Renny Harlin, the Finnish director who made such films as Die Hard 2 and Cliffhanger in the early nineties, was the Michael Bay of his time – an action director with a reputation for filling studios' coffers by filling movie screens with flying vehicles and fire bombs.
Then came his pirate movie, Cutthroat Island (1995), starring his then-wife Geena Davis, which Guinness World Records still lists as the biggest movie flop of all time, earning about $10-million domestically against a $98-million budget.
After a decade where he has toiled mostly in the horror genre, his new movie, 5 Days of War, about the Russian-Georgian crisis of 2008, is Harlin's return to the action movie.
This time, it's a meaningful action flick, along the line of Body of Lies, Blood Diamond or Green Zone. The message of 5 Days of War is hard to miss: Made with the Georgian government's support, the movie is about the persecution of Georgia by the Russians.
In a prelude, set in Iraq in 2007, a carload of journalists is ambushed. American TV reporter Thomas Anders (Rupert Friend of Pride & Prejudice) watches his girlfriend and fellow reporter die. He is rescued by a Georgian commander, Captain Rezo (Johnathon Schaech) fighting with the coalition forces.
A year later, Thomas gets word of a developing conflict in Georgia, where tensions between Georgia and Russia are coming to a head over the breakaway Georgian state of South Ossetia, which Moscow supports. Thomas heads to Georgia with his friend and camera man, Sebastian (Richard Coyle).
After witnessing a wedding party attacked by Russian war planes, the journalists set out, along with a Georgian schoolteacher named Tatia (Emmanuelle Chriqui of Entourage fame), into the battle zone to find her missing family. After Sebastian secretly videotapes a brutal civilian execution, they hide a memory card with the footage on it before they are captured and imprisoned. The rest of the film concerns their attempts, with the help of Captain Rezo again, to get the footage out to the Western media.
In the otherwise thriller-by-numbers script, with a hodgepodge of international actors assuming various ethnic identities (stars Val Kilmer and Heather Graham essentially do cameos), 5 Days of War feels low-budget in everything except its battle sequences, featuring collapsing buildings, somersaulting cars and screaming fighter jets, all on a $12-million (U.S.) budget. The Georgian army, of course, provided the troops and hardware.
Not surprisingly, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili (Andy Garcia, talking in accented English) is portrayed as a peace-loving hero struggling to avoid military action. Meanwhile, his enemies, the Russians and South Ossetian militia, bomb civilians, terrify grandmothers and slash throats. The film ends with a line of real-life Georgians each telling the camera about the horrors they experienced and witnessed.
As grim as these accounts are, the exercise is designed to stoke outrage. According to Human Rights Watch, both sides were guilty of needlessly causing civilian deaths, including the use of cluster bombs. Anna Neistat, an executive with the organization who helped write a report on the conflict, told The New York Times she considered the film "extremely dangerous" in portraying Russians and Ossetians as "barbaric beasts and Georgians as peace angels."
Harlin's film begins with the familiar adage that truth is the first casualty of war. Usually that phrase precedes an attempt to revive the patient, not bury it deeper in the rubble of propaganda.
5 Days of War
- Directed by Renny Harlin
- Written by Mikko Alanne and David Battle
- Starring: Rupert Friend, Richard Coyle, and Emmanuelle Chriqui