If ever a film had no need for an in-title assertion of its fact-based nature, it’s the British war pic “Kajaki: The True Story”: Few screenwriters would devise a battlefield scenario quite this spare and anxious. Covering an exceptionally grueling day in the collective life of a British army unit stationed near the eponymous Afghan dam in 2006, Paul Katis’ rigorously realized debut feature initially lulls unsuspecting viewers with its droll, authentic portrait of base-camp routine, before a surprise excursion into a landmine-ridden riverbed steers matters sharply into urgent (and bloody) life-or-death territory. Comparable to Kathryn Bigelow’s “The Hurt Locker” in its prioritization of ground-level experience over more generalized political commentary, “Kajaki’s” potential resonance is by no means limited to Blighty, where it opens theatrically on Nov. 28.
From its Afghanistan-set band-of-brothers premise to its thorough closing montage of the story’s real-life subjects, “Kajaki” may put some viewers in mind of last year’s U.S. Navy SEAL drama “Lone Survivor,” though it’s a leaner, more contained tension exercise. With the onscreen area of action increasingly restricted by the presence of unseen explosives, the film could even, at a pinch, be classed within the subgenre of confined-space thrillers exemplified by “Buried” or “127 Hours.” By any standard, however, it’s an impressively disciplined affair that poses something of a marketing challenge to distributors tempted to pitch it as something more gung-ho than it is: Katis has effectively constructed an action film in which stasis is the most vital action of all.
The efficiently linear screenplay by Tom Williams (shifting dramatically in subject and scope from his feature writing debut, “Chalet Girl”) is drawn from events that received a degree of U.K. media coverage at the time, though it presents the incident less as an extraordinary narrative in itself than as a single example of the multiple abrading forces at work in the War on Terror. Cinematic studies of British military involvement in the conflict are still few in number, though “Kajaki’s” physical depiction of the soldier’s experience doesn’t differ greatly from that presented by its American counterparts — with moral and political wherefores absent from the discussion, war is largely a universal hell.
Katis and Williams take their time in establishing the personal dynamics between its core group of Parachute Regiment soldiers, situated in Afghanistan’s Helmand province as part of NATO’s Operation Mountain Thrust. As the men stave off boredom with physical activity, jocular banter and Kaiser Chiefs songs (it is 2006, after all), the wisdom of this slow-burn approach emerges: With the unit at rest, the sense of unforced comradeship between its members is all the more evident, heightening the emotional charge of the chaos to come. Katis times the inciting incident with taut, measured inevitability: On a routine patrol mission one September morning, Lance Cpl. Stu Hale (Benjamin O’Mahony) detonates a landmine, immediately losing a leg and prompting a panicked rescue mission that consumes the rest of the film.
Any doubts that this single casualty can sustain an entire feature are laid to stomach-knotting rest when the unit swiftly discovers that the entire riverbed in which they’ve been walking is a deadly minefield, where any unchecked move can result in another explosion — as, indeed, can factors beyond the soldiers’ control, as even the reverberating approach of a rescue helicopter turns out to harm more than it helps. Suffice to say that Hale does not remain the trap’s only victim for long; meanwhile, it’s stoic medic Tug Hartley (“Game of Thrones” regular Mark Stanley, marginally the MVP of a solidly unified ensemble) who must take the most hair-raising risks in the name of his peers’ safety.
With muscular technical brio that belies his limited budget, Katis has fashioned a thriller in which single footsteps become wince-inducing dramatic pivots. Neither does he skimp on the physical effects of each agonizing explosion: Gore-shy viewers will recoil at vivid images of wrecked limbs and gaping, dust-smeared open wounds (due credit to the pic’s makeup and prosthetic artists), yet “Kajaki” never appears to be exploiting real-life carnage for shock effect. Unvarnished realism — however unpleasant — is the objective here.
Below-the-line contributions are unflashy but uniformly expert, from punchy sound work to the mononymous Brin’s economical, affectation-free editing to Chris Goodger’s sun-heated widescreen lensing. The absence of a music score amplifies the nervous energy of the enterprise, though a saccharine ballad composed for the closing credits reps one of the film’s very few errors in judgment.