. Reynolds tries to make up for these shortcomings in resonance by stressing other dramatic aspects, to where subtlety ends up collapsing under the overwhelming pressure of heavy-handed visuals and overblown storytelling which only make the shortcomings all the more glaring. Meandering, thinly drawn and wrought with missteps in subtlety, this film may have a little more conviction to it than Reynolds' later, more successful projects, but it is an early and prime example of how the director can get carried away with his ambition, yet still fails to deliver on enough competence to transcend other errors in filmmaking. The final product gradually loses momentum, until it collapses as forgettable, yet it never loses so much steam as to completely distance, holding some inspiration, and a fair bit of endearing potential.
I criticize even the concept of this narrative for its lack of realization as both a tense military thriller and a gritty portrait on dehumanization on the battlefield, but both thematic extremes of this subject matter carry potential, whether the film be a chilling game of military cat-and-mouse, or an intriguing character study which finds itself done a degree of justice by William Mastrosimone. Mastrosimone's script is messily paced and all too often fairly misguided with its characterization, which is both undercooked and superficial, but only up to a point, before Mastrosimone taps into a certain inspiration which gives nuance to characters who aren't truly brought to life until a talented cast delivers with its material. Granted, this material is a little lacking, enough so to hold the performances back, - even to where Russian accents are peculiarly not required - but only so far, for most all of the leads carry a dramatic intensity which make their performances arguably more memorable than the final product itself. Whether it be George Dzundza as a questionably brutal commander, or Jason Patric as a frustrated voice of reason, or Erick Avari as an Afghan communist who fears his comrades may betray him, believing him to be a traitor, or Stephen Baldwin as a well-intentioned, yet gullible solider, or Don Harvey as your garden-variety military man's man, each lead, if not certain supporting players, drive the soul of this human drama with more effectiveness than the storytellers. Of course, it's not as though the storytellers consistently fumble, for Kevin Reynolds at least knows how to deliver on style, particularly when we come to action sequences that, while not exactly spectacular, carry enough tension to draw you into the more visceral aspects of this thriller. As for the more dramatic aspects, Reynolds makes a lot of mistakes, whether it thoughtfulness so extreme that it dulls, or intensity so extreme that subtlety is lost, and yet, his audacious attention to unnerving visuals and a highly atmospheric and chilling score by Mark Isham is recurring enough to keep engagement value adequate, and occasionally gripping. Momentum falls time and time again throughout this somewhat misguided thriller, but it is never truly lost, as there is enough style and resonance to entertain, even if it can't quite compel as thoroughly as it could have.
With the beast soothed, the final product limps as underwhelming, under the weight of slow spells to the telling of an uneven story, and too much questionable characterization to compensate for subtlety issues which too glaringly reflect an ambition that is met with enough inspiration in writing, action and direction for Kevin Reynolds' "The Beast", or, as I prefer, "The Beast of War" (Man, that title is cooler than the film itself) to stand as a reasonably biting military thriller, even if it is kind of forgettable.
2.5/5 - Fair