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American Independent Cinema, NORTH AMERICAN CINEMA

‘Mosul’ (2019): An Iraq War Drama (almost) Free of Westerners

Directed by: Matthew Michael Carnahan || Produced by: Anthony Russo, Joe Russo, Jeremy Steckler, Mike Larocca

Screenplay by: Matthew Michael Carnahan || Starring: Suhail Dabbach, Waleed Elgadi, Adam Bessa, Mohimen Mahbuba, Is’haq Elias, Ben Affran

Music by: Henry Jackman || Cinematography: Mauro Fiore || Editing by: Alex Rodriguez || Country: United States || Language: Arabic

Running Time: 86 minutes

Anthony and Joe Russo, also known as “The Russo Bros.” thanks to their successful work in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU; 2008-2019), have clear affection for old-school action thrillers based on grounded, close-quarters-combat (CQC) with minimal computer generated imagery (CGI) embellishment. This may sound odd given their command of multiple big-budget Hollywood superhero blockbusters, but in part due to their chemistry with screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeeley and their great taste in action filmmaking, they have straddled an ingenious middle-ground between the CGI excesses of most Hollywood tenptole features and the hardcore, violent action pictures for which they have such obvious affection. The Raid (2011) informed the action of The Winter Soldier (2014), whose success set the tone for the Russos’ Civil War (2016), Infinity War (2018), and Endgame (2019), for example.

Aside from brief drone footage of the real-life ruins of Mosul, once Iraq’s second largest city, the film transitions to handheld camerawork based in Marrakesh for the bulk of its run-time.

In light of the releases of Extraction (2020) and Mosul, CQC and shootout-based action films exclusive to Netflix and produced by the Russo Bros., not to mention the franchise potential of their upcoming Netflix spy-thriller, The Gray Man (estimated 2022), their future career legacy is clear: Rebuilding and re-popularizing the traditional, violent action movie that Hollywood replaced with FX-heavy spectacle long ago.

Mosul, a dramatization of Iraqi paramilitary forces’ battles with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, ISIS, or Daesh in Arabic) in 2016, has been painted by critics as “necessary” compensation for so many American-centric war films based on conflicts in the Middle East; the movie’s critical feedback on review aggregate websites also includes amusing complaints regarding the film’s American writer-director, Matthew Michael Carnahan. As Mike Stoklasa of Red Letter Media might say, “Get rid of that white dude!

In all seriousness, however, Mosul is little more than an Arabic language-action version of numerous desert warfare films you’ve seen before, but it’s a decent one, I’ll give it that. Carnahan performs well in his directorial debut (the man has written eight feature film or television series besides this one, most of which were military-style thrillers), providing his action sequences good coverage and energic handheld camerawork without resorting to unnecessary “shaky cam.” His shots often depict shooters and their targets in the same frame like a videogame shooter, which clarifies the geography of the action and actors’ placements throughout each set-piece.

Outside the movie’s considerable cinematic violence is where Carnahan and his cast really shine, however. The script takes time to articulate personality quirks and motivation for all major characters, including our protagonist, Adam Bessa, whose introduction to the principle Iraqi SWAT team mirrors the audience’s. None of these characters are three-dimensional, but all have enough personality and emotion to give Mosul a human heart beyond its action sequences.

What hurts Mosul is its slow-moving, poorly paced opening act and drab, repetitive set-design. After a pulse-pounding opening scene, the movie grinds to a halt as our primary SWAT team takes Bessa under their wing and moves from building to building with little explanation to either Bessa or the audience. The reveal of the SWAT team’s ultimate goal in the third act alleviates this problem somewhat, but the cryptic battle strategy of these characters provides little motivation for the audience to care about them at first other than the fact they’re battling ISIL. Making matters worse is the movie’s lackluster pacing, which wastes time on pointless scenes like the SWAT crew picking up orphaned children in the middle of a war zone and thereafter meandering through a military checkpoint for ten minutes.

Once the story reaches a plot-point where our main cast confront a rival — but not enemy — Iranian militia, however, the characters solidify, Bessa’s protagonist makes a crucial decision that affects his arc, and you finally get some idea of what the movie’s ultimate point is. The characters’ dialogue is sharp and insightful, while the editing escalates tension and releases it with minimal but meaningful violence. Thereafter, the story’s pacing accelerates without feeling rushed, and the action crescendos into a genuinely emotional conclusion after its final action set-pieces. To say that Mosul starts mediocre but finishes strong would be an understatement.

Our principle Iraqi SWAT team, including protagonist Adam Bessa (far right) and co-lead Suhail Dabbach (second from right), comb the city of Mosul for a special kind of survivor.

Mosul is not an innovative war film, either in terms of cinematographic style or narrative content, but its unique blend of characterizations and dramatic escalation in stylized warfare elevate it above the lion’s share of modern action movies set in the Middle East. The movie’s limited runtime doesn’t streamline its story’s pace as much as I would like and the film’s setting necessitates a dour, bland color palette, but besides those technical weaknesses, the film is moderately successful at portraying a contemporary military encounter in one of the world’s most dynamic battlefields from its native population’s perspective. How much these strengths and weaknesses are a function of Matthew Michael Carnaham’s directorial vision or the Russo Bros.’ action filmmaking tastes is debatable, but the end result is a notable combination of sociopolitical elements and genre style from veteran filmmaking talents.

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SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: Gritty, violent, and with just enough ethnic character development to satisfy those whiny liberal commentators, Mosul is a strong directorial debut by Matthew Michael Carnaham and yet another successful entry in the Russo Bros.’ growing action library. The main cast, including leads Suhail Dabbach and Adam Bessa, give the amorphous narrative a much needed relatable human perspective and add weight to the movie’s pervasive violence.

However… aside from an action-packed opening sequence, the first half hour of Mosul is a snoozer, which is near unforgivable given the movie’s slim 86-minute running time. I don’t know how accurate the film’s Marrakesh location-photography is relative to the story’s Iraqi setting, but the endless grey colors and dusty rubble are a far cry from The Hurt Locker’s (2008) beautiful desolation.

–> ON THE FENCE

? What are the names of those miniature hatchets our characters use?

About The Celtic Predator

I love movies, music, video games, and big, scary creatures.

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