Ken Loach’s intelligent but bluntly didactic drama “Route Irish” explores the Iraq War not through the eyes of active combatants, but through those of ex-soldiers working for the region’s private security contractors. Constructed along the lines of Loach’s 1990 political thriller “Hidden Agenda,” pic laudably tries to find a sideways view on the conflict and its appalling atrocities. However, like a sculptor working with clay that just won’t dry, Loach struggles to carve out clear ethical certainties from the still-sticky moral morass of Iraq, leaving the result to face an even rougher B.O. route than his last, “Looking for Eric.”
Pic’s main protagonist Fergus (Mark Womack), a former member of the SAS (the British Army’s elite special forces division), worked until recently for a (fictional) private security firm that provided armed escorts and bulletproof vehicles to ferry the hordes of civilian contractors coming in and out of the country. Though psychologically scarred by what he saw in active service, Fergus couldn’t resist the £10,000 (approximately $14,000) per-month salary for private, effectively mercenary work, persuading best friend and fellow vet Frankie (John Bishop) to join the firm as well.
Unfortunately, Frankie was killed by an IED on Route Irish — the road between Baghdad airport and the Green Zone, considered the most dangerous route in the world. At Frankie’s funeral back home in Liverpool, a Spanish woman (Najwa Nimri) hands Fergus his cell phone, on which a handheld video shows an Iraqi family (women and children) being murdered by their security team.
Suspicious that Frankie’s death was no accident, Fergus sets out to uncover the truth, enlisting his friend’s widow Rachel (Andrea Lowe) and an Iraqi refugee (Talib Rasool, filling the role of noble immigrant obligatory in nearly every Loach film). However, the security firm, repped by Haynes (Jack Fortune) and Walker (Geoff Bell), offers an explanation of why the victims might have been mistaken for insurgents that seems plausible, given security contractors’ broad immunity at the time.
Though the off-battlefield Blighty setting and the focus on venal private security contractors are relative novelties for the sub-genre, “Route Irish” doesn’t have much more to say about the Iraq War than other recent films about the conflict. Like “Redacted” or “In the Valley of Elah,” which both relied on new forms of recorded evidence, “Route Irish” uses a single war crime to damn the tawdry adventure as a whole. At the same time, as in “The Hurt Locker,” “Irish” seeks to offset indignation with the war’s instigators via sympathy for the traumatized soldiers (a point effectively conveyed by a disturbing waterboarding torture scene).
In purely dramatic terms, pic lacks tension as a suspenser. Clunky expository dialogue by screenwriter Paul Laverty (this being his 12th film with Loach, perhaps they need a break) nearly draws laughs when, for example, someone explains such terms as IED and “towelhead” to Rachel. Thesping is generally fine, though Womack is one of Loach’s least charismatic leads.
Reunion between Loach and lenser Chris Menges (who worked as a camera-operator on Loach’s “Poor Cow” back in 1967) results in a polished sheen, especially via its color-coding of different time periods in the narrative — no substitute for the urgency, spontaneity and innovative framing of his recent collaborations with of d.p. Barry Ackroyd. The rest of the tech credits are pro.