French action auteur Pierre Morel of the “Taken” movies delivers a solid, tactically-fascinating Middle Eastern combat film with “The Ambush,” a United Arab Emirates -acked account of a firefight that really happened during the Yemeni Civil War.
It’s a movie that opens with a brief explainer that reads more like a UAE apologia about its involvement there, so the viewer — like the filmmaker — is best served by divorcing this action film from Byzantine Middle Eastern politics.
It’s got a lot in common with “Black Hawk Down” — soldiers trapped, others fighting to rescue them, obvious moments of foreshadowing, mistakes made, bravery celebrated, “hesitance” noted.
Here, when we meet the beefy, camo-clad GIs in the gym tent lifting iron (Concrete barbells?), there’s no cussing in the World Cup banter and all the bickering is in Arabic.
Here’s your World Cup analogy for the mission that two Humvees are about to undertake.
“The person who wins is the one who believes they can do anything.”
As with “Black Hawk Down,” true story or not, there’s always one guy who subs in for “my last chance” to hang with his guys on patrol before heading home. One trooper has a wife he’s concerned about and swapping urgent text messages with, another is feuding with him and getting an earful about “respect,” a third is responding to his little girl’s request for a “magical horse” gift by carving her one out of wood and they’re all going on about “just one more week before we go home.”
The foreshadowing ends when they load up and move out — two Humvees wrapped in cages meant to absorb rocket propelled grenade impacts, with remote-controlled machine guns so that no soldier is exposed to direct fire in a shootout, and a dashboard complicated with all sorts of comm, engine, nav and smoke-bomb mortars buttons.
A routine patrol, dropping off supplies and a soccer ball to a shepherd and his family, starts out routinely and turns tense almost right away. A lot of Arab nation allies have been involved in Yemen, and keeping them all straight is an ongoing chore.
The Humvees get separated, and the lead one is trapped by a large cadre of rebels armed with AK-47s, mortars, mines and RPGs. It quickly turns out that it’s going to take a lot more than that second Humvee and its crew to “extract” them.
“Do you need to call your wife to ask permission? GET GOING!”
Morel emphasizes the claustrophobic nature of fighting inside a vehicle that’s meant to take a beating…up to a point. We see how limited their field of vision is, note the improvements that have been made on such fighting vehicles since the American Afghan War and Iraq War, but otherwise see familiar combat conditions — trapped in a rocky canyon, surrounded — and familiar command dilemmas.
One thing you pick up on is the sophistication of the chain of command, and the capability and bravery of the troops. The first is no different from any American film about that corner of the combat world — a CO (Saeed AlHarsh) who stoically responds, in a flash, to the danger and leads a Quick Response convoy of Humwees and more heavily armored troop transports — and his CO (Mansoor Al-Fili), making snap decisions about drones, “the Falcons” (F-16s) and Apache attack helicopter support.
A woman is in charge of communications, and the Apache in question has a female pilot, something not every Islamic state would sanction. I got the feeling, at times, that there was image burnishing going on amidst the firefights, mortar barrages and “mortars neutralized” airstrikes. Make sure that women recruits are “seen.” And every tentative action, hesitation to dash into a dangerous situation, must be excused.
“We fear nothing but Allah!”
“The Ambush” immerses us in trained troopers improvising, commanders strategizing on the fly, and combat situations being faced and confronted.
A commanding officer recognizing the difference between 80mm and 120mm (unsurviveable in a Humvee), giving a “no easy way out” speech by radio and bitter rivals making up in the flush of combat is nicely contrasted with the sort of tough-guys-in-war exchanges Hollywood genre fans know and love.
“Are you OK?
“I’m in a flipped-over vehicle with you,” the most observant Muslim in the lot barks. “Get out of my face. You reek of TOBACCO!”
The performances are solid, insofar as there isn’t a lot you’d call “great acting” in most combat films, with most of the actors playing combat film “types.” But “The Ambush” works, even if there’s little about it that’s special save for this different point of view, something one suspects was the point in financing it.
That point of view has its value, even if you suspect the picture’s motives. Reverence for fallen comrades, a “leave no man behind” ethos, esprit de corps valued and a fondness for good ol’American made military hardware make this one worth checking out. Any film that reminds us how human beings are a lot alike in dire situations is a good thing.
Rating: R, violence
Cast: Omar Bin Haider, Marwan Abdullah, Kafliffa Al Jassem, Mohammed Ahmed, Saeed AlHarsh and Mansoor Al-Fili.
Credits: Directed by Pierre Morel, scripted by Brandon Birtell and Kurtis Birtell. A Well Go USA release.
Running time: 1:51