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A talented actor and a worthy message aren't enough to save "Man Down," a hopelessly convoluted take on war and the toll it takes on those who fight it.
Lance Cpl. Gabriel Drummer (played by Shia LaBeouf) is a Marine devoted to his wife, Natalie (Kate Mara), their son, Jonathan (Charlie Shotwell), and his "battle buddy," Cpl. Devin Roberts (Jai Courtney). Gabriel tells all this to Col. Peyton (Gary Oldman), a military psychiatrist, as he recounts how he and Devin went through basic training and a tour in Afghanistan ending in something repeatedly referred to as "the incident."
Director Dito Montiel, rewriting a script by Adam G. Simon, follows Gabriel's backstory along with scenes from his home life with Natalie and Jonathan. The movie also shows Gabriel and Devin after their tour in Afghanistan, searching for survivors in a post-apocalyptic America reminiscent of Cormac McCarthy's "The Road."
As "Man Down" plays out, one starts to suspect this dystopian twist is a metaphorical gambit. By the time Montiel shows his cards, the viewer's eyes start to roll at the cheesy and distasteful conceit. That's unfortunate, because it obscures a powerful point Montiel tries to make (and lays out in closing title cards) about the problems many veterans face with post-traumatic stress, mental illness, suicide and homelessness.
Montiel's odd handling of this story is a disservice to LaBeouf, who got his first grown-up starring role a decade ago in Montiel's "A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints." Here, the collaboration gives LaBeouf a chance to play a tightly wound character, a Marine who puts his head down and powers through adversity, and to show what happens when such a person is pushed past the breaking point.
The issues "Man Down" raises are important, and it's noble for Montiel and LaBeouf to try to dramatize them so forcefully. But when the storytelling feels at odds with the intent, until the viewer becomes too annoyed to take the message seriously, it becomes a wasted opportunity.
A Marine returns home from Afghanistan to a dystopian America in this confused drama.
Where • Megaplex Jordan Commons (Sandy), Megaplex at The District (South Jordan).
When • Opens Friday, Dec. 2.
Rating • R for some disturbing violence, and language throughout.
Running time • 91 minutes.