I Am Soldier
This popped up in my Netflix queue the other week, a British production with little accompanying detail or great online presence. Noel Clarke, displayed prominently in what little promotion exists, seems to be the main draw, having graduated from his rather whingy Doctor Who days and become one of the more recognisable actors of the British filmmaking establishment, even dabbling in direction when he isn’t popping up in mainstream things like Star Trek Into Darkness. But is this latest, which looks on the surface to be as generic as possible, something that was worth making? Or is it a little bit more than the “British military film” it looks like?
Suffering nightmares about a traumatic incident in his past, Army cook Mickey (Tom Hughes) attempts the selection course of Britain’s Special Air Service, overseen by stern taskmaster Sgt Carter (Noel Clarke). From bad first impressions, through extensive physical challenges and onto the dangerous situations the SAS faces in the field, Mickey strives to become a member of the world’s most elite special service.
Some in-depth discussion of the film, with spoilers, from here on out. For my slightly shorter, non-spoiler review, click here to go to The Write Club.
Films like this, you’ll probably see a half a dozen of them a year coming out of the British scene, male-centric quasi-action movies, based around the military, criminal gangs, prisons or football hooliganism, all trying to capture a little bit of Guy Ritchie only without the brilliant script work or decent cast. You know the type, that frequently bypass cinemas altogether. The best you can generally say about them is that they are an acceptable 90 minutes of entertainment you wouldn’t dream of watching a second time, and that’s essentially what I Am Soldier is.
A basic structure, some basic characters, a basic finale and some nice scenery are what stand out in I Am Soldier, a film that wavers on taking some risks with its plot occasionally, but eventually settles for a comfortable averageness by the time the credits are rolling. The journey of Micky from PTSD suffering cook (shocker: he’s not really a cook) to SAS hard man trips along nicely enough, but features little characterisation or memorable interactions with the other members of the cast. A first act of training seems more of a faux-documentary on how the SAS recruits than anything, just with Noel Clarke’s stern looking face added to the mix.
Stuff like an in-depth look at the SAS “Fan Dance” – a 20 hour trek around the Welsh mountains to test endurance – is interesting, but doesn’t really feel like anything too enthralling, probably because the characters involved – Mickey, his doomed friend and a nameless grunt – are so threadbare, especially at that early point in the film. You don’t know much about them, who they are, why they’re there, or why you should care about their success or failure. So, while these segments of the film provide a look at the extent of which the SAS asks its applicants to test themselves, it is still rather shallow.
The film improves in its second act, an examination of what seems essentially to be SERE training – Survive, Evade, Resist, Extract – in the British Special Forces, as Mickey undergoes a technically fake but brutally realistic simulation of being captured and interrogated by “enemy” forces. It’s actually how the film opens, in medias res, which is one of the better structural decisions the director made.
There’s something remarkably grim and affecting about the reality of torture depicted, which is less about physical abuse in SERE scenarios and more about mental strain, attacks on masculinity and edging the candidate towards the point of breakdown at the right pace. I Am Soldier takes its time with this portion of the film, which is good, because it’s easily the most captivating part of the experience – it’s something you don’t usually see too much of in films of this type, this exact kind of scenario. There was an episode of US TV show The Unit – an underappreciated gem in my opinion – that covered the same territory, and it was similarly interesting there.
Unfortunately, I Am Soldier does lose the run of itself a little bit. Mickey is presented as getting favours from his trainers in a clichéd parachute sequence and from there, we have little time left over for a rushed and pedestrian third act, a generic SAS mission featuring nameless, bog standard foreign bad guys, whom you won’t really care the least bit about, getting shot with bad muzzle flash effects. The best friend dies in bizarre circumstances – trying to take down a suicide bomber hand to hand – and then Mickey and his Sgt have to take care of all the remaining bad guys themselves, seemingly.
Trying to re-enact The Raid seemingly, director Ronnie Thompson tries his luck with some basic unarmed combat cinematography, but the end product just doesn’t really work out, so quick and to the point as it was, with a lack of complexity and all leading to a sudden and deeply unsatisfying conclusion.
I Am Soldier struggles with finding a meaning to the story it is trying to tell, which in the end seems to be a very vague “testing yourself” kind of theme that is remarkably shallow when you get round down to it. I feel like cutting out the third act stuff entirely would have been a better shout, leaving a film entirely about the training to become a member of the SAS, rather than plumping for something with such a slapdash conclusion.
Making just becoming an SAS member the entire point of the exercise would have given Thompson more time to play around with the selection process scenes without recourse to the expected, and he could have used that time to add more characterisation, more dialogue and maybe a bit more of a sense that I Am Soldier had something meaningful to say.
It doesn’t help that the cast is generally not doing great work. Emotional expression is at a minimum, conversations frequently seem stilted or lifeless, and what dialogue exists routinely falls into the category of monologue, usually delivered by Clarke. Neither Hughes nor Clarke can really offer that much, and neither can the limited supporting cast.
That goes especially strong for SRR member Alex Reid who’s barely elaborated upon romantic plot with Mickey is a very disappointing aspect of the production, the kind of thing that consists of some sultry looks and confusing attraction, included just so we can have a shot of her in her underwear (though we do get to see the main characters backside at one point, so at least I Am Soldier is trying to balance it out). Still, those looking for strong, interesting female characters will be left wanting.
I Am Soldier gets some kudos for parts of its visual direction, with the snow capped moors of rural Wales adding a bleakness and grey quality to the films purpose, which was altogether suitable, and the work done during the SERE section, a collection of quick cuts and long drawn out shots that helped place the audience in Mickey’s head suitably. Less good was the constant string of words on the screen, telling rather than showing, giving I Am Soldier a strange feel of being an educational/recruitment film for the SAS. The script, written by the director, is noteworthy only for its lack of notoriety.
I Am Soldier is a 90 minute distraction really, the kind of thing you watch when there is nothing else of value on your plate, or if you just have time to kill. It’s not quite sure what it wants to be: an educational quasi documentary, a gritty action film, an in-depth brothers-in-arms type thing or just some sort of odd recruitment short for the SAS. It needed a tighter focus and less reliance on the most base of structural choices, which insisted on an “action packed” finale when there was no need for one, or a love plot that just seemed pointless.
Those interested in militaria will find nothing they don’t know or haven’t seen before in this, but might find something worth watching in sections (though not the clipped, unsatisfying finale). The story and acting aren’t great and neither is the wordplay, but I Am Soldier mostly delivers on what it professes to offer. Entertaining? In parts. Engaging? Not really. I Am Soldier is just that kind of film, and so can only come with a partial recommendation.
(All images are copyright of Lionsgate).