There may be few directors with more one-for-them, one-for-me chips to cash in than Marvel’s in-house brothers, Joe and Anthony Russo. Which makes sense, of course. When your last two movies cleared nearly $5 billion at the global box office, you begin to develop a thing called clout.
Now with both “Avengers” films in the rearview mirror, they’re making good on some hard-won sway — in this case, producing screenwriter Matthew Michael Carnahan’s directorial debut, the ripped-from-the-headlines war drama “Mosul.”
On paper, “Mosul” does indeed sound like the kind of project that could use a few patrons willing to take risks. Adapted from a 2017 New Yorker article about an elite Iraqi SWAT team taking the fight to ISIS, this is an Arabic-language film without a single recognizable performer, set entirely in the concrete remnants of a bombed-out city. The major studios aren’t exactly rushing to make those.
In execution, however, the screenwriter-turned-director spins his tale as an unrelenting action jackhammer — the kind certain marketing departments might label “pulse-pounding” — delivered with the same Hollywood polish he brought to his screenplays for “World War Z” and “The Kingdom.” The tension builds, the bullets fly and if the onscreen buildings crumble, the three-act-structure comes out intact. For good or ill, “Mosul” feels very much like a studio film.
It hews along a well-trodden road, following members of the Nineveh SWAT team throughout one long and bloody day in the bombed-out battlefield that was once their hometown. All of them are one-time Mosul PD, each member a one-time victim of ISIS now out for revenge at all costs and without mercy. As the opening credit titles soon make clear, this mobile force has become ISIS’ most tenacious adversary in the region.
To build a multiplex-friendly narrative out of what basically amount to a bunch of grizzled vets running around a war zone alternately receiving or returning fire, Carnahan dusts off an old classic, riffing on a “Three Musketeers”-like framework that finds a wet-behind-the-ears young upstart inducted into a warrior fraternity, then gradually ascending to a leadership position within it.
The fact that this whole story is supposed to play out in something close to real-time does require some suspension of disbelief, but on that front, the film’s top-of-the-line production designers and sound editors more than draw you in to the violent immediacy of the moment.
It starts immediately enough: We open on young officer Kawa (French actor Adam Bessa) already deep into a firefight with enemy forces. Soon enough, the ISIS fighters overwhelm the rookie and his less than stellar partner. All hope is lost — until the renegade SWAT rolls in. Led by the weary Major Jaseem (Suhail Dabbach, “The Hurt Locker”), the Nineveh force scares off the assailants and then quickly inducts Kawa into their recently depleted force.
Though the Tom Clancy-like team includes many a soul, the only character to make a lasting impression throughout the course of the film is the lethal, chain-smoking Waleed (Jordanian actor Ishaq Elias). The other men get a moment here or there, but if you were to send them up into space, to boldly go where no man has gone before, they’re all basically redshirts — which isn’t to say any of our three leads themselves are guaranteed safe passage through the dangerous streets of “Mosul.”
Like “Black Hawk Down” on a fraction of the budget, “Mosul” is more concerned with the insanity of modern urban warfare, and the intricacies of restaging it on screen, than in really burrowing into deep character study. Actor Suhail Dabbach acquits himself with the right amount of gravitas as the squad’s sober-minded leader, only the role doesn’t really ask that much more of him.
Instead, “Mosul” barrels forward like a live-action game of “Counterstrike,” introducing a Chekhov’s rocket-propelled grenade in the first act and making the viewer damn well certain it’ll go off before the curtain falls.
“Mosul” is more than just a brawny action epic. It earns a spot on this year’s festival circuit if only for the way it rejects some of the industry’s most pernicious received wisdom. Carnahan does away with any All-American stand-ins, and never tries to shoehorn in some hunky Midwestern savior. Without deviating from the war-thriller playbook, this Hollywood film offers a frontal assault on the mistaken belief that U.S. audiences cannot identify with characters speaking other languages.
Now, the fact that so many of these actors get a turn in the hero’s seat and get to take a break from playing “ISIS Fighter No. 7” in a film where other actors very much do play “ISIS Fighter No. 7 (and No. 8, No. 9 and No. 10)” is not without a fair amount of irony, but what can you do? The war is not yet won. The battle for representation still rages. Let’s hope $5 billion buys the Russo brothers a few more chips.