While U.S. troops are fighting for their lives in Afghanistan, 24 macho men are playing games in USA’s “Combat Missions.” Taking full advantage of America’s war on terrorism, “Survivor” king Mark Burnett has tapped the nonfiction keg once more, coming up with an overtly patriotic series that would make Jerry Bruckheimer proud. Flag-waving aside, this hunk-laden endurance test comes off as an exercise in utter manipulation due to its arrival as the genuine article develops overseas. It shows just how unreal reality TV can be.
Idea is interesting enough — and might have worked to greater effect if the U.S. wasn’t pitching its tent in and around Kabul. The men gather at the Mojave desert’s Camp Windstorm (specifically designed for “Combat Missions”) and break up into four six-person lineups dubbed Alpha, Bravo, Charlie and Delta. Every week, two groups will battle for supremacy via military ops with names like Tank Take-Out, Fuel Dump Demolition, Urban Assault and Hostage Rescue. Using a training system called Miles 2000, all contenders trigger infrared lasers deployed from authentic weapons and vehicles.
At the end of each assignment, the losing squad (based on the activity’s time elapsed and men “lost”) will vote away a crew member. After 15 weeks, one man from one team is left standing, and he wins the majority of the $400,000 purse.
All of this is monitored by Rudy Boesch, the no-nonsense ex-Navy SEAL who almost took home Burnett’s first “Survivor” crown and who has ridden his 15 minutes of fame to new heights. His presence here is surely one rooted in familiarity — auds who think about tuning out will almost surely stay glued when he’s around — but his one-dimensional hosting duties are almost irrelevant. Looking menacing and acting rigorous, his only job is to explain rules and oversee discharges.
The concept itself isn’t so offensive, and neither are the participants; special forces are well represented, from the Green Berets to Marine Recons. They’re all pros with egos, physically fit enough to stand their ground and defend their posts. Contestant reactions are too staged, however: An otherwise loyal collection of men sound rather silly — especially during bona fide wartime — spouting conflict wisdom such as “I will not dishonor a man” and “Weak links must be destroyed.” After all, they get to go home and watch CNN when this is over, while their counterparts are hunting Al Qaeda leaders in far-off caves.
Contributing to the lack of reality is the absence of a female presence. Except for two bartenders who work at the makeshift Snake Pit clubhouse, women are nonexistent, making it hard to see this as anything but an ultimate fantasy camp complete with blond hostesses.
The look, feel and sound of “Combat Missions” is highly charged. Blank shell casings are routinely released from ever-present gunfire, while explosions, simulated tear gas and faux grenades are all deployed. The no-frills camerawork and quick-cut editing is almost a given, considering Burnett’s past projects, and patriotic marches are piped into almost every scene.