The public seems to be sick to death of war movies, especially when they’re as much of a mixed bag as “5 Days of War,” a hell-on-earth thriller that makes valiant gestures toward geopolitical savvy but gets bushwhacked by vet helmer Renny Harlin’s weakness for the Rambo-esque. Set during the brief, brutal 2008 flare-up between Russia and Georgia, the drama has some exhilarating moments, but they’re dampened by concessions to conventionally bloviating music, overly theatrical dialogue and inadvertently comic slo-mo. Well-known faces, notably those of Val Kilmer and Andy Garcia, probably won’t help the campaign.
It would be ironic if the Anchor Bay release does slip through the cracks because of its political content, given the central message of Mikko Alanne and David Battle’s screenplay. As war reporter Thomas Anders (Rupert Friend) and his cameraman, Sebastian Ganz (Richard Coyle), skirt disaster after disaster, they face the difficulties of not only getting news but disseminating it: In 2008, we’re reminded, the global media were too preoccupied with the Olympics to care that independent Georgia was being brutalized by Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. As Thomas and Sebastian put their life on the line, capturing the atrocities being committed by Cossack mercenaries against civilians, the world’s response is something like a yawn.
The adventure in Georgia is prefaced by a short sequence set in 2007 Iraq. There, Thomas, Sebastian and their colleague Miriam (an oddly cast Heather Graham), who also happens to be Thomas’ love interest, are ambushed by terrorists; Miriam is shot dead (the film notes that more than 500 war journalists have been killed in the last decade). Almost the entire scene is captured through Sebastian’s camera, raising the concern that “5 Days of War” is going to be a viewfinder movie. This worry proves unfounded; the action here, like most of the mayhem once the story reaches war-torn Georgia, is visceral and immediate.
While he displays the same kinetic compulsion of his early studio work (“Die Hard 2,” “Cutthroat Island” “Cliffhanger”), Harlin also is trying to craft a character study and a political critique, and the various sides of the movie don’t always mesh. Sebastian, Thomas (who’s carrying a load of guilt about Miriam) and the other members of their loosely knit community of combat reporters — including a character known as the Dutchman (Kilmer), who goes around saying things like “This place is about to blow, man!” — are motivated by profit and fame. They all want a story that’s going to go global, and they think they have one, initially at least, in Georgia.
But cynical, callous newspeople wouldn’t be enough for a movie, which is why Thomas has a conscious, a calling and, eventually, another love interest: Tatia (Emmanuelle Chriqui), a Georgian educated in New York (hence the lack of accent), whose sister’s wedding is attacked by Russian jet fighters. Her surviving family members become the central figures in the story Thomas risks his life to tell.
With Kathryn Bigelow’s “The Hurt Locker” and other films that have straddled the hybrid docu-feature approach to our various Mideast calamities, auds have come to expect a stripped-down authenticity in war films. That’s one reason why “5 Days of War” seems so tone deaf: Garcia does in fact look like Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, but the thesp is such a well-known quantity that the casting seems like a stunt; ditto Johnathon Schaech, who shows up as a heroic Georgian soldier. Chriqui is a fine actress, but an unconvincing Georgian. For that matter, Friend seems a bit of a callow youth for a guy who’s supposed to be battle-hardened and war-weary; Coyle pulls off that particular bit far better.
“5 Days of War” is a movie with its heart in the right place but a fatal taste for cheese: Every time it has you by the nerve endings, it does something — a slo-mo death, a sappily sentimental line, an ill-timed strain of Trevor Rabin’s too obvious score — to let you go. Production values are generally good, particularly some spectacular work by d.p. Checco Varese, but they simply aren’t used to best effect.