The plot, a stunningly accurate portrayal of an event that occurred in Helmand Province in 2006, follows the men of 3 Para, stationed along a ridge adjacent to Kajaki Dam. On an expedition to clear a Taliban roadblock, one brave, unwitting soldier finds himself blown up by a landmine left by the Soviets in a dried-up riverbed, badly injured and unable to move. Were he able to, he wouldn’t have the urge; one further false step could mean tripping another mine or three. His comrades from 3 Para soon mount a rescue mission that goes from bad to worse in a nail-biting hour-and-change set-piece.
The set-up of the film initially focuses on Tug, played with aplomb by Game of Thrones’ Mark Stanley (Grenn!). The team medic, his first big scene is checking on newbie Jonesy’s “dick-rot”. Before the film is out, Tug is pushed a hell of a lot farther than he ever imagined. Stanley really is a standout here, presenting the most natural performance that for a second you’d feel like you were watching a documentary about soldiers rather than a bunch of actors pretending to be. The same generally goes for the rest of the cast, whose stint training in Colchester together has apparently brought out the best in all of them as far as acting soldierly goes. Their bond with each other in the film feels earned; the majority of the characters may be thinly-sketched, but their easy camaraderie makes the pill easier to swallow.
Katis and writer Tom Williams don’t pussyfoot around, avoiding spoon-feeding the audience in the beginning; the military lingo comes thick and fast, and we’re barely given Cliffnotes as to who each character is and what their relationships are to the others. This incites a more realistic feel to the film, as you are literally dropped into the middle of this segment of 3rd Battalion’s life on the ridge. There are one or two clichéd blips that are to be expected from a war film – one main character who mentions his fiancée back home has a bullseye on his back immediately thereafter.
Once the film kicks into gear and soldiers start dropping like flies in the minefield, the realisation kicks in; this isn’t a war film. It’s horror. The Taliban are nowhere to be seen once the Paras are stuck in that riverbed; although the threat of them attacking the vulnerable British soldiers is mentioned, it is not their biggest worry. The sheer, nerve-shredding tension of every footstep, every slide of a hand across the ground, will have you squirming in your seat. The fear is palpable; the filmmakers very wisely put you in the passenger seat, making you feel as helpless as these men must have done.
As the injuries mount up, the gore obviously increases. But whilst the gore seen in the recent Fury was bombastic and showy, hinging on Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds in regards to schlock-and-awe, Kajaki only ever shows what it needs to; Katis’ dedication to accurately portraying the events of 6th September (known throughout our armed forces as ‘The Day of Days’) means the wounds are equally authentic. The wounds these men suffered are indeed horrific; the commendable point being that they’re not gratuitously used here. It’s realism in all its grittiness. It’s what you want from a war film.
At the close of the second act the injured soldiers lie prostrate, waiting for rescue. The longer they wait, the more they feel they’re simply waiting to die. Again the actors’ connection with one another, a believable soldier-like brotherhood vibe, shines through. The believable conversation between them during this high-stakes situation strikes a chord (it can’t have hurt having many of the real-life players advise on the script and story – another testament to the filmmakers’ desire for accuracy). Those more injured than others are the ones to keep their comrades’ spirits up – it can’t be described as anything less than stirring. Occasionally the odd supporting actor is stymied by a bad line delivery, although this is generally in the more low-key moments; come the emotionally-charged moments, every man gives it their all (presumably something to do with the spectre of honouring the real-life heroes hanging over their heads).
First-time feature director Katis has been around the industry a while, and the things he has learned through osmosis are obvious here. The action is easy to follow and understand when all the chips fall where they may. The tension is plucked at expertly, like Brian May strumming a guitar. Whilst a lot of the rock-‘em-sock ‘em-macho-manliness of the soldiers gets to be a little much sometimes, made worse by aforementioned bad line deliveries, Katis eventually has them reign it in during the film’s more somber moments.
The closest parallel that comes to mind is that this could very well be the British Black Hawk Down. A FUBAR situation that senselessly costs limbs and lives, fuelled by strangers-in-a-strange-land mentality (the Afghan mountains here might as well be Mars), the easy rapport between the actors and the extreme futility of the engagement, all combine to heavily evoke Ridley Scott’s modern classic. This reviewer can only hope that it gets the attention it craves.
A saccharine end credits sequence is well deserved, with the film ultimately having you appreciative of all those in our armed forces do for us and the things these men put on the line (no matter your politics).
Review by Daniel Woburn
[SRA value=”4″ type=”YN”]
Kajaki is out on DVD, Blu-ray and VOD on 08 June 2015.