×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Film Review: ‘Semper Fi’

Marine vets stretch their code of loyalty to the breaking point for a buddy's civilian brother in this polished but problematic tale.

Director:
Henry-Alex Rubin
With:
Jai Courtney, Nat Wolff, Finn Wittrock, Beau Knapp, Arturo Castro, Leighton Meester, Lance Nichols, Dane Rhodes, Rob Mello, Rachel Hendrix, Adrienne Loosemore.
Release Date:
Oct 4, 2019

Rated R  Running time: 100 MIN.

Official Site: https://www.lionsgate.com/movies/semper-fi

Though such niceties tend to get lost in the blunt language of “hawks” and “doves,” there’s actually a more useful distinction to be drawn when it comes to support for war, or lack thereof. It’s between people who believe a conflict fought should be a just one, and those who trust any conflict their side is engaged in must be just, because how can “the good guys” be wrong? This demarcation also tends to apply to combat-related movies: They assume viewers are securely on the side of the victors (like most films about any aspect of the World Wars), or they question not individual valor but the righteousness of the cause itself, as most features about the Vietnam War have done.

“Semper Fi” muddies the line between those two perspectives because, while it’s not primarily a film about war or combat, it applies a military code of behavior to a very different civilian situation. Directed by Henry-Alex Rubin (“Murderball”), the film isn’t a well-developed enough drama to seriously address why its ex-Marine protagonists take on a mission of dubious wisdom. Nor is it enough of a straight-ahead, gung-ho action film that we can simply ignore the moral doubts that mission raises. Though professionally smooth in execution, “Semper Fi” has the frustrating sum impact of a movie at fundamental conflict with itself. It opens on nearly 20 U.S. screens this Friday, simultaneous with on-demand and digital launch.

In mid-Oughties Bridgewater, N.Y., near the Canadian border, the Milkowski brothers are athletic working-class joes. Cal (Jai Courtney) is a former hellraiser turned teetotaling cop who’s also a weekend Marine reservist, waiting to get shipped out to Iraq alongside best buds Jaeger (Finn Wittrock), Snowball (Arturo Castro) and Milk (Beau Knapp). They tolerate the hanging-on of Cal’s younger sibling Oyster (Nat Wolff), whom he still lives with, and whose legal guardian he’s been since things went south with their parents some years ago. But Oyster is a irritating screwup with a short fuse who’s been in trouble with the law before.

Popular on Variety

One night after the others have left a local bar, well-lubricated Oyster gets into a fight over a girl, with the result that a more-privileged townie son ends up dead. It’s a complete accident, but Oyster knows his arrest record will suggest otherwise, and makes things worse by attempting to skip town. It falls to Cal to haul him in.

Eight months later, Cal and company are duly serving in Iraq, a deployment from which one of them is destined to come back severely injured. Meanwhile, Oyster has the book thrown at him in court, with some possibly falsified testimony helping secure a very long sentence. Upon returning, Cal is initially rebuffed in all attempts to communicate with his brother, who blames him for not letting him flee. But upon realizing the hopelessness of Oyster’s predicament (as explained by Leighton Meester’s ex-squeeze turned lawyer), he decides to bust little bro out of prison with his buddies’ help.

That’s a big leap, one that the buddies initially (albeit all too briefly) balk at. Any movie called “Semper Fi” is naturally going to be about very masculine, actions-speak-louder-than-words loyalty. But while we can understand how Cal might feel that way about his brother, and his fellow Marines about him, the blanket principle doesn’t very well cover all parties here at the same time.

However unfair his punishment, Oyster did blunder into manslaughter. However poorly he’s treated in prison (the guards are villainously portrayed), he continues to create his own problems. We learn too little, too late about some formative traumas to make him a more sympathetic figure, particularly as he continues to resent the brother who’s trying to help him. As for Cal, he seems to be throwing away his own future trying to illegally spring a relative who might well simply end up behind bars all over again — if in Canada. Why should his buddies potentially sacrifice their relatively upstanding lives, as well?

“Semper Fi” plays these eventual actions as triumphant heroism. But that rings hollow, because we don’t see how commitment to loyalty actually redeems terrible decisions that might send several good men to prison in order to free one ne’er-do-well. Rubin’s co-writer Sean Mullin is a former U.S. Army Captain. If their script had more deeply explored military team-building and emotional ties — rather than providing the usual beer-commercial, back-slappy clichés to convey those ideas — we might buy its key conceit.

It does allow a little ethical nuance by letting Meester’s “anti-war” Clara insist she’s just against this war, the one in Iraq. But even that small degree of moral gray-shading isn’t applied to the more central issue of whether Cal’s plan is really best for anyone involved. There’s not a lot of suspense generated by the climactic heist-cum-rescue. But otherwise “Semper Fi” hits all the required notes in terms of production polish, credible performances, and a general atmosphere of “Officer and a Gentleman”-like overlap (as well as sometime tension) between military and civilian life. It has the tenor of a classic, ultimately feel-good tale in which the rowdy yet true-blue underdogs beat the system. But that approach is too simple for a story in which the system doesn’t seem all that wrong, or the underdogs very right.

Film Review: 'Semper Fi'

Reviewed online, San Francisco, Sept. 30, 2019. MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 100 MIN.

Production: A Lionsgate release of a Lionsgate, Sparkhouse Media presentation, in association with FLB Productions of a Sparkhouse Media, Rumble Films, Metalnet Productions Ltd. production, in association with Ambi Group. Producers: Karina Miller, David Lancaster. Executive producers: Talal Al Abbar, Kinez Riza, Irawan Danny Mussry, Joseph Lanius, Simon Williams, Amit Pandya, Alastair Burlingham, Gary Raskin, Matt Morrow, Jon Shiffman, Marco Henry, Patrick Milling-Smith, Brian Carmody, Andrea Iervolino, Monika Bacardi. Co-producers: Sean Mullins, Sarah Michler, Stephanie Wilcox.

Crew: Director: Henry-Alex Rubin. Screenplay: Rubin, Sean Mullin. Camera (color, widescreen, HD): David Devlin. Editors: Kevin Tent, Kyle Valenta. Music: Hanan Townshend.

With: Jai Courtney, Nat Wolff, Finn Wittrock, Beau Knapp, Arturo Castro, Leighton Meester, Lance Nichols, Dane Rhodes, Rob Mello, Rachel Hendrix, Adrienne Loosemore.

More Film

  • 'Surge' Review: Ben Whishaw Wigs Out

    'Surge': Film Review

    There’s mannered, there’s manic, and then there’s the malfunctioning pinball-machine delirium that Ben Whishaw brings to “Surge”: a blinking, buzzing, flashing clatter of hyper-accelerated impulses, chicken-fried synapses and staggered hypnic jerks that never culminate in sleep. You wouldn’t expect stillness from a film called “Surge,” and in that respect only does Whishaw zig where you [...]

  • SF Studios Joins Forces With REinvent

    Scandi Powerhouse SF Studios Teams With Rikke Ennis's REinvent For Int'l Sales (EXCLUSIVE)

    SF Studios, the Scandinavian production and distribution powerhouse, has struck an exclusive partnership with REinvent Studios, the banner launched by TrustNordisk’s former CEO Rikke Ennis. As part of the deal, REinvent will handle international sales for all SF Studios content, including films, TV series and catalogue titles. This new deal expands the existing relationship between [...]

  • VFX Studio Framestore Launches Suite of

    VFX, Animation Studio Framestore Launches Pre-Production Services Unit (EXCLUSIVE)

    Visual effects and animation studio Framestore, which won Oscars for “The Golden Compass,” “Gravity” and “Blade Runner 2049,” and whose recent work includes “Avengers: Endgame” and “Spider-Man: Far From Home” in movies, and “His Dark Materials” and “Watchmen” in TV, has launched FPS, which offers a suite of pre-production services. The move sees the company’s [...]

  • Tesla

    'Tesla': Film Review

    Inventor Nikolai Tesla is more popular today than when he died penniless in a New York hotel in 1943. Back then, he was the futurist who swore he could summon unlimited, clean, wireless electromagnetic energy from the earth — a neat idea, but surely coal and oil were fine. In the 21st century, as temperatures [...]

  • Amulet

    'Amulet': Film Review

    Actress Romola Garai makes a distinctive feature directorial debut with “Amulet,” even if this upscale horror drama is ultimately more impressive in the realm of style than substance. It’s some style, though: She hasn’t just created a stylish potboiler, but a densely textured piece that makes for a truly arresting viewing experience to a point. [...]

  • Alison Brie appears in Horse Girl

    'Horse Girl': Film Review

    A funny thing happens about a third of the way into “Horse Girl,” Jeff Baena’s fourth Sundance feature after “Life After Beth,” “Joshy” and “The Little Hours.” Or rather, a funny thing stops happening: the familiar, steady-heartbeat rhythms of the low-budget social awkwardness comedy become erratic, tachycardiac, as the initially endearing foibles of the film’s [...]

  • Save Yourselves!

    'Save Yourselves!': Film Review

    Brooklyn couple Su (Sunita Mani) and Jack (John Reynolds) have several plans to salvage their lives. Go vegetarian, plant a garden, make sourdough bread, and above all, quit the internet addiction that’s become their relationship’s third wheel, distracting them from make-outs and barging into their fights until Su yells, “Alexa stop!” To detox, the couple [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content