19 June 2012

Movie Review: 'Afghan Luke'

Review: 'Afghan Luke' (2011)

If you like your military-and-media critique to be more dark and brood-humorous than broad and laugh-out-loud, "Afghan Luke" has a story for you.

The film is a buddies-on-the-road movie, one that follows two freelance journalists to Southern Afghanistan. Luke is searching for a story he lost the last time he was there, a potential blockbuster involving the alleged mutilation of Taliban corpses by coalition sharpshooters. In his sights is a Canadian sniper nicknamed after Freddy Krueger, a horror-movie character. Tom, on the other hand, is a drug-addled would-be documentarian in search of the "Burgandy of Hash."

One of the screenwriters, Canadian Patrick Graham, reportedly based some scenes on his real-life experiences as a correspondent in wartime Iraq.

"Tom thinks he's Gonzo," worries main character Luke, "but Afghan Gonzo is out of his league. It's more 'Scarface' than Hunter S. Thompson."

The movie is a mix of surrealism and satire. The vibe is lighter-hearted than "Apocalypse Now" (1979), less theatrical than "The Beast" (1988) and more rooted in everyday military and journalistic realities than "The Men Who Stare at Goats" (2007)—although the narrative tone of the latter is certainly similar to that of "Afghan Luke."

Canadian director Mike Clattenburg is known for the "Trailer Park Boys" series of television and movie mockumentaries, and the deadpan delivery of that form is evident throughout "Afghan Luke." The humorous moments feel like found objects.

As a bonus, for both soldiers and journalists, the movie offers a deployment's-worth of quotable quips and koans: "There are no enemies in Afghanistan, only future allies," is a recurring line—to which the central character once responds: "There are no allies in journalism, only future enemies."

After noting that everyone from Alexander the Great to America the Beautiful has dallied there, Luke wonders "why so many armed tourists preferred Afghanistan ..." The fact that the characters are Canadian, rather than American, helps make whatever critique the movie brings more universal, without regard to service or nationality. What's being skewered is not the American-brand of waging war, but modern war in general. And the coverage of it.

The film's moral center is the Latvian aid-worker Elita, who puts a lilting accent on some devastatingly withering lines. For example: "You try to make sense of this place, this place that makes no sense. Afghans do not understand what happens here, but you tourists know."

Luke and Tom stumble from episode to episode, bouncing from a meet-up with caustic American comic Lewis Black (as himself) on a USO tour, to a septic encounter with a foul-named creative plumber from Brooklyn. Along the way, the plot admittedly trades in a few war-worn movie tropes—the misanthropic and mis-speaking Drugpin; the fixer with a heart of gold; the ditzy blond go-go dancer first encountered at the off-base drinking establishment—which are nicely executed, but might have been more at home in a movie about conflicts in Miami, Iraq, or Vietnam.

In terms of scenery, there's plenty of mountains. And moon dust. So much that veterans of Afghanistan will be surprised to learn that the movie was shot not on location in that country, but in Canada.

Like most of everything else at work in "Afghan Luke," that's close enough. Close enough to hit the right targets.

Afghan Luke is available on DVD and in Blu-ray and DVD combo pack.


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