Jai Courtney plays a Marine who decides to spring his younger brother from prison in Henry Alex Rubin's action-thriller.
You can feel the straining among the divergent elements in Henry Alex Rubin's new film starring Jai Courtney. Semper Fi tries to simultaneously be a tough-minded picture about the camaraderie of men in warfare and the physical and psychological pressures they face upon returning home and a standard-issue thriller about a prison break. The two elements never mesh convincingly, proving neither substantial enough to work as compelling drama nor sufficiently suspenseful as action-thriller.
Courtney (Terminator Genisys, Suicide Squad) plays the central role of Cal, a police officer in a small upstate New York town and the longtime guardian of his rebellious, emotionally volatile younger brother Oyster (Nat Wolff, The Fault in Our Stars), with whom he has a loving but troubled relationship. The siblings' friends, and fellow Marine reservists, for whom proper names seem to be in short supply, include Jaegar (Finn Wittrock, American Horror Story), Milk (Beau Knapp, Death Wish) and Snowball (Arturo Castro, Narcos).
After dutifully establishing the macho credentials of its testosterone-laden characters with rambunctious scenes set in bowling alleys and taverns, the story really kicks in when Oyster gets involved in a barroom brawl and accidentally kills someone. Despite the extenuating circumstances, he's given a 25-year sentence for manslaughter, entering prison just as Cal and the others head to Iraq for their tours of duty (the story is set in 2005).
The subsequent scenes alternately depicting the men's brutal combat experiences and Oyster's violent mistreatment at the hands of prison guards who've taken a distinct and irrational dislike to him are powerfully, if sketchily, rendered. The narrative picks up steam with Cal's return to the states, where he discovers the abuse and brutal beatings that his brother has suffered. Helpless to intervene through legal means, he devises an unlikely (and credibility-straining) plan to spring Oyster out of prison and smuggle him to Canada, enlisting his reluctant friends as accomplices.
Unfortunately, it's at this point that the too obviously titled Semper Fi (we get it, Marines are loyal) feels its most generic. The standard-issue action movie mechanics never prove galvanizing, with director/co-screenwriter Rubin delivering them in perfunctory fashion. The pic's most powerful sequence, ironically, is also its most low-key, depicting a visit by Cal and his friends to Walter Reed Hospital. The scenes showing the patients, many of them missing limbs, engaging in physical therapy, swimming and other activities resonate with an authenticity sadly lacking in the rest of the movie. It's not entirely surprising, considering that Rubin's most notable previous credit is 2005's acclaimed, Oscar-nominated documentary Murderball, about quadriplegics competing in the Paralympic Games, and that his co-screenwriter, Sean Mullin (Amira & Sam), is a former U.S. Army officer.
The performers frequently rise above their material. Courtney provides subtle shadings of anguished depth to the emotionally conflicted Cal; Wolff, sporting a buzz cut and playing a character far removed from his usual sensitive young men, is impressively charismatic; and Wittrock deploys his natural charm to excellent effect. Leighton Meester, seemingly on hand to lend at least a little feminine energy to the proceedings as Jaegar's love interest and the resident voice of reason, is appealing in what unfortunately feels like an extraneous role.