It’s been twenty years since the Bosnian War. Benjamin (Robert De Niro), who served as a colonel for the American army has been living a quiet life in a cabin in the wilderness, cut off from what family he has left; content to take pictures of his surroundings. One fateful day, Benjamin meets Emil (John Travolta), a Serbian who has spent the years since the war recuperating from a near-fatal gunshot wound, and is now out for revenge against the Americans who butchered his platoon – including Benjamin. What unfolds is a compelling drama in which Benjamin and Emil are constantly trying to get the upper hand on each other, while finding time to philosophize and discuss the grander ramifications of their actions during and after the war.
There’s something wonderfully theatrical about this film: the few number of characters, the relatively singular setting, the emphasis on dialogue and character development. And yet, it has to be film. The singular setting of the woods Benjamin lives in is enormous and needs to be given scope through the film medium. Also, the cinematography and general look of the film is beautiful in a way that a staged production would find it impossible to recreate. But watching these two men interact here, constantly juxtaposing drama with action is really fantastic.
Now, De Niro and Travolta have had fairly spotty careers lately. I’m as much a fan of De Niro’s early work as anyone, but things took a sudden and depressing turn when he started appearing in films like Meet the Parents. On the other hand, Travolta doesn’t really have a golden period of his work, but rather manages to take a film once in a while that stands out as something special. Both actors are at the top of their game in this one, and it’s a real treat to watch. This makes for De Niro’s second great performance in a row after last year’s Silver Linings Playbook, and I’d love nothing more than to see him continue this upswing. Travolta may take some slack for his Serbian accent here, but it sounded good to me, and his portrayal of Emil as being completely ruthless, and yet honorable is absolutely perfect.
The whole film is a class in character development. Each character is given a rich and interesting back story, a compelling want to pursue, and a host of good obstacles to get what they want. Obviously what makes the drama so effective here is that each character’s obstacle is the other character, and while the structure of Benjamin and Emil taking turns in who gets the upper hands does get a little repetitive, the scenes between these moments where the power shifts are fascinating.
My only big criticism of the film is the title. I feel like it’s a generic action movie title and that does not at all represent what this movie is. This may do more to alienate the film’s ideal audience than draw them in.
The only special features is a behind the scenes featurette. Available on Blu-ray and DVD from Millennium Entertainment on August 20.