The well-intentioned war movie ‘Man Down’ feels like it needed more filmmakers
Directed by: Dito Montiel
Written by: Dito Montiel and Adam G. Simon
Starring: Shia LaBeouf, Jai Courtney, Kate Mara, and Gary Oldman
“Man Down” – U.S. Marine Gabriel Drummer (Shia LaBeouf) roams a decimated American countryside that looks like a recent victim of a nuclear attack. With visuals reminiscent of the “Divergent” series (2014 – 2016), a nearby city is filled with broken, hollowed out skyscrapers, as Gabriel searches – along with his best friend, Devin (Jai Courtney) – for his young son (Charlie Shotwell) along the desolate, post-WWIII streets. Director/cowriter Dito Montiel truly paints a terribly grim image of America, and the opening few minutes foreshadow an equally depressing picture. Despite an admirable performance by LaBeouf, the film’s ultimate point regrettably becomes marginalized in the midst of a befuddled, overthought narrative.
“Man Down” continually shifts between Gabriel’s experiences in post-WWIII to his days with the U.S. Marines, before everything went to hell, as it is commonly referred to in military films. During the former, Gabriel and Devin – sporting beards and acting in survival-mode in a toxic wasteland - are no longer with the armed services and are hardened by a cataclysmic war that the audience does not experience onscreen. In the latter, Gabriel and Devin go through basic training in Camp Lejeune, North Carolina and head out to a different war in Afghanistan, filled with open questions and the possibilities of urban warfare mistakes.
Most of the time, both environments are cinematically adequate on their own, but the movie’s construct deliberately delivers a puzzle. How does Gabriel go from a present-day U.S. Marine in Afghanistan to a future nomad rummaging through the ruined homeland? This is especially confusing, because, in addition, Montiel and cowriter Adam G. Simon spend a significant amount of screen time with a military official (Gary Oldman) interviewing Gabriel. As the movie treads forward between (actually) three time periods, it becomes obvious that the meeting with Peyton (Oldman) and Gabriel carries at least a portion of the film’s answers. Then again, their conversation carries little insight or interest, as the officer and private work through tired, clichéd regulations in a dimly lit trailer complete with woodgrain paneling.
While on the subject of lighting (or lack thereof), at one point during basic training in Camp Lejeune, I pulled off my glasses and also looked around the theatre. Some scenes seemed slightly out of focus, and I wondered if the movie was presented in 3D, but I simply failed to pick up my 3D glasses. After realizing that no one else - within a 20-yard radius - was wearing those special glasses, I felt reassured that I did not miss a “Pick up your 3D glasses here” sign before walking into the theatre.
The message, however, that Montiel and Simon want the audience to absorb is a vitally important one and not to be taken lightly. I am most appreciative of the subject matter that the movie conveys and believe that it will open up dialogues over coffee after the theatre lights turn on. At the same time, “Man Down” delivers this message like a sledgehammer whirling down on an unprotected box of supermarket eggs while simultaneously offering an unnecessary mystery over almost the entire 92-minute runtime. “Man Down” certainly contains a worthy premise, but the movie is aptly named, because it feels like it needed more filmmakers.
Jeff – a member of the Phoenix Critics Circle – has penned film reviews since 2008 and graduated from ASU’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism. Follow Jeff and the Phoenix Film Festival on Twitter @MitchFilmCritic and @PhoenixFilmFest, respectively.