Dennis Quaid socks over the leading role in “Savior,” a chamber-size but often extremely powerful war drama about a mercenary who exorcises his personal demons by rescuing a baby from the war in Bosnia. Grim but engrossing pic — the first 100% U.S.-funded movie to touch on the Yugoslav conflict — has little going for it commercially but is an impressive addition to the war-as-existential-battlefield genre that dates back to the ’50s. Though produced by Oliver Stone, project has none of his overblown emotionalism: Serbian director Peter (Predrag) Antonijevic directs with a cool eye.
Stone had seen Antonijevic’s 1992 political drama “The Little One” and sent him a script by Robert Orr, a photographer’s assistant during the war who had based his yarn on the true story of an American mercenary.
Result is an evenhanded movie that is free of both traditional Hollywood cop-outs and antiwar preachiness. The power of “Savior” comes from the almost offhand way in which sectarian violence and hatred are portrayed, and the conciseness of the story’s emotional arc.
There’s little here of the lacerating emotions, or bombs and bullets, of “Pretty Village, Pretty Flame”; instead, just a well-told story of one man’s act of charity that turns into a personal mission.
Unsmiling, rugged-faced and looking somewhat older than his 42 years, Quaid is utterly believable as Joshua, a former U.S. military official who fled to the Foreign Legion (as “Guy”) six years ago after his wife (Nastassja Kinski) was killed by Muslim fundamentalists in Paris.
It’s 1993, and he’s now in Bosnia, fighting on the Serbian side alongside his buddy Peter (Stellan Skarsgard), who’s thinking of returning to civilian life now that their initial term is up.
Joshua, who has channeled all his rage into becoming a mercenary machine, has no such thoughts, and when his friend is killed by a young girl with a hand grenade, he hardly thinks twice about shooting an equally young boy on the enemy side.
One day, Joshua accompanies Goran (Sergej Trifunovic), a cocky, Muslim-hating Serb, to an exchange of prisoners where they receive Vera (Natasa Ninkovic), a heavily pregnant Serbian woman who’s been raped by her Muslim captors.
On the way back to her village, Goran accuses her of sleeping with the enemy, kicks her in the stomach and, when Vera goes into labor, threatens to shoot the baby. In an act of humanity, Joshua kills Goran — and unwittingly takes the first step on his road to rehabilitation.
It’s a journey that turns into a life-or-death odyssey. Vera rejects the child, and her family reject her, forcing Joshua to drive mother and squealing child to a refugee center.
First, they are hunted by her father and brother (as part of a blood debt owed to the dead Goran’s family); later, when Joshua decides to smuggle Vera and the baby out of the country, they run into a marauding Croatian killing squad, with shocking results.
Pic takes a while to get into a rhythm, and starts with an unnecessary (and not very believable) prologue showing Joshua’s wife blown up in a Paris bar and his taking revenge, gunning down some Muslims in a mosque.
As an attempt to give the main character some emotional background, this is too rushed and far-fetched by half, and its ripples prove an initial distraction once the story proper (and original version of the script) begins, post main titles, in Bosnia some years later.
Antonijevic manages to get over this opening stumble fairly quickly, as Quaid’s presence weighs in, supported in the early stages by Trifunovic’s arresting perf as the psychotic Goran, who calmly cuts off a weeping old woman’s finger to steal her ring, and for whom Muslims are just so much garbage to be disposed of.
Antonijevic uses widescreen compositions to contrast the emotional savagery of the combatants with the stunning beauty of the landscape.
Once Joshua and Vera hit the road, however, the movie again skirts dramatic trouble. Though there’s some rough humor in the scenes of Joshua having to contend with a permanently squawking baby (and making imaginative use of a condom to bottle-feed it),
Antonijevic pushes his audience’s sympathies to the limit by making Vera a grouchy, silent character for a good chunk of the middle section.
Quaid, with the only speaking role, has to carry the pic at this midpoint, leaving the viewer free to ponder basic questions as to why such a hard-ass perseveres in such a thankless task.
But once Vera breaks her silence and some character interplay kicks in, so does the movie’s power. There’s a touching idyll in a small village where they’re sheltered by a mixed Serbian-Croatian couple, prior to the shocking climax that awaits them across the lake. Most refreshing of all, even in its postscript, the movie doesn’t sell out with a grandstanding Hollywood ending — the promise of hope is shown, but no more.
Onscreen virtually the whole time, and never once relaxing his features into the trademark grin, Quaid is immensely impressive as a man who has jettisoned everything (even his nationality) in an attempt to erase the past and restart from zero; it’s not an easily likable performance, but it’s undoubtedly a career highlight.
Ninkovic, also in a role that offers no easy hooks for the audience, is equally under the skin of her character; there’s a rough chemistry between the two in which she gives as good as she gets. Skarsgard and second-billed Kinski are onscreen for only minutes at the start.
Production values are tops, from David Robbins’ folkloric score to Vladislav Lasic’s realistic production design, which economically sketches the ravages of the conflict. Ian Wilson’s widescreen Panavision lensing creates a striking geographical frame (pic was shot in Montenegro) in which the human horrors unfold.