Although in real life, United States troops haven’t fought on native soil since World War II, in the confused alternate reality of Dito Montiel’s “Man Down,” there’s an urgent battle raging at home today. For countless American veterans — and one scuzzy-faced ex-Marine played by Shia LaBeouf in particular — the armed conflicts they face abroad are nothing compared to what awaits them upon their return. With that in mind, Montiel reunites with LaBeouf (whose star has dramatically skyrocketed — and just as swiftly plummeted — since “Saints”) in this appallingly manipulative psychological thriller, which scolds audiences for not caring enough about our veterans, while counting on the well-meaning message to excuse this otherwise awful mess of a movie.
“America, we have a problem!” screams the bold, blood-red graffiti scrawled across the bombed-out remains of some American city, delivering what amounts to the subtlest message “Man Down” has to offer. What that problem is (zombies? terrorists? a pre-Christmas Tickle-Me Elmo shortage?) the film prefers to keep hidden for the time being, allowing viewers’ imaginations to fill in the unspecified crisis that greets LaBeouf’s Gabriel Drummer when he gets back from Afghanistan (or more accurately, the desert set of Santa Clarita’s Blue Cloud Movie Ranch).
Beginning with its dramatically floodlit, ’80s-movie-style opening, in which a heavily-armed Gabe raids a two-story compound where his son Jonathan (Charlie Shotwell) is being held captive, there’s something irreconcilably phony about “Man Down.” On nearly every level — from its blockbuster lensing (by “Captain America” director Joe Johnston’s d.p., Shelly Johnson) to the unremarkable locations where it takes place (clumsily CG-embellished in post) — the film calls attention to its own artifice, which comes in direct conflict with LaBeouf’s ultra-earnest performance.
At the outset, something awful is happening to Jonathan (the sort of all-American towhead one might find in a vintage kids’ cereal commercial), but the production lacks the resources its ambitious post-traumatic/post-apocalyptic vision demands — although, ironically, the exact same script might have worked on a bare theater stage, where the leaps wouldn’t be so jarring between idyllic Louisiana-shot domestic life, spirit-breaking Marine boot camp, a crazy-making altercation in the streets of Afghanistan and the delusional American wasteland he comes home to (where everyone has beards and a junkie-looking Clifton Collins Jr. is representative of the few remaining survivors).
Think of it as “psy-fi”: Montiel and screenwriter Adam Simon mean for the film to serve as a metaphor for what American troops experience on and off the field of battle, alternating between Gabe’s aforementioned realities (including boilerplate bonding scenes with best friend Jai Courtney and wife Kate Mara) and an extended therapy session overseen by empathetic Marine captain Peyton (Gary Oldman), whose concerned position the pic shares. The scenes with Oldman are the pic’s quietest, likely to bore those who rent the movie (which feels destined for VOD) for its intense battle scenes, and yet this interview reveals both the key to the film’s “twist” and the soul of LaBeouf’s performance.
In light of his off-screen shenanigans, it’s easy to forget just how intensely committed LaBeouf can be to his craft (the face wounds he self-inflicted on “Fury” have since scarred over, toughening his once boyish appearance), and the sheer range “Man Down” demands of the actor — from upbeat father figure to ruthless vengeance machine — could have been the role to save his imploding reputation. But Montiel’s sappy, melodramatic style is a poor match for his star’s sobering performance: Digging deep and mumbling his lines, LaBeouf achieves that authentic, hurts-to-watch approach seldom seen since the days of Marlon Brando and Montgomery Clift, only to have his performance lacquered over with artificial-looking camerawork and a handful of treacly Jimmy Haun ballads on the soundtrack.
In time, Brando realized that the Method was taking too much out of him, while audiences hardly recognized the difference. LaBeouf would do well to absorb that lesson early, as he’s likely to burn himself out at this rate, and a bit more levity — say, that movie-star wink that actors like Kiefer Sutherland or Michael Douglas offer to remind that it’s only a performance, and we’re all in this together — would have gone a long way here. Instead, it’s almost painful to watch the agony LaBeouf puts himself through here: The cause may be just, but the part doesn’t warrant it.
Frankly, there should be a rule against the kind of emotional manipulation perpetrated in “Man Down,” setting up the scenario in which Jonathan is being terrorized from the beginning, and then waiting more than an hour to return to the poor kid, still hanging from the same dramatic cliff. That’s not suspense, that’s sadism, and frankly, it’s unfair for “Man Down” (which defines its own title as Drummer-family code for “I love you,” later flashing back to replay the entire scene to agonizingly obvious effect during the pic’s child-endangerment climax) to hinge on negating a premise it failed to establish in the first place.