Director – Matthew Michael Carnahan
Cast – Suhail Dabbach, Adam Bessa, Is’haq Elias
Mosul, a new war movie co-produced by the Russo brothers, is bookended by two terrific scenes. This isn’t to say that the rest of the film is in any way underwhelming, but the sheer confidence with which debutant director Matthew Michael Carnahan handles the opening and closing moments of his movie, set in the twilight of ISIS’ hold over the titular Iraqi city, is exciting — especially since he is working in a genre that thrives on tropes.
The immediacy with which we’re thrust into the action almost makes it seem as if Netflix’s da-dum has melded into the sound of gunfire. Two men are cornered behind a wooden desk, fielding assault from all sides. There are dead bodies strewn about. It looks like they’re inside what used to be a shop, but it’s difficult to tell. An apocalypse appears to have been unleashed outside.
Watch the Mosul trailer here
Just as the men — their uniforms suggest that they’re cops — are about to run out of ammo, we close in on them. Their faces confirm what we’re thinking. It’s over. But then, there’s a rapid burst of fire outside — quick, clinical — followed by a deathly silence. The men catch their breath, and with hesitant looks at each other, they peek over the desk behind which they’ve been hiding.
The enemy is dead, taken care of by group of heavily armed soldiers. They’re the legendary Nineveh SWAT team. The two cops have heard stories about this elite squad, whispered among the Iraqi people almost like fables about marauders of the past. After a brief interaction in which he lauds their bravery, the commander, Major Jasem, appoints the younger cop as the newest member of the SWAT team. He will be our surrogate in this brutal world.
His name is Kawa, and he has a lot to learn. For instance, he still believes in making arrests, an idea that Major Jasem puts an immediate end to. There will be no arrests as long as he’s in charge. Every last member of ISIS they come across must die — mercilessly, painfully, and preferably, without remorse.
Mosul unfolds across no more than 24 hours, as the Nineveh SWAT team trudges through the war-torn city to carry out a rogue mission. It’s structured almost like a video game, with several side quests — including an ‘escort mission’ — peppered throughout the narrative. This is in no way meant as a criticism. It’s simply a lean way to tell a story, a technique that the Russos previously employed in Extraction as well.
But unlike that film, Mosul isn’t all wall-to-wall action. Carnahan, the veteran screenwriter behind films such as The Kingdom, World War Z and Deepwater Horizon, pauses the pulse-pounding violence for moments of surreal absurdity. In one scene, Major Jasem exchanges cartons of cigarettes for much-needed ammunition. In another, the SWAT team takes refuge in an abandoned apartment and recharges on reruns of a Kuwaiti soap opera.
Like clockwork, these scenes are punctuated by sudden violence. There’s a repetitive quality to the story, which, despite the film’s relatively short runtime, begins to feel slightly tedious after a point. And although no character is sacred, they’re also difficult to tell apart from one another. Besides Kawa, our surrogate, and Major Jasem, only a couple of other members of the team register. Incidentally, this is a dead giveaway for who gets to live.
But despite the thin plot, Carnahan manages to instil humanity in these men with nifty screenwriting techniques. As Kawa’s innocence erodes before our eyes, Major Jasem’s tragic past is revealed, bit by bit. He’s a magnetic character, performed idiosyncratically by Suhail Dabbach. Jasem has a habit of picking up trash and binning it, even though Mosul looks like a place Mad Max could comfortably call home.
Kudos to production designer Philip Ivey, who also worked on the Lord of the Rings movies, for transforming Morocco into the war-ravaged Mosul. There’s visible green screen work, especially in a rooftop action sequence, but by and large, the Hollywood sheen is downplayed in favour of a rugged brutality. It helps that, rather boldly, Carnahan has elected to make the movie in Arabic. We never see this in American productions. And while Mosul might come across as inadequate American compensation for having invaded an entire country, it’s more than that.
Francois Truffaut famously declared that all war movies end up being pro-war. But there’s something to be said about the manner in which Mosul ends — understated, staunchly humanist — that defies Truffaut’s sweeping (and rather outdated) generalisation.