Anchor Bay // 2011 // 113 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Gordon Sullivan // November 3rd, 2011
Their only weapon is the truth.
Although the complexities are too numerous to go into here, the 2008 Russo-Georgian War (also known as the South Ossetia war) stemmed from an earlier encounter between ethnic Georgians and Ossetians in the early 1990s. Because of the location, that left South Ossetia under a government backed by the Russians. In August 2008, the Georgians decided to take armed action to reclaim the Ossetian region for the ostensible reason that Russia had been moving non-peacekeeping troops into the area and those troops harassed Georgian soldiers. The result was five days of fighting that ended in a ceasefire. You might be forgiven for not remembering the conflict because it coincided with all the hoopla surrounding the Beijing Olympics. In fact, 5 Days of War counts on you not remembering much about the conflict to drive home its point about the horrors of war. Directed by action-meister Renny Harlin and starring a group of solid Hollywood actors, the film offers so-so melodrama with conflict as a backdrop.
Thomas Anders (Rupert Friend) is an American journalist with evidence of Russian atrocities during the Russo-Georgian War. He hopes -- with the help of a fellow journalist (Richard Coyle Coupling) and a Georgian teacher (Emmanuelle Chriqui, 13) -- to sneak this footage past a sadistic Russian general and expose the horrors of this short war.
One of the more memorable lines in The Princess Bride involves the schemer Vizzini's claim that one of the classic blunders is to get involved in a land war in Asia. Certainly at the time of the film, Vietnam was most likely on the screenwriter's mind, but it applies equally to parts of Russia (which straddles the Europe/Asia divide). One of the reasons it's a bad idea to get involved in a land war in Asia is the land itself; whether dense jungle or unforgiving steppes, much of the region is difficult to fight in. More significantly, though, the peoples of the region have had millennia to develop relationships (both positive and negative). So much of the strife after the fall of Soviet Russia has seemed to center around conflicts between ethnic and religious groups that have decades or even centuries of bad blood. Put in context, it's really difficult to see what caused the Russo-Georgian War. Sure some of it is ethnic, but it also has to do with the fall of the USSR and tensions between governments.
Handing a complex set of causes and effects to Renny Harlin wasn't a very good idea. The man knows how to blow things up, but the subtle nuances of political intrigue are not his strength. Add to that the fact that Harlin only got to blow things up because the Georgian military gave him access to their planes, tanks, and soldiers, and we've got a recipe for the worst kind of biased filmmaking. I have no dog in the Georgia/Russia fight, but accepting aid from the Georgians in making the film took out any credibility that Harlin might have had in making a war film. It's also problematic that the film focuses so much on Russian wrongdoing (of which there almost certainly was some), while ignoring the other side of possible Georgian atrocities completely. In the extras, Harlin seems sincere in trying to bring the war (and the plight of combat journalists) to greater light. I appreciate his efforts, but if he wanted to tell the story of a combat photographer, there are a lot less politically suspect ways to do it than the way presented in 5 Days of War.
What we're left with -- since the film can't be a hard-hitting look at the war and its causes -- is typical melodramatic war motifs. The great white savior (an Englishman playing an American) has proof that the big bad Russkies have been up to their war-criminal tricks again, and only he and his merry band (which must include a beautiful woman and a slightly-less-attractive male friend) can save the day by smuggling out the incriminating footage. It plays like a film straight out of the Eighties, when calling something Russian was enough of an excuse to blow it up.
To this melodrama, the cast brings a set of solid performances. Friend is fine, minus is so-so accent, and I'll take any excuse to see more of Richard Coyle. Cameo hunters will appreciate smaller roles filled by Val Kilmer and Heather Graham, and turns by Andy Garcia and Dean Cain are equally fine. Even these strong performances only serve to further sink 5 Days of War into an America-centric plot about saving the poor Georgians from the evil Russian military.
I'll grant it: Renny Harlin knows how to blow stuff up. His budget was fairly small this time out -- a reported $12 million -- but with the help of the Georgian military that money goes a long way. Although I can't speak to the onscreen facts, the presence of all those real Georgian war machines gives the film's mayhem an authenticity that's hard to deny. For those who don't know or don't care about the actual war between Russia and Georgia in 2008, 5 Days of War provides enough visual mayhem and tried-and-tested (or clichéd, take your pick) plot points to hang the visual craziness on.
Also in the film's defense, it gets a pretty solid Blu-ray release. The 2.40:1 AVC encoded transfer looks solid, especially for a comparatively low-budget action film. Detail is as strong as it should be -- much of the film is handheld or otherwise compromised, meaning detail isn't a priority -- and the film's muted color palette looks well represented. Black levels are okay, and shadow detail is pretty good. The film's look doesn't lend itself to a reference-quality transfer, but I don't see anything to seriously complain about. The same goes for the TrueHD soundtrack, which keeps dialogue clean and clear in the center channel while also letting the subwoofer do some serious work. Directionality could be stronger, but overall this is a fine track. The extras start with a Harlin-helmed commentary track that throws out a good amount of technical info about the making of the film. We also get some deleted scenes that are okay, but far from essential. The film's trailer is also included.
If you've seen more than a handful of war films, then you've seen the basic ingredients that Renny Harlin mixed together to get the highly unoriginal 5 Days of War. Though the acting and action are solid, the overall package feels tired and politically suspect. For Harlin fans and the truly curious, this Blu-ray makes a fine way to see the film.
Guilty of being unoriginal, and mistaking sincerity for the truth.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Anchor Bay
* 2.40:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* TrueHD 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (Spanish)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 113 Minutes
Release Year: 2011
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Deleted Scenes