Seven years after his bigscreen debut in Shane Meadows’ “Dead Man’s Shoes,” Toby Kebbell steps into his first leading role in the low-budget, London-set conspiracy thriller “The Veteran.” This second feature from helmer-co-writer Matthew Hope, following his little-seen 2008 horror “The Vanguard,” sees Kebbell as a soldier freshly returned from Afghanistan, negotiating an uncomfortable return to civilian life. Convoluted tale of government manipulation should pander to modest platoons of conspiracy theorists apt to believe the worst of executive power. Rank and file will dodge enlistment at least until the pic’s tour of duty in ancillary.
Kebbell, who won acclaim for his vivid turn as a mouthy band manager in Anton Corbijn’s “Control,” failed to get the expected career assist from subsequent roles in “Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time” and “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” since both were creative and commercial disappointments. “The Veteran” is confirmation that the ruggedly handsome 28-year-old can ably hold the center of a feature-length actioner; if there’s a slot available for an indie-movie answer to Jason Statham, he should apply.
Principal plot strand sees ex-soldier Robert Miller (Kebbell) recruited by a former army pal Danny Turner (Tom Brooke), Danny’s domineering brother Chris (Tony Curran) and their mysterious sponsor Langdon (Brian Cox) for a shadowy surveillance operation monitoring suspected terrorists in Britain. His task is to make contact with deep-undercover operative Alayna (Adi Bielski), believed to have defected to the group she is infiltrating. The mission places Miller in, natch, mortal peril, allowing him to showcase soldiering abilities that, if accurately representative of Allied forces in the Middle East, would have vanquished the Taliban long ago.
At the same time, though with less-than-smooth gear changes, Miller battles the drug lord (Ashley Thomas) who rules the local housing project and is corrupting the pre-teen younger brother of Miller’s best friend. The twin plotlines finally combine in a climax of gun-crime carnage on scale that stretches credibility.
Langdon’s cynical sloganeering (“Fear is justification. Fear is control. We continue to make money while the world burns”) may conveniently articulate the film’s theme, but despite the best efforts of seasoned thesp Cox, it never convinces as plausible dialogue, leastwise to a heroic, principled protagonist.
The saturated blacks of lenser Philipp Blaubach’s artfully muddy photography lend a distinctive look on a budget, while Mark Delany’s electronic score (with five compositions credited to Ben Medcalf) raises tension where needed. Overall, however, helmer Hope struggles to fuse the pic’s gritty shooting style, genre elements and outlandish conspiracy premise into a coherent whole.