UPDATE: Kajaki has been released in the US as Kilo Two Bravo.
I actually saw this movie a few days before I saw American Sniper, so it’s hard not to compare them. A friend of a friend is the producer, and I was able to see it because I live in the UK (it hasn’t been released in the US yet). I’m not sure it will, as it’s a tough sell: it’s violent and very UK-specific, both in terms of its subject and some rather impenetrable accents. That’s too bad, because it’s superior to American Sniper in every way.
Like American Sniper, Kajaki is based on a true story. To sum up, a unit based at a remote outpost near Afghanistan’s Kajaki dam accidentally enter a minefield, where several are wounded and one is killed as they try to extricate themselves. The film both raised money for its production and distributed its profits unconventionally. It was largely crowdfunded, and the producers retained the distribution rights in order to donate a portion of the profits to military charities in the UK. As a The Hollywood Reporter pointed out, it’s hard to hate a movie with this pedigree, even if it is terrible. Luckily, it’s not.
While I feel it’s a bit of a backhanded compliment to say that this is a good low budget movie, the cost of making it has to be acknowledged. At most, this movie cost $10 million (17 percent of American Sniper‘s $60 million). You can’t get a lot of famous actors, music rights, special effects, or action sequences for that kind of money. But what you can get is a good story well told. Paul Katis, the director, said, “We couldn’t afford to do big action pieces, so we replaced action with tension.” Did they ever. The movie is almost unbearably tense. The lack of music combined with long takes framed in wide angle and shot without any gimmicks makes it feel almost documentary-like. The special effects are minimal but extremely effective. Although this is a “war” movie, there are very few military props in it save guns and radios The big budget assets (if three helicopters can be called that) are used effectively as well, despite the fact the crew probably had them only for a half day of shooting. The same way that Spielberg successfully used tension to mask a non-working shark puppet in Jaws, Katis uses what he has to make a much more visceral movie than American Sniper.
That’s kind of a backhanded compliment as well, as the movie isn’t just notable for hiding its small budget. The script, by Tom Williams, is excellent. Much credit has to go to the film’s military advisers, as almost every detail is captured perfectly. Of the modern military movies I’ve seen (The Hurt Locker, Zero Dark Thirty, and American Sniper), this is by far the most accurate when it comes to technical details like radio calls and jargon, as well as personal interactions. The ubiquity of CrossFit workouts, the contents of care packages, and – most impressively – the brutal and incessant gallows humor all ring true. While the film is not political, it neatly sums up the views of its protagonists with two bits of dialogue. One, delivered by a soldier startled by two Afghan teenagers fishing with dynamite, captures his frustration with the ambivalence of local Afghans to the mission (“I’m here trying to bring peace and love to your fucking stone-age country.”). The other, delivered by one of the unit’s most experienced men to one of its newest, is a rumination on the consequences of war (“This country’s full of shit left behind when armies fucked off. Russians, it was the mines. Ten million fucking mines. God knows what we’re going to leave behind.”).
I think Kajaki‘s best moments, however, are when it shows that terrible things happen despite people’s best intentions, and that heroes aren’t heroic all of the time. The UK Ministry of Defence did not support this picture, no doubt because they were held directly responsible for the events in question. But the movie never blames anyone. Even when a helicopter, attempting to land and rescue the trapped men, triggers more mines, it’s portrayed as a breakdown in communication rather than an act of negligence or malice. Instead of the cliche where the unit’s veterans save the fresh recruits who’ve bungled into a minefield, two of the most experienced men trigger the first mines. And after yet another mine goes off, the unit’s medic cowers in the fetal position for several minutes, overwhelmed by the situation, while the rest of the men scream at him to help the wounded. American Sniper never would have let Chris Kyle look so incompetent or cowardly, and that’s where I feel that movie failed: it simultaneously sanitized and aggrandized its main character and, in making him more “heroic,” turned him into a caricature. Kajaki‘s men make mistakes, get scared, and sometimes just want to give up – but they don’t. In the end, the medic bravely makes his way across the minefield anyway, but this movie has the courage to show his breakdown too.
Of all the movies I’ve blogged about so far, this has been my favorite. It punches well above its weight, and actually embarrasses a lot of movies with bigger budgets and more recognizable names. It’s not just good for a low budget, UK military-centric passion project – it’s good, period. It’s a film that its cast and crew should be justifiably proud of, and a film hopefully more people will see either once it secures a distribution deal stateside, or after it’s released digitally and on DVD this summer.