When U.S. Marine Gabriel Drummer (Shia LaBeouf) returns home from his tour in Afghanistan, he finds that the place he once called home is no better than the battlefields he fought on overseas. Accompanied by his best friend Devin Roberts (Jai Courtney), a hard-nosed Marine whose natural instinct is to shoot first and ask questions later, he searches desperately for the location of his estranged son, Johnathan (Charlie Shotwell), and wife Natalie (Kate Mara). In their search, the two intercept Charles (Clifton Collins Jr.), a man carrying vital information about the whereabouts of Gabriel's family. As we revisit the past, we are guided in unraveling the puzzle of Gabriel's experience and what will eventually lead us to finding his family.
The war in Afghanistan and the resulting PTSD, has become more of a topic for modern day cinema than Vietnam was in the 70s and 80s. It seems like once a month, we see a movie that deals with that subject matter, and I believe the reason for that is because it is still topical today. So, what becomes the most important element to these movies, and how do they differentiate from the rest? ‘Man Down’ absolutely understands how to answer one part of that question. If you have powerful actors, their ability to make you forget that you have seen these topics before because of their acting is essential. Here the actors are firing on all cylinders, and for many of them, it is their best performance that I have seen. But does ‘Man Down’s’ director and screen writer understand how to set themselves apart? That is an answer I am unsure of.
Shia Labeouf plays Gabriel Drummer, a charismatic country guy who meets his best friend Devin Roberts (Jai Courtney) in the marine corps. Right off the bat, to put it politely, I don't feel like Labeouf and certainly not Courtney are cinema’s greatest thespians; but I want to start out by congratulating Labeouf on his best performance yet (and his first really believable one), and compliment Courtney for not seeming stiff as a board; actually giving a performance that displays some charisma, and dare I say, emotional range. Gabriel is an all-American guy who is married to Natalie Drummer (Kate Mara) with a young son, Jonathan (Charlie Shotwell). But he also believes in fighting for his country, and Labeouf pulls that off effortlessly here. When his inevitable PTSD comes into play, he grounds it and that is the only thing that does, giving the subject matter the weight it deserves. Like Labeouf, Mara has always been an actress I never could get behind, but here there is a warmth to her character; even though she might be an underdeveloped character, she is a sympathetic one nonetheless.
Devin’s relationship becomes a key factor in the film and a big part of its nonlinear structure. This entire movie is told nonchronologically, and a key element to identifying what story line we are following, is where these two friends are in the war. One key storyline is with Garry Oldman’s character, Councilor Peyton, who is a war psychiatrist that is either counseling or questioning Gabriel about a traumatic “accident” that we can only imagine has something to do with Devin. Another storyline is an odd one, where Jonathan is captured in a warehouse somewhere and Gabriel heads up a two-man covert op to save his son. It is a key storyline that comes fully into fruition in the last ten minutes of the movie. I won't spoil anything, but unfortunately it is at that point where all storylines collide, and I did feel a bit manipulated or cheated by the end result. Regardless of the scenes between Peyton and Gabriel, the movie largely doesn't deal with PTSD, and for that to come into play in the last ten minutes feels like the cheap approach to the subject, despite the acting being good throughout.
‘Man Down’s’ biggest accomplishment is its acting. Specifically, Labeouf and Mara are excellent here, and even though the material eventually does fail them at the end, they carry this movie on their shoulders and pull us through the script problems here. ‘Man Down’ hinges on its nonlinear structure so heavily that when it comes time to tie storylines together and bring in its PTSD element which, quite frankly, comes out of nowhere and feels emotionally manipulating. The way that ‘Man Down’ wants to set itself apart from other war dramas is in its nonlinear structure, and that is its biggest downfall. If you are a person like me that can overlook more divisive plotting like this for strong performances you wouldn't normally get, then check this movie out, but only with that caveat.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Lionsgate brings ‘Man Down’ to Blu-ray armed with a slipcover to hard cover casing that opens up to reveal a standard BD-50 Blu-ray and a Digital HD Ultraviolet download code. Lionsgate is known for front loading their Blu-rays with an epic amount of trailers and this is no exception, but if your thumb doesn’t fall off from hitting the next button repeatedly, you might just get to the still image main menu where you will be able to navigate from there.
'Man Down' marches its way onto Blu-ray with a 1080P MPEG-4 AVC encode that fares well on the format despite some minor hiccups along the way. Framed at a 2:40.1 aspect ratio, details on the production of this movie are sparse, but it looks like this was shot on film and not digitally like a lot of films these days. Clarity is the biggest strength here with many shots looking crisp and clean while still giving the authentic grit that gives it its authentic feel. Grain is prevalent throughout but never overbearing. The balance between grain and clarity become immensely evident during key action scenes that feature larger than life smoke clouds during breaches, or the attack on the Humvee that comes into play about halfway through the film.
Detail work is good, with the Afghanistan scenes being the highlight; but it does become a victim to one of the minor problems on the disc. Whites are a tad on the bright side here, specifically in indoor scenes next to a window or an open door. The light from the outside pierces the screen at times, and blankets our characters in a way that makes them look soft with almost all facial detail harmed by a few moments. It seems like a stylistic choice to make us feel almost oppressed by the beating hot sun, but it does hurt the overall quality. Lastly, this may seem a bit odd, but there is an artificial quality the entire skyline of the movie all throughout. This was obviously done digitally in post again for a stylistic choice, but what it really meant to me was this was not filmed on location, and instead was filmed in a backlot somewhere. This may have something to do with the twist at the end, but it constantly took me out of the movie and stuck out like a sore thumb every time I saw it. I hesitate to even knock the transfer for that but I just wanted our readers to be aware. But those are only small gripes in a transfer that largely delivers just what you would expect from a studio as well established as Lionsgate.
Lionsgate breaches your home theater with a DTS-HD MA 5.1 mix that will make you want to stand up and shout “Hurrah!” even though is part of a film that is largely a drama, and has the ability to get your blood pumping. Whether you are out in the field, on a training mission, or home spending time with Gabriel's family, this surround mix shows you that it has some serious muscles to flex. Take a calmer scene, like when Jonathan gets his dog. He starts out in the center of the sound field with the dog in the basket, picks the dog up and runs off screen as his footsteps dissipate into your left speaker and his parents having a conversation still in center while the dog is barking in the background the entire time. It sounds simple, but it is the kind of effective sound design that makes you appreciate even the little things about the mix.
Despite a large amount of the movie taking place in Afghanistan there aren't too many action scenes, but when there are, they are quite impactful. Specifically, the scene where Gabriel and his troops raid the house: the surrounds explode as they blow open the door and get attacked, making it an impactful scene. The score isn't particularly strong, but it does blanket your entire sound field and come through your surrounds. The LFE track is lively and full of life, vocals and levels clear and audible. This is a great sound mix by Lionsgate and a stand out on this disc.
Audio Commentary with Director Dito Montiel and Military Consultant Nick Jones Jr. – I always enjoy commentaries where they get a professional to speak about the scenarios in the movie, and since none of the actors could come back for the commentary, Nick Jones Jr. is a welcome addition. There is actually a great deal of information given by Nick; for instance, there is a scene where Gabriel is in training and intentionally getting gassed to build his tolerance and that was actually put there because of Nick’s real life experiences. They also go into length about the ending of the film and the artificial quality of the skyline that I mentioned in the video quality, and it actually is because of the end twist.
A lot of people are actually confused about how to characterize ‘Man Down.’ I read one summary that characterized the movie as being set in a futuristic war, and another that stated it was about a marine that came home and had problems readjusting, all of which are not true. The film is about PTSD, but if Gabriel readjusting to home life brought it on, then that doesn't play out. And who could blame them? ‘Man Down’ leans so heavily on its nonlinear structure which never comes together, that it adds a lot of confusion about what the movie is even trying to say. Needless to say, the script for this movie was formed around its twist, instead of the other way around. But the strong performances from everyone involved are captivating. In fact, I would say that these are career highlights for Labeouf, Mara, and even Courtney. They all give this material the weight that the script cannot, and anyone interested in seeing their career highs should seek this out in my opinion.