Age of Heroes Film Review: They're just calling anyone a hero these days, aren't they?
Back When We Were Heroes
Remember back when America was the land of the free and the home of the brave? The cavalry who would come charging in at the end of every Western? The liberators intent on bringing democracy and self-determination to a world that hailed us as heroes?
But apparently there was a time way the hell before I was born that we at least thought of ourselves as such. And, since it's so much easier to reminisce on the past than try to actually make a future for ourselves, Hollywood produces yet another film depicting the last time anyone recognized America as the out-and-out good guys: World War II.
Shaken, Not Stirred
In walks , the only war film not gobbled up by the American populace since the actual war itself because it breaks the tried and true mould; at least as far as the average elementary history class is concerned. Apparently, according to those wacky Brits, the war began back in 1939 instead of 1941, and they were without choice but to hold off the encroaching Axis forces whilst we Yanks sat on our complacent, baseball and hotdog-loving asses. (For those who can't tell, there are some British immigrants in the family who remember things differently than mainstream American culture would have us believe). Age of Heroes
This particular story features Sean Bean as Jones, a British Army major and member of the newborn commando group following the Miracle of Dunkirk. (Again, this film actually requires the viewer be familiar with WWII history, which is probably why it failed so miserably at the box offices. For readers, Dunkirk was the mass evacuation of the British Army from France under German aggression. For American readers, France is a country in Europe.) Immediately upon seeing Sean on film, I began taking bets with the family to see how long he lasted. For those unfamiliar with Mr. Bean's fine body of work, he's typically got a snowball's chance in hell of actually surviving to the ending credits.
I missed the pot by about five minutes.
Jones is called back to action in Operation Grendel, a mission in which he and an 8-man team of commandos must infiltrate into Norway, link up with a deep-cover resistance agent named Beowulf, and steal the secrets to the Nazi Radio Direction Finding technology which is warning them of incoming British bombers well before they arrive. According to the press releases, the draw of this film is that it's based on actual events engaged in by Ian Flemming, the creator of James Bond, and was the operation which brought about the creation of the much-vaunted and feared British SAS (Special Air Service), who are widely regarded as some pretty bad dudes.
Remember, who dares wins. And those who dare, beware of spoilers.
Marquess of Queensbury
The progression of the story is somewhat haphazard. Jones's wife is pregnant and looking forward to spending time with her husband, who has ostensibly just been granted a desk job for his distinguished service. Then we cut to Corporal Bob Rains (Danny Dyer) in France trying to lead what remains of his beleaguered squad to safety. His dead company sergeant gave him the order to bug out, and that's what he intends to do. Except he runs into a captain who's been given control of part of the British rearguard who promptly orders Bob and the wounded squad to fall into line. Bob insists his sergeant's orders take precedence, but the captain won't hear it and tells him to either fall in or be arrested for desertion.
Bob has the right idea. Technically, it's not disobeying orders if the officer who's given them isn't conscious. The problem is Bob goes the Marquess of Queensbury rules and nails the captain in the jaw instead of just cracking him over the head with his riflebutt. Why is it "hero" can just as easily be replaced with "idiot" these days?
So Bob ends up in a military prison back in Britain, in which he's likely to be beaten or exercised to death by the abusive guards all suffering from inferiority complexes. There he meets Ian Flemming (James D'Arcy), who is an ex-commando on punishment detail for reasons that aren't elucidated. Ian lets it be known that he's got a plan to escape and to wait for the nod. By complete coincidence, Jones arrives in a motorcar to collect Flemming for Operation Grendel. Bob thinks this is the opportunity Flemming mentioned, steals a guard's pistol, and holds Jones at gunpoint until Jones has safely driven them all out of the prison. Britain is an island. Kind of hard to guess where Bob was expecting to run to, but now's not the time for logic.
Jones takes pity on Bob, and with Flemming's word, agrees to take Bob on the preparation course for the upcoming operation. He's not a commando yet, but he has the opportunity to prove himself.
Bob, Jones, Flemming, and a couple of mean Scottish sergeants train the rest of the squad up in the Scottish highlands, focusing in their stamina, stealth, and climbing skills. They're also taught knifework since guns are going to be too noisy most of the time, a nod of the head toward the SAS's current modus operendi which really doesn't do anything for the story. I think a good chunk of this story was supposed to be Bob learning to aspire to become a member of something greater than himself, but this largely fell flat and just seemed to be a waste of 20 minutes screentime.
It's well understood that any operation has to go wrong before they end up on the ground, because if they're well prepared and equipped, there's no building of suspense. Age of Heroes takes the traditional route by having their transport shot down by Nazi anti-aircraft batteries over Norway. It's functional, I suppose, but it's been done.
They evade patrols, deal with minor injuries, take stock of supplies, and go the rendezvous point to meet Beowulf. What they find is Jensen (Izabella Miko), the sole surviving member of Beowulf's resistance cell. She's ill-equipped, scared though determined, and wears far too much makeup to be a guerrilla cross-country skiing through the mountain ranges of Norway. But, hey, it was getting to be a sausage fest and what's the point of violence without sex?
They successfully infiltrate the RDR base, and with the aid of lots of explosives and gunfire, steal the secrets they need. Except now they're split up, being hunted down like dogs, low on ammunition, and their original means of extraction is no longer available.
One by one they sacrifice themselves so that Bob, Jensen, and the secrets can make it across Norwayinto Sweden. Yes, among the sacrificed includes Sean Bean, which you expect, and Ian Flemming, which you don't expect since he actually survived the war to write all those really cool spy novels. Kinda like making a film where they successfully assassinate Hitler.
The film ends with them looking out at the valley that supposedly marks the border between Norway and Sweden, as if somehow an imaginary line was going to save the protagonists from the hundreds of stormtroopers just a couple hundred yards behind.
As Long As It's Not Turpentine, Right?
Greek Dramas Could've Set Them Straight
The intended angle of this film that was so heavily advertized was that this was supposed to be part of the birth of the SAS. The film quality was good, and it had plenty of skilled actors, though I've seen Sean Bean die in more inventive ways. Admittedly, there were absolutely no innovations in terms of storyline, story element, or storytelling, but that needn't necessarily be a dealbreaker if the story is simply well told. The problem is that the story is not put into a greater context, be it referring to Ian Flemming, the SAS, or the war effort as a whole. As such, you just walk away with a sense that the operation was completed with heavy casualties and now it's time to move on. It's empty. Hollow. Devoid of point or redeeming purpose.
As a viewer, I want to get the sensation that I'm witnessing something greater than the sum of its parts. There must be pathos, that nearly indefinable sense of pride and emotion which chokes us up and yet tells us that somehow this is right, that this is the sublime distillation of the entire great and terrible human experience set before us to sample, enjoy, and savor for the rest of our days. Instead of Glenfiddich's 18 year old reserve in Glencairn crystal, I get stale, watered-down Pabst Blue Ribbon in a dribble glass.
Bottom line: Give the bartender hell or find a new bar, because you deserve better than this.