Those in need of a shot of testosterone for Christmas just might make do with “American Renegades,” though it’s unlikely this knucklehead adventure will do much better Stateside than in the various territories it’s played over the last 18 months. Release-delayed from the start, the international co-production offers a particularly dumb kind of gung-ho Ugly Americanism that would have seemed odd for a primarily European enterprise when filming started in early 2015 — and seems even more so given political shifts since.
Having so far purportedly earned back just a tiny fraction of a budget said to be in the high eight figures, this tale of Navy SEALs seeking hidden Nazi gold during the Balkan Wars a quarter-century ago was a terrible idea on many levels. Still, it’s smoothed over to an extent by the sheer glossy expense of big if uninspired action-movie packaging. EuropaCorp is launching on 10 U.S. screens on Dec. 21, though here as elsewhere, primary exposure will be as fodder for macho genre junkies in home formats.
The screenplay is credited to Richard Wenk and Luc Besson, an odd combo. The New Jersey-born Wenk has in recent years become a specialist in perfunctory action reboots (“The Equalizer,” “The Mechanic,” “The Magnificent Seven”), while the Paris-based Besson is a more idiosyncratic purveyor of popcorn thrills who’s seldom been affiliated with anything quite this straightforwardly chest-thumping — though “American Renegades” is in Besson’s wheelhouse insofar as it contains a significant aquatic component. In any case, the movie feels like a classic mid-Atlantic misconception, aimed at a retro audience that has evolved since the “Top Gun” era in which it seems largely stuck.
An elaborate prologue sees Nazis seizing the treasures of occupied Europe — priceless artworks, gold bricks — for transport in 1944, when Axis luck was running out. In Yugoslavia, they slaughter the inhabitants of a village, apparently planning to hide the loot there. But it’s buried more completely than planned when resistance fighters dynamite a nearby dam, sinking town, invaders, and stolen fortune at the bottom of a new lake.
Decades later, a quintet of lovable SEAL rogues led by Barnes (Sullivan Stapleton) are breakin’ all the rules among NATO forces in collapsing Yugoslavia, to the exasperation of their commander (J.K. Simmons). Tasked with abducting brutal Serbian Gen. Milic (Peter Davor), they succeed, even if it means stealing a tank, creating a huge altercation, and reducing a fair stretch of Sarajevo to rubble. These hijinks get them suspended for a few days, which Baker (Charlie Bewley) spends in the bed of Lara (Sylvia Hoeks), a Bosnian barmaid everyone has the hots for.
She has another idea of how they might spend their off-time: salvaging the gelt legend has it is sunk at the bottom of that lake behind enemy lines, her share of the haul going to “help my people.” “Borrowing” a great deal of military equipment, the lads (also including Joshua Henry, Diarmaid Murtagh, and Dimitri Leonidas) apply themselves to the task in a long underwater climax aggravated by interference from Milic’s even more dastardly second-in-command (Clemens Schick).
With their bleak legacy of ethnic cleansings and other wholesale destruction, the Yugoslav Wars are not yet a conflict that can easily shoulder wacky fictive complications. Yet that’s what “American Renegades” primarily is, a military caper comedy, alternately bombastic and high-fiving. Frequent James Cameron collaborator Steven Quale, directing his third feature (after “Final Destination 5” and tornado thriller “Into the Storm”), can only lend generic bonhomie to the mix of puffery and preposterousness, while his cast demonstrates more physical fitness than personality. The exception is Simmons, who evidently decided this assignment was a joke, and enjoys himself sputtering drill-sergeant rage (albeit of an incongruously clean PG-13 kind) in his few scenes. If only the rest of the movie was equally droll.
This is a militaristic fantasy about as credible as a “G.I. Joe” movie, minus the excuse of a comic-book source. The stray moments of inspirational or sentimental content are so knee-jerk you wonder if the crew howled with laughter between takes. Any actual Navy SEALs who catch “American Renegades” would likely find it an insult, particularly after such prestigiously poker-faced recent films featuring their ranks as “Captain Phillips,” “Lone Survivor,” “Zero Dark Thirty” and “American Sniper.”
Yet its thus-far “perfect” Rotten Tomatoes score of zero isn’t quite fair. While not particularly inspired, memorable or suspenseful, the action here is impressively scaled, from a tank plunging off a bridge to helicopter stunts and all that diving activity. It may have been a bad investment, but technically first-rate “American Renegades” does put its considerable budgetary resources right up there onscreen. We can see just how the money was spent, even as we ponder why: Really, who thought it was a good idea to drop so many Euros on a starless, non-franchise adventure with an abrasive “America First” tenor (yet almost no American actors) and a particularly silly plot? Let no one claim the movie industry these days is bereft of crazy dreamers. Sometimes a movie like this one comes along whose decision-making is so reckless it takes the breath away, along with its investors’ hopes.