The Oxford bibliography website defines an Exploitation Film as “a type of cinema that is designed to create a fast profit by referring to, or exploiting, contemporary cultural anxieties.… Exploitation films claim to warn viewers about the consequences of these problems, but in most cases, their style, narrative, and inferences exploit the problem as much as critiquing it.” When this phrase is uttered the mind usually jumps towards the Tarantino-glorified flicks churned through grindhouses of the 60s and 70s. But,as “Man Down” painfully illustrates, the genre is not dead yet. It’s mutated into something with a higher polish, better actors, and less enjoyment.
The film opens with a snippet of an action sequence that takes place near the end of the film. This red flag is a current trend in Hollywood which continues to edit movies for a target audience with rapidly diminishing attention spans. Lending nothing to the overall narrative except to promise some action if you stick around long enough, the movie then quickly cuts to a flashback, and finally, jumps forward to a point somewhere between those two. All of this occurring in the minutes before the title card!
Since the narrative jumps around time more than a seizure-prone Gallifreyan, we’ll label the three main periods as Past, Present, and Future. In the Past, we see a very happily married Gabriel (Shia LaBeouf) and Natalie (Kate Mara). They have a wonderful 10-year-old son, Jonathan (Charlie Shotwell) and a mutual friend, Devin (Jai Courtney) whom they see as part of the family. As Film Law states, whenever a family unit is this perfect and happy, tragedy is required to strike. For reasons that aren’t entirely made clear, Devin suddenly becomes compelled to join the Marines and convinces Gabriel to sign up with him. Fractured montages of boot camp shows us familiar scenes of their struggle, bonding, and finally success. Soon they will be shipped off to Afghanistan, but when Devin suddenly appears in one scene wearing a cast, we learn that Gabriel will be going on his own.
During the Future segment of the movie, grizzled and war-weary versions of Gabriel and Devin wander around a post-apocalyptic Florida. Day in and out this brotherly duo search the ruins for clues to the whereabouts of Gabriel’s wife and son. It’s never made clear exactly what happened to the US, although both a biological epidemic and attack from other countries is hinted at.
By comparison, the Present segments of the movie are far more contained. Attempting to pull off the “Two-Guys-In-A-Room” screenwriting challenge, all of these scenes take place in the mobile office of Military Counselor Peyton (Gary Oldman) as he tries to assess Gabriel’s mental stability after “The Incident.” These scenes struggle under their own weight despite great performances by both actors. Peyton doesn’t seem qualified to lead the examination he is having with Gabriel and the writer’s drive to keep certain revelations hidden until the very end leads to some awkward dialogue. The most entertaining (and honest!) moment comes early on with some rare Mexican Coke Product Placement. “Ahh… That Cane Sugar! The Mexican’s know what they’re doing!” sighs a satisfied LaBeouf as he places the buxom bottle at just the right place on the table so it stays conspicuously framed in the far left corner of the next dozen shots.
Where is this “exploitation” mentioned in the first paragraph? That doesn’t come until the very end of the movie when all is revealed. The events that unfold are supposed to be met with surprise, but suffer from being hinted at for far too long, and are so extreme it’s farcical. A frantically rising musical crescendo in what has been up to that point a mellow score seeks to drive home this revelation, but instead only increases the degree of eye rolling. Just before the credits roll, as the last bursts of phlegm and tears hit the floor, we are shown statistics regarding Veteran PTSD and suicide rates in the US.
Yes, there are serious problems with our VA health care system. Yes, Veterans battling PTSD is a major issue that is not getting the attention and support it requires. But making a movie that purports to enlighten by crafting a ludicrous series of events with cheap “twists” and hocking it as a post-apocalyptic thriller is a disservice.