Not since James Franco had his arm pinned under a boulder in 127 Hours, Tom Hardy got behind the wheel of his BMW in Locke, or Ryan Reynolds was interred alive in Buried has a leading man remained stationary for as long as Armie Hammer in Mine. This creates challenges that Italian first-time feature writers-directors Fabio Resinaro and Fabio Guaglione only partly surmount in their stylishly made military thriller about one man stuck with his demons in a hostile desert. While the protagonist’s backstory is not sufficiently original to sustain tension throughout, Hammer’s committed performance keeps you watching, which should draw eyes for Well Go USA’s simultaneous theatrical and on-demand launches on April 7.
The movie is billed, rather grandly, as “A Fabio and Fabio Film,” and while that hint of auteurist self-importance seems premature, there’s resourcefulness and imagination in the filmmakers’ bid to build a drama largely around one character in a single setting. The scenario of an American soldier locked in a survival test with only his fraying wits to help him directly recalls Reynolds in Buried, also produced by Peter Safran, even if the limitations here are less claustrophobic.
Shot in the sprawling desert landscapes of Fuerteventura in the Canary Islands, the story is set in an unnamed part of North Africa, where taciturn U.S. Marine sniper Mike (Hammer) and his loquacious Southern spotter Tommy (Tom Cullen) have been sent to take out a designated terrorist target. Perched on an elevated ridge, they watch a convoy of vehicles roll up on the stretch of sand below, but the details don’t match their intel. The presumed target is participating in what appears to be a wedding ceremony, setting up a thematic motif echoed later. Mike hesitates before firing, botching the mission, and after a dicey escape across the rocky terrain, he and Tommy are left miles from base camp.
With sandstorms churning through the area, Marine rescue vehicles are unavailable, forcing them to cross the desert on foot. But a rusted danger sign carried on the wind reminds Mike that there are 33 million land mines buried in the area. Cue insouciant Tommy’s unlucky step onto an explosive device that tears off his legs. Before Mike can move to help him, he hears the trigger click of a mine beneath his boot, causing him to freeze on the spot to delay the blast.
All that unfolds in a taut, suspenseful opening 25 minutes, with Sergi Vilanova Claudin’s camera capturing the harsh setting in sweeping widescreen vistas, while elemental sound and Andrea Bonini’s score are used with sharp economy to heighten the atmosphere.
Once Mike is glued to the spot and the unsympathetic base camp relays the matter-of-fact information via radio that he’ll have to wait 52 hours for a passing convoy, the filmmakers face the tricky task of filling one-hour-plus of screen time with a balance of external threats and psychological deterioration in a vast space that inexorably becomes Mike’s physicalized subconscious.
They do quite well with the former, including a blinding sandstorm that rolls in across the plains like a black thunder cloud, a pack of vicious desert dogs that attack at night and the relentless punishment of the sun slowly frying Mike to a crisp. Distinctions between reality and hallucination are blurred throughout, notably in a series of teasing encounters with a Bedouin (Clint Dyer), who speaks improbably decent English, encouraging Mike to take the next step and embrace his freedom. But as shard-like elements from his life back home puncture Mike’s psyche, the story becomes more prosaically familiar.
His girlfriend, Jenny (Annabelle Wallis), an all-American blonde seen previously in silent visual flashes, is first heard in a video message she secretly recorded on Mike’s phone to serve as a protective talisman. That corny dialogue also lobs in heavy hints about his troubled past, suggesting there are reasons he’s waited so long to ask her to marry him. (His immobile position down on one knee for a stretch of time in the desert is clearly meant to evoke a suspended proposal.) Increasingly vivid fragments from his childhood and the history of violence in his family reveal a tortured legacy, with his helplessness to protect his battered mother (Juliet Aubrey) perhaps having driven him to court danger in the armed forces.
Hammer brings conviction and a compelling progression of resilience, despair, corrosive disorientation and brink-of-madness surrender to the role. But the shortage of narrative texture and nagging sense of cliche in Mike’s turbulent past contributes to the tension gradually draining from the film. Having toy soldiers keep popping up in unexpected places also seems a touch obvious as a symbol of the vulnerability of men at war. And while the horror of land mines remaining active for years after wartime is conveyed in the Bedouin’s tragic tale, Mine can’t equal the political power of Danis Tanovic’s 2002 foreign-language Oscar winner No Man’s Land, which included a similar scenario of an immobilized soldier trapped on a mine.
Still, as a primarily solo performance stunt, the film is impressive on a technical level, even if it runs low on juice as a survival drama. Aside from Hammer, superb in this year’s Sundance highlight Call Me by Your Name, the best work in the cast comes from Welsh actor Cullen (Weekend, Downton Abbey), injecting charm into the standard sidekick role of the reckless joker. The slick execution should make this a viable calling card for FabioX2, even if they might want to consider enlisting support on the screenwriting front next time.
Distributor: Well Go USA Entertainment
Cast: Armie Hammer, Annabelle Wallis, Tom Cullen, Clint Dyer, Juliet Aubrey, Geoff Bell, Ines Pilar Mille
Production companies: The Safran Company, Mine Canarias, Sun Films, Mine Films, Roxbury, Mercurio Domina
Directors-screenwriters: Fabio Resinaro, Fabio Guaglione
Producer: Peter Safran
Executive producers: Armie Hammer, Miguel A. Faura, Natalia Safran, Fabio Guaglione, Fabio Resinaro
Director of photography: Sergi Vilanova Claudin
Production designer: Mani Martinez
Costume designer: Coro Mateo
Music: Andrea Bonini
Editors: Matteo Santi, Fabio Guaglione, Filippo Mauro Boni
Casting: Rose Wicksteed
No rating; 107 minutes.