Film Review: 5 Days of War

Would-be serious treatment of war is lethally undermined by director Renny Harlin’s ham-fisted, exploitative approach.

Schlocky pulp-meister Renny Harlin (Cliffhanger, Die Hard 2, et al.) tries to get super-serious in 5 Days of War, his treatment of the shockingly underreported, brutal 2008 invasion of the country of Georgia by Russia. The film centers on a group of journalists, including an American war correspondent, Thomas Anders (Rupert Friend), and a Brit photographer (Richard Coyle) caught up in the violence of war, particularly a wedding massacre and other atrocities they record, footage they must keep from falling into the hands of a Russian general (Rade Serbedzija) obsessed with keeping up a good PR image.

From the wincingly graphic, relentless opening sequence, which features Anders caught up in savage crossfire which kills his wife (Heather Graham, before we even have a chance to truly wonder at her longevity as an ever-employed movie babe), the tone of the film feels all wrong—more explosive-loving action gore-fest than any serious treatment of war. Many more moments of blatant savagery follow, often involving innocent civilians like little old peasant ladies, which Harlin tries to leaven with saloon scenes of journalistic/professional camaraderie—lifted from old Howard Hawks films like His Girl Friday and Only Angels Have Wings—which might have worked had the director possessed an ounce of humor. The film is undeniably often impressive, with its hundreds of extras and carefully staged battle tableaux, but “staged” is the operative word, as these scenes often look too pictorially arranged to have much real-life immediacy.

At a recent public event, eminent playwright Edward Albee announced that he hated music in film because he didn’t like being cued emotionally. Although I don’t take quite such a hard line as he does, having enjoyed the work of such composers as Miklos Rozsa, Bernard Herrmann and Leonard Cohen onscreen, I am almost inclined to agree with him in regard to recent films like Brighton Rock, Atonement and this one, which so overuse thudding symphonic orchestrations and, God help us, spectrally keening heavenly choirs. Here, when you see whole villages being torn asunder, as well as the bodies of their inhabitants, there is simply no need to underline the explosions and screams of pain with Muzak. In fact, it feels downright immoral.

Friend makes a bland and callow central protagonist, about as real and exciting as pretty, plastic Robert Taylor used to be in his grimly staunch and serious World War II efforts. Thankfully, Coyle has an ingratiating, authentic scruffiness to counteract the leading man’s posturing, and the underrated Emmanuelle Chriqui manages to be moving and effective as a Georgian girl who provides some rote romantic interest for Anders. But there’s a portly Val Kilmer to contend with, predictably channeling Dennis Hopper, as one particularly gonzo journalist; Johnathon Schaech trying to cast off his pretty-boy image as a rogue Georgian soldier; Dean Cain as some kind of American ambassador, and, wait for it…Andy Garcia, ridiculously cast as Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, arduously recycling Akim Tamiroff’s old accent.