Fair play to director Matthew Hope. Of all the reasons for making a film, shining a light on the difficulties faced by soldiers returning from combat is one of the worthier ones.
The Veteran is written by Hope and and Robert Henry Craft, a former soldier who spent 24 years in the Parachute Regiment. Its opening moments feel like they carry the weight of Craft’s experience: a rumbling soundtrack, jolting flashbacks to moments of violence, and Toby Kebbell’s Robert Miller, the eponymous veteran, punching the wall of his squalid flat in frustration while struggling to put on a tie.
It’s a nicely played opening few minutes. Brooding and stripped of dialogue, it has echoes of Anton Corbijn’s The American, another film that has as its protagonist a man unable to let go of his past. Where Corbijn triumphed, though, is where Hope flails. The American was beautifully simple and uncluttered, like one long breath let out slowly and delicately. Corbijn wasn’t afraid to strip away all the excess that litters so many films. The Veteran, by contrast, is filled with it.
Hope surrounds Kebbell’s Miller with so many convoluted plot lines that the early intrigue of the film’s early scenes is all but forgotten. There’s a 24-style terrorist surveillance operation that sees Miller work for the shadowy Tony Curran and Brian Cox (so tuned to his Bourne/X2 dubious-man-of-authority autopilot that it feels like he’s leaving a message for someone else to phone in on his behalf); an attempt to rescue a lovely-looking undercover operative (they’re the best kind, aren’t they?); and a local drug war that has recruited the younger brother of Miller’s friend.
Where once there was simmering tension, a confusing malaise soon reigns. Even with so many things going on, however, The Veteran rarely offers anything to get too excited about. The best way to sum up the film’s first half? Kebbell follows some people, talks to Curran about it, then follows them again. And that’s about it.
It breaks up with these long sojourns with some dialogue ripped from the pages of action movie dialogue 101 – “You lie again, I’ll open you up”, or, my personal favourite, “You have to earn trust” – and the odd contrivance that allows characters to turn up at just the right time and with little motivation, just to propel each storyline forward that bit more.
Other characters break into long, clunky diatribes on everything from the war on terror as a smokescreen for facilitating London’s drug trade to other ramblings that even Cox can’t make memorable.
All of which sounds incredibly harsh. Which I hate to be. Especially when The Veteran is so obviously made on a low budget and has two great sequences after its initial promise has faded. The first, a shot of men disappearing into dark alleys like they’ve been swallowed by a black hole, paints a great picture of London as a world both mysterious and completely alien to Kebbell’s returning soldier.
The second does a terrific job of highlighting the sickening aftermath of violence that Hollywood glosses over so readily; Kebbell practically doubled over in pain following a short, sharp knife fight. After the bloodless and empty spectacle of Sucker Punch, it’s a vivid reminder that violence hurts. A lot.
But for all its pretence of wanting to tell a story about post-traumatic stress disorder, The Veteran veers closer to the nasty, bombastic Death Wish 3 as it reaches its climactic shoot-out. But it’s an action scene that holds no tension because Hope and Craft haven’t given us enough reason, or desire, for it.
The Veteran is a film half developed, a story filled with actors but no characters, 97 minutes of things happening but very little drama. Even Kebbell, so naturally charismatic in Control and RocknRolla, can’t save it (it’s hard to believe his battle-hardened soldier is so naïve that he never questions the really suspicious-looking Curran and Cox; didn’t he see The Recruit?).
There’s an interesting story here. It’s just buried deep beneath some lazy plotting and a gradual decline into showy violence.