As many of you know, I love war movies. From the early classics like "A Guy Named Joe" to "Thirty Second Over Tokyo" to "Back to Bataan" to "Commandos Strike at Dawn" to "The Longest Day" right on up to "Saving Private Ryan" and "The Great Raid", if there's a war and there's a movie about it, I will watch it - especially those dealing with WWI and WWII. And now entering the genre is veteran director Jeff Burr. Best known for films in the horror/sci-fi genre, not to mention classic television like "Land of the Lost", he steps into a different kind of horror with his own take on WWII - STRAIGHT INTO DARKNESS.
The time - 1945. The place - Nazi Germany. The Allies have all but won WWII, but those in the field are unaware of the victorious upswings in battle. Trudging forward in their campaign to oust the Nazi regime, this chapter in one of our darkest times opens with several American solders leaving the front lines, only to drive their jeep over a landmine. But these aren't soldiers just leaving the line of battle. No, Losey and Deming are on their way to a miliary prison for a court martial. But for the grace of God, the two manage to survive the jeep explosion and go AWOL, immediately heading into the German countryside.
Desperate to escape capture from either the Americans or the Nazis, Losey and Deming are a mismatched pair at best. One from the 82nd Airborne and the other a foot solider, the two are as different as the Allies and the Axis. On the one hand, we have Deming. Violently sadistic to the core, we are privy to his lack of conscience as he smashes the face of another solider just to claim a dog tag as a prize, not to mention his crudely visceral assault on an elderly woman in front of her husband. On the other hand, Losey is tormented by his conscience; by the lives he took, the innocent lives in particular, and the acts of war - all in the name of doing what was "right." He is the last person one would expect to find in combat. And between them there is only one gun.
With rugged terrain between them and unoccupied "safe" territory, in an effort to avoid a German brigade scouting the area, Deming and Losey struggle to survive. With Deming often treating Losey as his own prize or prisoner, the two eventually seek a safe haven in a battle-scarred schoolhouse. But on entering the schoolhouse, they meet the unexpected - a rag tag group of freedom fighters composed primarily of children and two former schoolteachers, Deacon and Maria. But these aren't just any children, they are war torn and scarred. Some have been abandoned. Some missing legs crushed by tanks. Others, missing body parts and facial features. Others with birth defects. But the glorious trait all of these children share is their indomitable survive and how to fight in combat Because of these skills, they initially mistake Deming and Losey as German imposters and treat them as any prisoner of war, binding and gagging them. But once again, luck seems to be on the soldiers' side as they are released with the proviso they assist Deacon and Maria in defending the schoolhouse and the children when a Nazi brigade surrounds them. The looming question, however, is why this bombed out schoolhouse? Why the children? What key does it hold? And what will become of all involved?
Ryan Francis is compelling and convincing as Losey. I remember Ryan from a 1998 episode of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer." He has that same staid military look here, but more humanized and introspective. I'm not surprised he won the part of Losey. Scott MacDonald is ideal as Deming. Most noted for his numerous appearances in three of the Star Trek tv franchises, CSI", "NCIS","JAG" and "Stargate SG-1", Scott is no stranger to a uniform or a "military-esque" performance and is more than effective here as Deming. Uncompassionate and quite frankly, detestable, he skillfully walks on the cutting edge with his take on Deming. David Warner and Linda Thorson bring a compassionate tough to their roles of Deacon and Maria, respectively.
Key to the power of this film is also Burr's use of real orphaned children. Abandoned by society, that glimmer of self-worth that Burr gives each by hiring them for the film translates into the pride and survival you see in each of their characters, which has a ripple effect with the two primary characters in the film.
Jeff Burr steps outside of the box and goes beyond the familiar and his comfort zone with this story of personal struggle, redemption, life affirmation and hope. And, I for one, certainly hope it won't be his last time in doing so. With a heartfelt sincerity, his character development is solid and the story well crafted, allowing the audience to establish an emotional bond with many of the characters. Rarely seen in war movies, he allows his soldiers to have the human emotions of fear and cowardice. And centering the story on two deserters? When was the last time Hollywood gave us that? But Burr's greatest gift is his ability for humanizing something as inhuman as a war and here, does so eloquently and tacitly by the very nature of the injured and "disabled" child freedom fighters. One shortcoming in the script, however, is a failure to fully explain the "crimes" committed by Deming and Losey which resulted in their court martial to begin with. (Okay, Deming, I get. But Losey needs a bit more development.) But, the dichotomy between Deming and Losey is well sustained throughout the film thanks to finely tuned combination of action and dialogue.
Visually, the film is stunning. Shot on location in Romania, Burr uses flashbacks to aid in his storytelling. With fast-paced quick glimpses like a snapshot, the technique is effective and while providing much needed information and backstory, gives a sense of disorientation much as if embroiled in the battles of war. Shot on location in Romania, Viorel Sergovici's cinematography is chillingly compelling and never moreso than with a sequence of hanging corpses in the German mountains. The production design of Calin Papura is also key to the ambience of STRAIGHT INTO DARKNESS. By giving the woods and the bombed out buildings a life of their own, the film becomes multi-layered and multi-dimensional, open to interpretation and thought.
This is one of the finest war movies to come along in years. Both reflective and introspective, STRAIGHT INTO DARKNESS is a film that begs to go straight into your personal DVD collection.
Losey; Ryan Francis
Deming: Scott MacDonald
Deacon: David Warner
Maria: Linda Thorson
Written and Directed by Jeff Burr. Rated R. (95 min)