Boasting an intriguing premise, a compelling ensemble and frequently crisp, handsome filmmaking, Mark Burman’s “Ambush” almost qualifies as an above-average Vietnam-era nailbiter — were it not for the hopelessly below-average performances contributed by the two actors whose names stand tallest in its credits block. Aaron Eckhart and Jonathan Rhys Meyers, usually complex and appealing even in roles as small as these, play characters perched lazily outside the main story while Connor Paolo, Gregory Sims, Jason Genao and others do the narrative heavy lifting that remains after their more sellable co-stars cashed their paychecks.
Nevertheless smarter and more entertaining than one might expect from a small-scale, outwardly familiar story like this, “Ambush” feels like a throwback — mostly in a good way — to the ‘Namsploitation films that companies like Cannon churned out in the 1980s, when stories about the war were at their most commercially popular.
Paolo plays Cpl. Ackerman, the educated but inexperienced young commander of a small outpost in the Quang Tri province that becomes a flashpoint for conflict when Viet Cong forces show up — seemingly out of nowhere — to retrieve a binder featuring crucial data about their secret operatives that was stolen by U.S. Army spies. Although Capt. Mora (Sims), initially sent to the camp to intercept the binder upon its acquisition, successfully helps Ackerman fend off the wave of enemy combatants, their shared superior officer Gen. Drummond (Eckhart) instructs them to follow their adversaries into the jungle, map the underground network of tunnels that allowed them to catch U.S forces by surprise, and either re-obtain the binder or destroy all evidence of its existence. To help them, Drummond also sends along Miller (Meyers), a tracker with a dog who “thinks outside the box.”
Mora sends Ackerman underground with his team, a group of mostly fresh-faced and terrified engineers with little or no combat experience, while Miller searches for traces of the Viet Cong on the surface. Determined to prove himself — as much to himself as his men or his superiors — Ackerman takes the lead in measuring the maze of tunnels while occasionally encountering enemy forces who force him to make split-second life-or-death decisions. But when Drummond decides to limit the hunt, in the jungle or underground, to an inflexible two-hour window, Ackerman races to complete his objectives, even as Mora’s comrade Crawford (Mac Brandt) receives orders to make sure no trace of the mission remains after the deadline — whether or not it succeeds.
Written by Burman, Johnny Lozano and Michael McClung, “Ambush” uses its many timeless “men on a mission” tropes to explore subterranean warfare, a phenomenon that was uncommon knowledge prior to the Vietnam conflict but has since been depicted in countless movies about it, from “Platoon” to “Casualties of War” to dozens of others. Narratively and thematically, that gives Burman the opportunity to explore multiple levels of military decision-making, from the high-ranking individuals sending orders down the chain of command to the grunts fighting for their lives in the trenches (or in this case, hand-dug tunnel systems), while staging action against different backdrops — bright and dark, spectacular and intimate, tropical and mudbound. What it inadvertently also does is showcase the division of labor on a film set between name “stars” and the less well-known character actors who work hard to make them look good with little or none of the credit.
Paolo, who began his career representing the child version of characters played by Kevin Bacon and Colin Farrell in “Mystic River” and “Alexander,” is unambiguously the star of this film — and he carries it with as much intelligence, and significantly more confidence, than his anxious engineer commands his men. Burman takes Ackerman on a nuanced and emotional hero’s journey as he is confronted by the horrific realities of battle, and the burdensome responsibilities of leadership, and Paolo navigates his ambitions, his doubts, his shortcomings and his growth with considerable substance. By comparison, Meyers lends an appreciably softer edge than one might expect to Miller’s hunter, but otherwise spends more time wrangling his canine companion than sparring with his fellow castmates, while Eckhart acts exclusively via shortwave radio in a bunker that likely got no closer to the rest of the film’s Colombian shooting locations than audiences will watching it.
Perhaps anticipating how little help he would receive from the actors whose names likely helped the film get financed, Burman and his co-writers do a better-than-average job of baking the consequences of questionable character decisions into their story, though Mora’s carelessness on more than one occasion with the binder seems worthy of a performance review or even court martial. But as wet-behind-the-ears engineers thrust into combat, Genao, Jaime López, Luke Stanton Eddy, Matte Martinez and the rest of the cast’s up and comers more than hold their own as they trudge through an endlessly confusing tunnel system where every turn might bring them face to face with an adversary much more prepared to kill them than vice versa.
Burman’s biggest credit to date before now was as producer of Paul Schrader’s 2016 film “Dog Eat Dog,” but in the director’s chair, he juggles a variety of landscapes with skill, and importantly, without sensationalism: whether portraying an all-out assault on Ackerman’s camp or the shadowy, close-quarters fighting of him and his men below ground, he creates vivid, purposeful images that fuel the story and build genuine intensity. At the same time, in a story whose coda attempts to reconcile the pointlessness of individual sacrifice with some particularly hollow platitudes about living forever as part of something bigger, there’s no small irony in him assembling a cast of (mostly) fresh faces who, rather than dutifully carrying the water of their marquee counterparts, overshadow them at every turn.
But if it’s not a film that rivals the quality or seriousness of Vietnam War movie standard-bearers like “The Deer Hunter” or “Full Metal Jacket,” “Ambush” ultimately delivers more credible adventure than the cartoonish bombast of their knockoff competitors (then or since) — and more than a handful of genuine thrills.
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