“Mine,” starring Armie Hammer as a U.S. Marine sergeant trapped in the desert on top of a land mine (if he lifts his left foot, it will blow), is a drama that pretends to be a serious consideration of war, and even a philosophical rumination on freedom and existence. Yet it really belongs to that quirky, death-trap genre that’s been gaining in popularity lately — call it the Thriller About Someone Who Gets Stuck in One Place. Other examples of the form include the Blake Lively shark-peril suspense drama “The Shallows” (or its far superior progenitor, “Open Water”), the Ryan Reynolds-in-a-coffin thriller “Buried,” the Robert-Redford-cast-away-on-a-sailboat art film “All Is Lost,” and the drama that’s probably the granddaddy of them all: the haunting and ingenious 1955 “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” episode “Breakdown” (one of the 20 episodes of that series Hitchcock directed himself), in which a heartless businessman, paralyzed after an auto accident, has to try to get someone’s attention without moving a muscle. (Leave it to Hitchcock, the greatest poet of cinematic action movement of the 20th century, to find the poetry of immobility.)
Since the premise of the genre is that the audience, in effect, gets trapped right along with the victim/protagonist, the challenge confronting a movie like “Mine” is two-fold: Can it hold our attention without turning claustrophobic and monotonous? And can it bring off that feat and stay plausible?
“Mine” fails on both counts. It was written and directed by a pair of Italian filmmakers who bill themselves as “Fabio & Fabio” (that stands for Fabio Guaglione and Fabio Resinaro), and in this, their not-so-fabio first feature, the two obviously conceived the entire project as a minimalist yet showy audition film: “Just look at how much we can thrill and dazzle you when our hero doesn’t even move!” Actually, not so much. The Fabios appear to have some talent, but not a lot of common sense. They’ve made a land-mine suspense thriller with a few heart-in-the-throat, hair-trigger moments, but “Mine” is so eager to be a “metaphor” (it’s a little Beckett, a little Tarantino, a little Lifetime channel) that it’s the film’s pretension that winds up exploding in your face.
The opening sequence is taut and exciting, though with a portent of the falseness to come. Mike (Hammer), a Marine sniper who has been in combat for a little over three months (the film is set in an unspecified country that suggests Iraq or somewhere in North Africa), is scouting a target along with his best buddy and good-ol’-boy spotter, Tommy (Tom Cullen). The man he’s assigned to take down is some sort of elegant silver-bearded terrorist superstar the U.S. has been tracking for ages.
Mike’s got him in his sights, but the target has come out of hiding for a secret wedding in the middle of the desert (the bride appears to be his daughter). Even as the redneck Tommy says “Send it!” (i.e., fire the death shot), Mike hesitates; to him, it seems blasphemous to disrupt the ceremony. Frankly, I couldn’t understand why he didn’t send the bullet either. (Would he have declined to take out Osama bin Laden in similar circumstances?) That Fabio & Fabio are working this hard to establish that their badass American sniper is also a good liberal is a cheap sop to the audience, and a sign that these filmmakers are more advanced in kinesthetics than in the art of reality.
The botched assassination results in the two escaping into the desert, and by the time they reach a metal sign, lying in the sand, that has Arabic writing and a skull and crossbones on it, it’s an indication that they’ve entered a field laced with land mines. The two are fast running out of water; should they risk walking across the field to get to the village that lies over the next dune? The reckless Tommy figures he’ll try, and within moments he has stepped on a mine and gotten his legs blown off. (If you don’t favor movies in which you’re asked to stare at bloody stumps, skip this one.) Then Mike takes his own fateful step. He feels the mine lock under his foot, and from that moment on he’s trapped, unable to save his friend or himself. But as long as he doesn’t move, he’ll live.
The movie’s title, which is terrible, is a pun: It means land mine, but it also means “mine” as in…Mike using this experience to find his inner self (or something). Standing on that mine, he ties an ax to his bootlace to drag Tommy’s radio over, and once he gets on the phone, the military operator on the other end is so heartless and indifferent (“What about your mission, sergeant?”) that it’s like something out of a “Rambo” sequel: the voice of the corporate war machine. It will be 52 hours before a convoy can come by Mike’s way and rescue him, and the first question that pops into your mind is: How will he sleep on one foot?
Actually, he won’t sleep at all. He’s too busy sweating, pondering, enduring a sand storm, eating a live scorpion, and flashing back to the life he left behind (which includes a deeply cliché backstory about his abusive father). He also interacts with a saintly Berber (Clint Dyer) from the nearby village who comes upon Mike and decides to use the land-mine situation to teach him life lessons. The Berber is able to walk over the mine field in a criss-cross pattern that makes it look like he knows just where the mines are buried. But then he reveals that he doesn’t; it’s all in his attitude! Which is another way of saying that the character, who is referred to even in the credits simply as “the Berber,” is one more Magical Negro. He’s like a version of Friday in a castaway movie where Robinson Crusoe can’t move.
You can see why Armie Hammer wanted to star in this movie; on paper, it looks like a showpiece role. But Hammer, who can be such a fine and fascinating actor when he’s got well-written dialogue to chew on (“The Social Network,” “The Birth of a Nation,” the upcoming breakout Sundance drama “Call Me Be Your Name”), has a way of vanishing inside his placid good looks in mediocre movies. That’s what happens in “Mine.” He conveys the anguish of Mike’s desperation convincingly, but the character is so strong and decent that he rarely seems more than a vessel. What’s missing from the movie — and from Hammer’s performance — is that crucial note of fear, so that’s missing from the audience’s reaction as well. And without it, it’s doubtful that many people will want to sit through a movie that makes us feel like we’re standing in one place, just waiting for something to blow up.