Some people were probably wondering when they heard that the minds behind Trailer Park Boys were making a movie about Canada’s combat mission in Afghanistan: Will they play it for laughs, punching up the dark humour? Or, perhaps just to prove they’re capable of it, will they make a drama about the madness of war? Director Mike Clattenburg and co-writer/producer Barrie Dunn go for both, landing in a hazy middle ground, with jokes that feel like they belong in a sitcom and few, if any, new insights into the conflict.
Luke (Nick Stahl) is one of those journalists who are rare in real life but loved by filmmakers. He drinks hard, isn’t afraid to yell at his boss or to get fired – he’s represented three newspapers in eight trips to Afghanistan, because, dammit, people deserve the truth.
When his editor kills his story about a Canadian sniper who allegedly cuts the fingers off his targets to keep as trophies, Luke is still determined to get the scoop. But he’s broke. To fund another trip to Afghanistan, Luke recruits his doofus friend Tom (Nicholas Wright) who in turn convinces his mom to pay for them to go so that he can finally make his documentary about the tanks of Afghanistan. (He brings along remote controlled toy tanks to film, apparently so that he would have something do to do.) Of course, it helps to have an accompanying naif who can eventually register the horrors of war.
Once in Afghanistan, Luke and Tom encounter a wide cast of characters, including the cagey sniper (Steve Cochrane) nicknamed Freddie Krueger, the horror villain, and the comedian Lewis Black, who plays himself and delivers a cynical tirade at the military base in an inexplicable cameo. Then there is Mateen (Stephen Lobo), Luke’s fixer, who is constantly high on hash. With his war-weariness and his genuine concern for Luke, Lobo plays one of the film’s few compelling characters.
That certainly can’t be said of the “minister of hash” from whom Tom seeks to score. Posing as a U.S. record producer, Tom promises to get one of the minister’s relatives a record deal, since the world needs to discover Afghan rap. This is one of those moments where Clattenburg is going for dark humour, but the jokes fall flat.
As they travel to the site where Luke believes he will discover the bodies with missing fingers, Luke, Tom and Mateen discover farmers who have little choice but to join the Taliban after the military burns their poppy fields.
“How can you win a war when you can’t tell the difference between a taxi driver and the Taliban?” Luke asks in a voiceover. Well, there’s certainly no mistaking the Afghan man who is firing on Luke from atop a hill. Seen through binoculars, he is jumping up and down like Yosemite Sam.
Luke, Tom and Mateen also encounter a plumber in the vast open landscapes of the country, who provides one of the film’s few interesting perspectives on the conflict: If you really want to save Afghanistan, come with clean water and toilets, not guns and grenades. “We’d be better off with one plumber than 100 Special Forces dudes,” he says.
Few people will gain a greater understanding of Canada’s war from this movie. There are a handful of worthy moments, but it’s too bogged down in cliché. Apocalypse Now this is not.
- Directed by Mike Clattenburg
- Written by Douglas Bell, Barrie Dunn and Patrick Graham
- Starring Nick Stahl and Stephen Lobo
- Classification: 14A