Film Review: Battle Scars

A serious drama about something with which many soldiers have to contend, needlessly diluted by a terrible crime thriller premise.
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If there’s one topic that should never be trifled with, it’s that of the brave soldiers who have gone off to war and come back less than they were before, either physically or mentally. There have been a few great films about the subject, and even more not so great.

Filmmaker Danny Buday’s Battle Scars, the umpteenth film based on this very subject, gets its theatrical release nearly two years after its debut at the G.I. Film Festival. The opening text mentions the reported 30,000 soldiers who have been seriously injured by explosive devices in Iraq and Afghanistan, a number that doesn’t even take into account the many more who have suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after their horrifying experiences overseas.

Zane Holtz plays Luke Stephens, one such soldier returning from war, who is suffering from wounds he’s unable to communicate to his wife or family. One night, he goes to a strip club to take his mind off his failing marriage. There, he encounters waitress Michelle (Heather McComb), who decides to steal the drunken sap’s credit card number to buy herself some jewelry.

Unbeknownst to both of them, Luke’s drug-dealing brother Nicky (Ryan Eggold) is dating another stripper at the club. When Luke learns his card has been charged $10,000, he returns to confront the club’s Russian boss Rifka (Fairuza Balk), who has the bouncer beat him up for accusing her of theft. Witnessing the whole thing, Michelle learns about Luke’s war injuries as he’s being taken to the hospital. Knowing Rifka isn’t done with them, they go on the lam, leaving Nicky to deal with the aftermath.

From the beginning, you might have questions about what Battle Scars is trying to convey, whether it’s to military personnel, their families or to those unfamiliar with the injuries soldiers sustain during war. Those questions aren’t clarified by a plot that involves strip clubs, drug dealers and corrupt strippers who rob their clientele.

These disparate elements make for a convoluted mash-up of a film where we learn about how the war affected Luke while, at the same time, Buday attempts to craft a lazy crime thriller involving less important topics. The film’s best scenes are generally those between Holt and McComb as they deal with Luke’s injuries and explore how one can find solace and therapy in an unlikely place.

For the first half of Battle Scars, it isn’t clear what exactly happened to Luke in the explosion that killed his good friend. His injuries seemingly involve the groin region, so one expects the worst. And yet Michelle isn’t turned off by what she sees, instead opting to make love to a man she literally just met. Does she do this out of pity, or are there deeper feelings involved? It’s hard to tell given Battle Scars’ desperate attempts to balance this loftier story with escapist tripe.

Things get progressively worse as Balk and Eggold’s characters clash in a side story, as each man tries to get revenge on the other for the earlier incident involving Luke. Needlessly added to this mix is Luke’s father Frank (David James Elliott), who isn’t much more sympathetic about Luke’s issues despite being a military vet himself. Elliott isn’t a particularly convincing actor, so his appearances tend to degrade the quality of the drama even further. It’s possible that the cast’s weaker links just didn’t feel the need to take their parts of the movie very seriously. And really, who can blame them?

Scattered throughout the film are a number of generic war scenes that never fully connect with what is happening stateside. The soldiers’ dialogue is particularly weak and full of clichés, which does little to help the film achieve authenticity.

It’s a shame, because clearly Buday has his heart in the right place. He just doesn’t have the proper story or script to fulfill his goal, nor the caliber of actor to sell the emotions necessary to make such a film work.

Instead, Battle Scars is a rather bland and generic crime thriller, convoluting what could have been a meaningful drama.

Click here for cast and crew information.