Hyena Road (2015)

I have to admit…I don’t think I’ve ever actively sought out a through-n-through Canadian-made film in the theatre, about a uniquely Canadian ‘historical’ experience. I’m a solidly patriotic citizen of this largely wonderful country…but Canadian cinema ALWAYS trails behind US fare (just a fact, sad though it may be). It could just be the American marketing budgets lending HUGE exposure to high-budget Mainstream American movies, all over the world. They flood the market…we just can’t afford to. Whether that’s fair or not, it is what it is. To automatically name a solid, theatrically-worthy Canadian film, the first titles that leap to mind are ‘Cube’ (1997), the ‘Ginger Snaps’ series (2000-2004), ‘FUBAR’ (2002) and ‘Good Cop, Bon Cop’ (2006). Of course there’s also the films of our own David Cronenberg (‘Videodrome’), but he gets enough fan-fare in the US and International markets to avoid being pigeon-holed as solely a Canadian director. Paul Gross (‘Due South’) is one of THOSE directors. I know of at least two other Paul Gross films, those being ‘Men With Brooms’ (2002) and the WW1 drama ‘Passchendaele’ (2008). For whatever reason, these flicks just haven’t screamed ‘SEE ME!’. But then I came across a trailer for this one, and my interest was peaked. First off, it’s a modern-day War Film featuring a Canadian standpoint on a war that was very recently fought (and to a degree, still is),…that war being Afghanistan. Secondly, the styling showed clear influence from other, highly-regarded and well-funded war films like ‘Black Hawk Down’ (2001) and ‘Lone Survivor’ (2013), or France’s ‘Forces Speciales’ (2011). So, with those two impressions squarely in mind, I marked it down on my inner calendar, to check out IF it turns up at the local cinema. Which, low and behold, it did this weekend. So…off I went!
‘Hyena Road’ loosely follows the members of a Canadian special forces squad (JTF2?) as they find themselves in contact with a renowned former mujahideen fighter, whom they stumble over while set upon by an over-whelming force of Taliban fighters during an Op. Once it’s discovered who he is, the squad and their Commanding Officer ‘Pete’ (Paul Gross) find themselves orchestrating a ‘power play’ between this mysterious rebel figure, known as ‘The Ghost’ (Neamat Arghandabi) and a Father and Son team of Taliban operatives, in order to secure protection from the local militia for the building of a 15 km stretch of strategically-planned highway, named ‘Hyena Road’. Along the way, there’s also a useless sub-plot regarding one of the soldiers and his on-again, off-again romance with a female Captain in the Ops Room…who turns out to be preggers (whoops!).
‘Hyena Road’ is a Good flick…but not Great. It definitely has it’s flaws (mostly in the characters and pacing). It REALLY wants to be counted among those other military titles I listed earlier, but it crosses the Finish Line just a little ways back.
Visually-speaking, Director / Star Paul Gross certainly did his homework when it came to his portrayals of military environments and how to show us combat in a way that’s both stylish AND effective. Many of the action scenes were well-shot and edited, and I admit to finding myself tensed up during, at least, one of them…namely the first combat sequence that opens the film. Technically, this movie is solidly constructed. It appears that Gross may have had the co-operation of the Canadian Forces, much like the aid and resources that the US military bequeathed on to Ridley Scott and Jerry Bruckheimer on ‘Black Hawk Down’ (just FAR less). Which brings me to my first real complaint / observation. Something I noticed was a surprisingly heavy use of Actual Combat Footage, of the type found anywhere you care to look on the InterWebz. Having something of a military fetish (despite not having the balls to enlist or the FULL respect of authority needed to make me a good Soldier), I’ve seen MUCH of the footage that peppered this narrative elsewhere, cut in among the material shot exclusively for this film. When I noticed it was bothering me, I sat back and asked “How would this play for someone NOT as familiar with this material?” Probably…pretty well, actually. The footage used, is used nicely and the editing, in conjunction with the Production Footage, largely works. Anyone with a discerning eye WILL see the notable differences in film / video ‘stock’ when it flashes past though.
There’s also a strange mixture of tone present here. There are some scenes that are decidedly ‘heavy’, followed shortly after by some elements of borderline ‘silliness’. Sometimes it worked, helping to flesh out the somewhat bland personalities of the troops, while other times it came off as clumsy…or even amateurish. There’s one scene that popped up that had me squirming and shaking my head, actually a little embarrassed. This isn’t really a spoiler, but there’s a sequence where Paul Gross’s CO character and the troops are waiting for an escort, out in the open plain between two mountains, at mid-day. In other words, out in the fucking open! Gross’s ‘Pete’ character catches the sounds of ‘Play that Funky Music’ by ‘Wild Cherry’ singing out from a nearby ANA soldier’s transistor radio. Instead of ordering the soldier to kill the tunes and get back ‘on point’, he instead has the guy ‘up’ the volume so they can all partake in an impromptu dance party in the dust. Soon, everybody is ‘shakin and shimmy’n’ awkwardly around their Land Rovers and making asses out of themselves. I get what the point was, with Gross wanting to balance out the combat and stress with one of ‘those’ amusing little moments that emerge sometimes in moments of high tension; sort of a ‘steam valve’ motif. But it stood out like a sore thumb and played out as needlessly silly…while making our troops look incompetent (sorry, guys!). If they were trying to portray ‘Pete’ as a capable leader and the man clearly in charge of the situation, they would’ve removed the scene entirely or altered it to keep the men’s attention on the priority of the moment, being their 360 degree security in a hostile environment. Speaking of ‘sticking out like a sore thumb’, there were sequences in this flick where characters where dropping serious F-Bombs in their casual AND official conversations (one Canadian general, in particular). Now, I’m no prude…as any reader of my reviews can attest to, but it just felt like we were trying TOO hard to stand next to the notable US titles in the military genre, where the harsh language seems to flow naturally, in keeping with the perceived American National Character. And going back to that real-life footage of Canadian soldiers in combat that I’ve seen, in the same areas being portrayed here, yes…they swear like motherfuckers! I think that’s just gotta be accepted, being that ‘prim n proper’ just fly out the window in a life or death combat situation. But SOMEHOW and for SOME REASON, the use of the crass language just felt too much like posturing. We, as Canadians, generally do pride ourselves on being considered a little bit more polite and considerate than our Neighbors to the South (sorry, US…but it’s true). A little bit more of THAT would’ve been just fine with me. Have the characters break out the cussing when the situation called for it, instead of just having them F-Bomb here and F-Bomb there, just to get across that they’re Hardcore Cynical Types Living on The Edge. As stated, I know that ‘boonie rap’ is a fact of combat going back as long as combat has existed, I’m sure, but it was strangely distracting.
This one is more of a pet peeve, but something else I found weak was footage shown prominently in the trailer of an American A-10 Warthog unleashing what looked like a Maverick Air to Ground missile mid-bank at…something. It was a cool shot and I, being a military aircraft nut, wanted to see how this ugly but formidable jet would factor into the story. But nope. Not a sign of it ANYWHERE in the damn movie! I hate it when studios pull shit like that. It seems cheap and manipulative. I get that as a film is edited, some times footage needs to be removed and sometimes it happens to be footage already presented to us, the Movie-Going Public, in ‘trailer’ form…but it’s still irritating, damn it!
All in all, I applaud Paul Gross’s efforts to give the War Genre it’s own cinematic contribution of Canadiana. The First Act was solid and established the situation of the troops well, while also injecting us into a harsh fire-fight situation that played out as genuinely exciting. The Second Act did noticeably slow down, and too much attention was devoted to the useless pregnancy plot and the ‘forbidden’ (but not really) romance between the Captain and the Warrant Officer, inter-cut with the dull and clumsy machinations of pitting one warlord against another, all for Allied purposes. Things picked back up in Third Act and we were treated to some more cool combat scenes and cliche’d examples of self-sacrifice; all with the expected gory wounds and deaths. On the downside, aside from the yawn-inducing romance and ‘padded’ dealings with the locals, the characters / actors, while great at spouting out convincing-sounding ‘radio chatter’ and ‘selling’ the ability to move tactically through the fight scenes, were paper-thin characterizations…mere steps from flat-out stereotypes (The Grizzled Officer, The Mustached Sniper, the Newbie / Native kid, The Stoic Squad Leader, The Black Guy etc). I have to give Gross and his team a solid ‘A’ for technical effort…but this war drama could’ve been a Modern Day War Classic, had I been more invested in the personalities and challenges of the main characters. As it stands…it’s a solid, ambitious movie that, despite its flaws, I’m glad is out there, getting an actual Theatrical Release. I hope it does well and that Paul Gross takes notes when the critics dig in (and they will), so that he can continue to hone the talent that he clearly has and get more, higher-profile pictures. Also, my inner patriot hopes other countries take heed of this one and note it’s strong points. Hey, World! (waves frantically), our little Canadian movies can compete too, you know!! We can play the Movie-Making Game with the rest of you!! (stamps foot defiantly). If you like War Films or Canadian Movies, you’ll probably have a decent time watching ‘Hyena Road’. While it was cool to see this in the theatre, the only reason I’d REALLY recommend viewing it there would be to try and help boost the Box Office for it. Truthfully, you’ll do just fine with this flick on Blu ray or Netflix. Good…not Great.

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