It’s a little surprising the makers of Canadian-soldiers-in-Afghanistan drama “Hyena Road” didn’t opt for the more obvious title “Canadian Sniper,” but maybe it’s because the sniper in question reps only half the story in this Hollywood-style war picture. Alternately detailed and derivative, thesp-filmmaker Paul Gross’ third feature has a relatively offbeat point of view that only partially masks its formulaic characters and narrative twists. Production values are slick enough for worldwide distribution, but the film is destined to play best on home turf following its Toronto fest gala premiere.
Opening with a sequence that could’ve been plucked directly from Clint Eastwood’s megahit “American Sniper,” adept military shooter Ryan Sanders (Rossif Sutherland) takes out a Taliban rebel planting an IED in the middle of a frequently traveled desert road. The modest victory leads to Sanders and his three man team on the run from an opposition horde. When they’re forced to take shelter in the home of a village elder (Niamatullah Arghandabi), Sanders’ men assume the elder will give them up, but he winds up saving their lives only to disappear immediately after.
Back at Kandahar Airfield — the massive base that serves as military headquarters and where roughly two-thirds of those deployed remain permanently encamped during their tours — intelligence officer Pete Mitchell (Gross) locks in on Sanders’ description of the elder’s two different colored eyes. He believes, correctly, that Sanders stumbled into a meeting with The Ghost, a legendary Afghan freedom fighter who “beat the Red Army” in his youth. He’s been in seclusion ever since, opting to steer clear of the Taliban.
Mitchell needs the Ghost’s help, and enlists Sanders to help track him down. The budding friendship between the two men offers a deliberate study in contrasts: The more seasoned Mitchell is gruff but analytical, focused on end results over immediate gratification, while brash hotshot Sanders takes a more emotional approach to warfare and holds firm to his belief that he can “make a difference” with a single shot.
Their opposing points of view form the backbone of the film, as explored through a mix of pulse-pounding action scenes and less explosive expositional speeches. The latter are almost exclusively delivered by Gross, a one-time TV heartthrob who has aged nicely into something like Canada’s answer to Kevin Costner, in a gravelly tone that conveys instant military movie authority. Overcoming his own self-indulgent scripting, Gross’ world-weary and thoroughly lived-in performance emerges as the film’s primary selling point for those not automatically intrigued at the prospect of watching Canadians at war overseas.
Even with an actor in the director’s chair, the rest of the cast proves uneven at best. Sutherland (son of Donald and half-brother of Kiefer) falls short next to his co-star, often coming off like a whiny kid playacting at a game where the stakes are life or death. He’s also saddled with an awkwardly executed romantic subplot involving fellow officer Jennifer Bowman (Christine Horne), who seems to exist primarily to lay groundwork for a mawkishly sentimental finale.
In his film debut, Arghandabi — who serves as an advisor to Afghanistan’s chief executive officer Abdullah Abdullah in real life — makes a far stronger impression with minimal screen time and dialogue. And Nabil Elouahabi steals scenes as Mitchell’s chief informant, known as the Cleaner, who helps the veteran officer out of multiple sticky situations. The rest of the ensemble, from Sanders’ crew to a local gangster known as BDK (Fazal Hakimi), are strictly one-note.
It doesn’t help that the script, which contains many smaller moments benefiting from Gross’ in-depth research interviewing soldiers in the field, remains by-the-numbers when it comes to plotting. This is the kind of movie where a major development in a character’s personal life instantly telegraphs his ultimate fate in the trenches.
Tech-wise, the film rarely falters. Karim Hussain’s roving HD camerawork puts viewers directly in the mix with the soldiers, whether that’s harrowing moments on the battlefield or talkier sequences back on the base. Production designer Arvinder Grewal re-creates military life in locations far removed from the action (the bulk of the pic was shot at Canadian Forces Base Shilo, outside of Winnipeg, with Middle Eastern exteriors lensed in Jordan), composers Asher Lenz and Stephen Skratt contribute a propulsive, and frequently nerve-rattling, score, and the sound work of Russ Dyck and Jane Tattersall is up to the high standards set by recent Hollywood pics.
For the record, the title refers to a project Mitchell is desperately trying to get off the ground. As far as unforgettable war movie infrastructure goes, it’s hardly “The Bridge on the River Kwai.”