Renny Harlin’s career has not exactly been a distinguished one, but it has been a noteworthy filmography nonetheless. The Finnish filmmaker got his foothold in the US after the success of Born American, and he was soon hired to direct the future saviour of Middle Earth, Viggo Mortensen, in the low-budget horror film Prison. Of course it was with Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master that he truly became a Hollywood hero, with what was then the highest grossing independent film of all time. The success of this franchise piece would lead to bigger and better things, including the memorable action flicks Die Hard 2, Cliffhanger and The Long Kiss Goodnight. Yet since the strangely compelling cult film Deep Blue Sea, and one of The Exorcist prequels (Exorcist: The Beginning) Harlin seems to have been lost in the low-budget wilderness with a string of unrecognisable films. 12 Rounds or Cleaner anyone? So taking a sharp left-turn, Harlin shifts his gaze to the 5-day conflict between Russia and Georgia in 5 Days of War (aka 5 Days of August).
Following the death of a colleague/lover during the second Iraqi conflict, and his subsequent rescue by Georgian Coalition forces, journalist Thomas Anders (Rupert Friend, The Young Victoria) heads to Georgia on the advice of fellow journalist “Dutchman” (Val Kilmer, The Bad Lietenant: Port of Call – New Orleans). When he and cameraman Sebastian Ganz (Richard Coyle, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time) find their way into a local wedding, they quickly become embroiled in the escalating war and must not only help the beautiful Tatia (Emmanuelle Chirqui, TV’s Entourage) find her family, but ensure that the international community learns the truth about the horrors of this war.
A polemic on the horrors of war and the hundreds of journalists killed in the line of duty is an incredibly timely topic, although Renny Harlin is not the first name that comes to mind when thinking of potential voices to tackle the subject. The incredibly recent, yet largely unexplored, 2008 Russian invasion of Georgia is an example of the world failing to heed the call of an ally in trouble. Georgia’s president (portrayed here by Andy Garcia, the only Georgian character who speaks in English to his own people) had made an effort to extend their ties to the West, and very little reciprocation had been received in their time of need. 5 Days of War has the principle task of shedding light on this series of events, although Harlin does not appear to be able to completely escape his action roots. The film opens with a promising premise, and the scenes in which a group of journalists gather and trade war stories over drinks feels genuine and not altogether removed from Australia’s similarly themed Balibo, showing Harlin’s ability to deal with character as well as set-piece action sequences. Where he falls down is in his inability to completely break away from his genre leanings, undermining much of the emotional and political tension created in those well-paced pieces of exposition.
A number of unfortunate character and narrative choices steer 5 Days of War off the righteous path in the second half of the film. Having established the inherent dangers of toting cameras through war zones, Mikko Alanne’s script – “based on” a screenplay by the appropriately named David Battle – then peppers the story with holes big enough for Harlin to drive one of his Georgian-supplied tanks through. The battles are undoubtedly impressively staged, and the whole cast (including former Superman Dean Cain as a presidential aide, and a cameo from Heather Graham) provides captivating performances. Yet those characters make some questionable decisions, and was it really necessary to introduce the hulking Cossack as a Bond-style villain? It’s a war, Renny: everything is already is a threat! Just when you think that the film is only one kidnapping and Mexican standoff away from a 1980s direct-to-VHS sojourn, both of those things happen. We won’t even get into the technical quibbles involving McGuffin memory cards and satellite uplinks. While highlighting an all-too-recent period of terrible conflict is a well-intentioned pursuit, Harlin is simply not a director capable of pulling off such a sophisticated examination without falling back on cliché.