You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Film Review: ‘American Renegades’

Navy SEALs seek hidden Nazi gold during the Balkan Wars in an expensively silly action-adventure.

Steven Quale
Sullivan Stapleton, Charlie Bewley, Sylvia Hoeks, Joshua Henry, Diarmaid Murtagh, Dimitri Leonidas, Clemens Schick, Ewen Bremner, J.K. Simmons, Peter Davor, Mahamadou Coulibaly. (English, Croatian, German, Serbian dialogue)
Release Date:
Dec 21, 2018

Rated PG-13  1 hour 45 minutes

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.

Popular on Variety

Film Review: 'American Renegades'

Reviewed online, San Francisco, Dec. 20, 2018. MPAA rating: PG-13. Running time: 105 MIN.

Production: (France-Germany-Belgium-U.S.) A EuropaCorp release and presentation of a EuropaCorp, Studio Babelsberg production. Producers: Luc Besson, Raphael Benoliel. Co-producers: Christoph Fisser, Henning Molfenter, Charlie Woebcken.

Crew: Director: Steven Quale. Screenplay: Richard Wenk, Luc Besson. Camera (color, widescreen, HD): Brian Pearson. Editor: Florent Vassault. Music: Eric Serra.

With: Sullivan Stapleton, Charlie Bewley, Sylvia Hoeks, Joshua Henry, Diarmaid Murtagh, Dimitri Leonidas, Clemens Schick, Ewen Bremner, J.K. Simmons, Peter Davor, Mahamadou Coulibaly. (English, Croatian, German, Serbian dialogue)

More Film

  • Kung Fu Panda 3

    Universal's Beijing Resort to Partner With Alibaba on Digitization

    Amid fierce controversy about the leverage China has over U.S. entertainment firms with significant mainland operations, Universal Beijing Resort and Alibaba announced a strategic partnership Thursday to digitize the forthcoming theme park in China’s capital. Facial recognition and the use of big data will be the norm at the new resort, which will use an [...]

  • They Shall Not Grow Old restoration

    Peter Jackson Documentary 'They Shall Not Grow Old' Nabs Limited China Release

    The Peter Jackson produced and directed World War I documentary “They Shall Not Grow Old” will hit Chinese theaters on November 11. Though it will roll out nationwide, it will do so via the China’s National Arthouse Alliance, which has limited screens. The 2018 documentary puts together interviews with WWI veterans and more than 100-year-old [...]

  • Zombieland Double Tap

    'Zombieland: Double Tap' Hopes to Recapture Raunchy Zombie Magic, 10 Years Later

    Audiences may have a few questions about the sequel to 2009’s hit “Zombieland,” which opens Friday. Why did it take 10 years to make a second one, after the first grossed $102.4 million worldwide on a $23 million budget, making it the third-biggest zombie movie of all time (second-biggest if you don’t count “Hotel Transylvania,” [...]

  • AMC TheatresShop signs, Los Angeles, America

    AMC Theatres Accused of Firing VP Who Complained of Gender Pay Gap

    A former vice president at AMC Theatres filed a federal lawsuit on Wednesday, accusing the company of firing her after she complained that she was paid far less than her male peers. Tonya Mangels, who was vice president of product marketing, said that in March 2018 her supervisor inadvertently sent her a spreadsheet that included [...]

  • Sir Elton John poses for photographers

    Elton John Calls 'Lion King' Remake a 'Huge Disappointment'

    Elton John isn’t feeling the love for Disney’s latest live-action remake. In an interview with GQ U.K., the legendary musician criticized Disney’s remake of “The Lion King,” citing the film’s music as a “huge disappointment.” “The new version of The Lion King was a huge disappointment to me, because I believe they messed the music [...]

  • Fiddlin'

    Film Review: 'Fiddlin''

    Not many forms of music have “old-” actually built into their name as a prefix. So it’s a given that the practitioners of the 200-year-old genre known as “old-time music” will wear their antiquity proudly in “Fiddlin’,” a documentary set in and around the 80th annual Old Fiddler’s Convention in Galax, Va. What may not [...]

  • Jonah Hill attends the press conference

    Jonah Hill Passes on Role in 'The Batman'

    After being offered a role in “The Batman,” Jonah Hill has moved on from the project. Why exactly Hill is passing is currently unknown, and insiders tell Variety that when the news was initially reported, it was very early in the negotiations and that a deal was far from closing. The news comes after Zoe [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content