Paul Gross’s war movie attempts to tell the story of Canada’s involvement in Afghanistan with a shotgun not a sniper’s rifle
Starring: Rossif Sutherland, Christine Horne, Paul Gross, Naemat Arghandabi
Directed by: Paul Gross
Running time: 120 minutes
By Katherine Monk
It’s hard not to make a comparison to American Sniper, even though Paul Gross’s movie about Canada’s involvement in Afghanistan was clearly looking at a completely different target.
A production with multiple storylines, Hyena Road takes a shotgun approach to war, not the telephoto scope of a high-powered rifle.
For veteran actor Paul Gross, who already walked the director trenches with Passchendaele and Men with Brooms, taking a Canadian lens to battle puts him in his wheelhouse.
He clearly has a passion for all the machinery and historic detail that war buffs demand, and he’s good with male emotion, two requirements for selling the life and death reality of being on the front lines.
So all systems are go when we touch down at Kandahar airfield and enter life behind the wall of wire and cargo containers.
Gross offers a voiceover to make sure we get the context, but he’s really just giving us a feel for what it’s like to be a boots-on-the-ground soldier. He shows us men and women trying to find a degree of normalcy in the chaos, but no mission is routine – a fact he sets up in the opening act with a surprise ambush on group of men watching a new road.
In the firefight, we meet our central character Ryan (Roffif Sutherland), a handsome commander who made it past the Kevlar and pierced the heart of Jennifer (Christine Horne), the all-business officer who watches the ongoing operations via satellite wearing a headset.
Jennifer and Ryan are in love, but no one knows except us. Love, as we all know, is a liability in war. And war is Hell.
War movies can also be hell when they get lost in the unavoidable maze of available clichés, but Gross stays off most of the previously mapped terrain because he’s the first director to focus on the Canadian angle.
And the Canadian side might wear the same camo and carry the same guns, but Canadians speak a different language when it comes to the underlying propaganda of warfare that propels these big production vehicles.
In this movie, the main objective is completing the titular blacktop. Hyena Road will help develop remote regions and become a safe supply route, but before the convoys can move forward, a few deals with local elders and the odd warlord have to be brokered.
This is where Gross’s character, Pete, comes in. He’s an intelligence officer tasked with making the necessary connections and collecting secret information.
Pete uses his brain and Ryan uses his gun. But the Ghost (Naemat Arghandabi) uses a different brand of weapon: his reputation in the community as a fierce warrior and a respected enemy of the Soviet Army.
The Ghost saved Ryan from a siege using Pashtunwali – a tribal law that is lived, not written, and grants amnesty in a person’s home. If you saw Mark Wahlberg in Lone Survivor, you know what this looks like: A fighter is surrounded and doomed, but finds safe haven at the last minute from a wise man who shoos the gunmen away.
It looks insane and incomprehensible given the modern theatre of war seems to have no rules, no ethics, no code of law, but that’s the mother lode of theme Gross is trying to mine.
He wants us to see the senseless tragedy of it all by accentuating the small and large acts of humanity that give war depth, otherwise, it’s just a blur of blood and sadness without shape or definition.
The strategy was sound, but the script proves clunky on screen because it’s clad in a heavy armor of thought and doesn’t leave enough gaps for the subtle nuances and offhand gestures that make characters feel entirely real.
Pete, Ryan, Jennifer and the Ghost have an almost soap opera quality: A tendency to speak in full sentences that explain plot detail and motivation… while looking hot.
It’s a more than watchable package, but it never quite reaches the heights or depths it was striving for because so much of the drama feels generic and the scenes don’t feel sculpted.
Gross gets points for the action scenes and the graphic details, as well as putting Canada’s story up on screen and bringing a fresh perspective to the mix of Middle East war films, but Hyena Road doesn’t have any particular destination.
There is no underlying ideology beneath the battle dress, no lurking notion of a higher purpose fuelling the existential tension. There’s only a sincere sense of duty, which is a clear tribute to the Canadian Forces, but makes for a war movie without a cause, which may be the most tragic brand of war movie of all.