A small-scale war pic about a lost patrol of Australian soldiers in 1942 New Guinea, “Kokoda” is long on the muddy-bloody details of jungle warfare and short on fleshedout characters. Story of Aussie troops halting the Japanese advance is the stuff of legend Down Under, which should guarantee pic opens locally with a bang April 20 (just before ANZAC Day, a national holiday of military remembrance) before word of mouth muzzles B.O. action. Sans beefy combat scenes or poetic reflections on the horror of it all, establishing offshore beachheads looks an especially daunting mission.
Opening volley is promising, with voice-over and diagrams laying out a clear picture of the state of the Kokoda trail. Japanese forces are rapidly closing in on Port Moresby, with an invasion of Australia planned next. Meanwhile, most battle-hardened Aussie troops are deployed elsewhere, leaving only inexperienced “chocos” (volunteers) to defend the treacherous trail.
Jack Scholt (Jack Finsterer) emerges from a mud bath — in the film’s single most arresting shot. One of the rag-tag troops, his letter home is narrated over images of the walking wounded. Early indications that pic will pare down an epic-sized campaign into a diary-style chronicle prove false, however, as Jack’s is the only intimate communique on show.
Once a Japanese assault is confirmed, Jack’s platoon is dispatched and soon cut off from supply lines. Stalked by an enemy that’s never clearly seen, the squad is reduced in number with metronomic regularity.
It’s not just the enemy that’s hard to distinguish. Thin screenplay reveals little or nothing of the Aussies’ backgrounds, and their mud-caked faces make it difficult to figure out who’s who. Only in the final half-hour do tough nut Darko (Travis McMahon), nervous Johnno (Tom Budge) and Jack’s brother, Max (Simon Stone), come out of hiding.
Nonetheless, debut helmer Alister Grierson manages to produce some highly suspenseful moments, and the ensemble cast does it best with the patchily drawn roles.
Jules O’Loughlin’s assured lensing in the hinterlands of Southeast Queensland convincingly doubles for Papua, New Guinea. Latter’s gritty, no-nonsense compositions at ground level give a strong sense of the combatants being physically conjoined to the terrain they’re slithering about in. John Gray’s orchestral score complements the old-fashioned, ’40s/’50s programmer feel.