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.
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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.