06 July 2013

Soldiers of Fortune (2012)

Soldiers of Fortune Has Too Many Mixed Fortunes
By Kristin Battestella

I was eager to see this seemingly fun and action packed 2012 ensemble yarn, but Soldiers of Fortune is a disappointing mixed bag of what could have been.

Ex-army Captain Craig McCenzie (Christian Slater) reluctantly joins a special operations mercenary training organization funded by millionaires interested in playing soldier at the highest stakes. Metals magnate Dimidov (Sean Bean), video game developer Sin (Dominic Monaghan), banker Charles Vanderbeer (Charlie Bewley), Texas tycoon Sam Haussmann (James Cromwell), and weapons dealer Grimaud (Ving Rhames) don’t take the training seriously at first, and each has their own motives for joining in the rebellion against ex-CIA agent Carter Mason (Colm Meaney). When their play mission turns into a deadly coup d'état, the team must shape up to make it out alive.

New director Maxim Korostyshevsky and writers Alexandre Coscas, Joe Kelbley (Booking Knights) and Robert Crombie (Ink) open with international intrigue, Taliban infiltration, and bikers, but the onscreen titles telling the audience the when and where do little to explain what’s happening. Between telling Craig’s back story, showing the repeated recruitment attempts, and all the island rebellion whys, Soldiers of Fortune takes too many times to start it’s tale. The tired, down on his luck soldier premise also puts the film off on the wrong foundation, resulting in too much time being spent later on in clarifying who is who. There’s no such time to spare in a 95-minute action caper – Soldiers of Fortune should have focused on the adventure for hire sardonics as its cool with no angry military whip them into shape off kilter. This is supposed to be an action film, not a war allegory, and I don’t really care about Craig’s history in comparison to the irony of millionaires playing soldier who end up really saving the day and writing it off as charity. This could have been a funny, unrealistic bombastic romp or dead serious and heavy in its political statements. Heck, Soldiers of Fortune could have even stayed middle of the road subtle irony wink even, but the picture just feels so aimless and topsy turvy.  Maybe it’s not that original either, but seeing these richy, badass, screw ups already ala Major League had to be more entertaining than Soldiers of Fortune actually turned out to be. I keep thinking of editors who say forget the prologue, open in media res, and cut your first thirty pages. The early training scenes come too easily for the quirky team, and turncoat speculations don’t seem to matter. Despite their charm and likability, the learning the ropes muddled vision and save the island rebellion mission feel like one big macguffin. This askew start and all over the place plotting certainly makes Soldiers of Fortune confusing, and unnecessary flak prevents the ensemble’s potential from blossoming.

Christian Slater is a very unusual choice for the lead here, yes. Though he is physically capable, swift, and believable with the guns and gear, some of the action is a little too preposterous, and it’s tough for one to get over the “It’s Christian Slater! Pump Up the Volume! Kuffs!” feeling. His dialogue and delivery are also uneven. Either this is a poorly written character with undeveloped emotion or Slater is too dry for the part. Craig’s reluctant drill sergeant is neither ruthless nor funny when he’s threatening to kill the next person who answers his cell phone during the obstacle course. He starts out so angry over being unjustly dishonorably discharged but ends up happily joking with the millionaires. Again, hinging Soldiers of Fortune on this flat character was wrong. Can you still have Slater in a military or action movie? Sure, but not as the faulty lead.  Likewise, Freddy Rodriguez (Ugly Betty) is all but useless as Craig’s best bud. You never feel his sidekick is going to amount to anything, and their lack of chemistry adds to the lack of believability here. I mean, Christian Slater has to whip these guys – these guys – into shape. Are you %^&#(*^ kidding me? I don’t love him or hate him and feel uber harsh, but Slater is outclassed in what is a direct to video action yarn.

Damn straight Sean Bean already knows how to fire a rifle! One expects the Game of Thrones alum to be the angry army guy – he did that, in fact, in Age of Heroes the year prior – but Bean looks great as a suave jet setter with big toys and lots of babes. Dimidov has badass history, international playboy clout, zing, and an insistence for his own room, “Helen and I will take the dining room…” Yes, I am Bean biased.  I totally admit he was my reason for seeing Soldiers of Fortune, and I’ve seriously enjoyed some of his recent, smaller independent material. However, it’s more bemusing to watch him play paintball target practice with a cigar firmly between his teeth than watch Slater try and teach anybody to play soldier. There are some sloppy hints that Dimidov is suspicious and greedy, but it’s another wasted opportunity to not let Sean Bean have a full on good time with his badass image. And let’s not forget about Ving Rhames! I’m not sure what sort of accent he was attempting, but Rhames (Pulp Fiction) is always delightfully slick – and his Grimaud seems to know more about weaponry and tactics than Captain Craig. Zigzag so you can’t be targeted so easily…you don’t say! This is actually the second time in recent memory I’ve seen this simplicity not being utilized on film, and it really makes screenwriters look like they don’t do any basic research. Grimaud’s an armory dealer with morals on both sides, but his gray is never fully developed, and again, only Rhames’ charisma saves the character. I’d believe him as an angry military drill sergeant! Reverse Rhames and Slater and Soldiers of Fortune increases tenfold.

Need more character class? Soldiers of Fortune should have given James Cromwell (L.A. Confidential) more to do as the fun and crusty cowboy Haussmann. He has his bucket list with lots to chew on, but he doesn’t seem to be onscreen enough, nor is Colm Meaney (Deep Space Nine). If he’s the military nemesis to our millionaires, you should see him in more equal screen time. His Mason is also a little too ruthless or over the top, as if it can’t be decided whether he’s a heavy, deadly villain or a lighthearted parody. Dominic Monaghan is his usual fun self, too – and the subtle broken leg humor works. The jabs on who is richer or who has a bigger gun – literally – go a long way, and Soldiers of Fortune should have used this flair instead of resorting to a convenient mishmash. The women are nondescript, and Charles Bewley (The Twilight Saga) is far too cliché as Vanderbeer – the seemingly wimpy banker using this excursion just to prove his street cred. If his quirks aren’t going to be highlighted, then why bother? Despite some attempted but obvious plot twists, I honestly didn’t notice when Vanderbeer wasn’t onscreen. How is the audience supposed to care when the characters themselves gain or lose their conscience or sympathies as needed? Some members of the team seem to die or feel written out as if the writers realized those players were pointless, and Soldiers of Fortune completely misses the boat in utilizing the built in fun of having Bean and Monaghan together again. What, no Lord of the Rings jokes?

Thankfully, sarcastic flashbacks, a touch of panoramic zooms, sweeping angles, and fun editing add smarts and help Soldiers of Fortune wink at the absurd. Onscreen graphics, text, satellite imagery, scope camerawork, and slow motion also add panache. Most of this is quality, but some pieces feel unnecessary or noticeably present just for the expected looking cool. Hip quips also feel misplaced amid what’s supposed to be tragic resistance scenes, and their plight feels somewhat small scale compared to the rest of the colorful action and battle scenes. The sets, locales, and outdoor adventuring do fit the bill, and the spectacle isn’t super chaotic and in your face – although there is a lot of gunfire, blood capsule pops, and old fashioned fake kills. Soldiers of Fortune is rated R, but sometimes it doesn’t feel like it should be. It’s also disappointing that this is a bare bones, featureless DVD. The menu interface advertising the titular and tax deductable adventure is fun, but it seems like the production team sold Soldiers of Fortune short. It has the people, the budget, and the action. What happened?

Miscasting and missed opportunities prevent Soldiers of Fortune from becoming the witty, stylized yarn it could be. The step-by-step clichés and confusing encounters will make your head hurt at the waste. Fans of the cast or contrived action films can have a few hours of good fun with the absurdity here, yes, but Soldiers of Fortune could have been much, much more. 

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