For my money, the best action picture on Netflix right now is a grim combat thriller set in the bombed-out ruins of the Iraqi city, “Mosul.”
It’s an intimate “Blackhawk Down” meets “Saving Private Ryan” tale of a mission and “attrition,” grizzled professionals battling the murderous “on a medieval scale” soldiers of ISIS, or “Daesh” as they’re called in the Middle East.
The film feels like you’re trapped in a first-person-shooter video game where the stakes are real, the learning curve is steep and the peril — house-to-house fighting where every building is mostly ruined, and a potential threat. It feels like you’re in Mosul, when they filmed it in Morocco. And it’s so inside the combat zone and the culture — Arabic is the only language spoken — that it plays like an Iraqi war memoir, even though this “inspired by true” events tale was written and directed by the guy who scripted “The Kingdom” and “World War Z.”
“Mosul” is set in the last days of the city’s “latest” occupation, when Daesh is “fleeing.”
“Do THEY know that?” Major Jasem (Suhail Dabbach, in a breakout performance) growls.
He leads the Nineveh SWAT team, what’s left of it. They’ve survived the various occupations, they still have enough men and battered Humvees to carry the fight to Daesh. They show up just as young policeman Kawa (Adam Bessa) has fired his last round in the firefight that saw his unit — including the uncle who got him the job — all but wiped out, pinned down in a ground floor storefront.
Jasem sizes him up and brings him aboard. There’s no arguing. Just take your uncle’s hat, change shirts and you’re “one of us.”
He has no idea of “the mission” these guys are on in the “wrong side” of Mosul. But he can use a gun, and he’s kept himself alive.
“Lift your weapon and keep your eyes open” are Jasem’s only instructions.
Matthew Michael Carnahan’s story is a journey through the inferno of a city that could be Warsaw in 1945, Beirut in 1979 — bombed-out, littered with corpses, rife with murderous snipers who “punish” civilians trying to flee the dying remnants of Daesh.
It’s a movie of gritty details and jaw-dropping surprises. The well-equipped SWAT commandos keep small pickaxes and chisels with them. Yes, they can be weapons, but their main use it punching holes in walls so that they can shoot through them.
They work their way down streets, through hallways, with the worn remnants of well-taught and much-used military precision. But when Kawa sees what they’re clearing this one corpse-ridden apartment complex for, he’s a bit taken aback. As are we.
It’s midday, and their favorite “Kuwaiti soap opera” is on. They had to find a building with power and a working TV.
That’s a rare light moment in an otherwise relentless tale of hunt and be hunted, ambushes, with every firefight reducing their number.
Kawa is young, but a quick study.
Jasem is jaded, but hopeful. He rescues children when he can, pays to impose them on families (they rob the dead of their cash at every turn) and urges them to care for the child so that “the rebuilding” can begin. Every room that they stop in, he stoops to pick up trash, tidy up, as if for that eventuality.
“We have to rebuild everything,” he sighs. “But first, we have to kill every one of them.”
They can’t ask for help, for reasons that are both clear and obscured. “Don’t talk about the Americans, we’re beyond that” is the extent of Jasem’s politics, until he has to haggle with one of the Iranian “militias” that’s come in, an enemy “faction” fighting on their side. Jasem and his team bicker with the Persian commander (Waleed Elgadi) over history, British vs. French occupation, the works.
And when these little grace notes — tense as they are — end, there’s more blood, more street-level strategizing, anything to further this rogue unit’s “mission” which Kawa doesn’t want to know about until he absolutely has to.
No one in their right mind would want to go there, but for the viewer, “Mosul” is a combat thriller that passes on an appreciation of professionalism and patriotism in a different language, in different uniforms, but with a universal focus on “mission” and “hope.”
MPA Rating: TV-MA, graphic violence, constant smoking, profanity
Cast: Suhail Dabbach, Adam Bessa, Is’haq Elias, Qutaiba Abdelhaq, Mohimen Mahbuba, Thaer Al-Shayei and Waleed Elgadi
Credits: Written and directed by Matthew Michael Carnahan. A Netflix release.
Running time: 1:41