Hyena Road (2015)

(On Cable TV, July 2016) The Canadian film industry is so cash-strapped and the country so reluctant to military intervention that the idea of a Canadian war epic seems almost impossible. But considering the near-mythology that has sprung from the Canadian intervention in Afghanistan and the zeal with which writer/director/actor Paul Gross has pursued Canadian myth-making throughout his career, it was inevitable that the two would meet. The result in Hyena Road, an attempt to portray the Canadian Afghanistan war experience on the big screen à la Hollywood. Much of the film is by-the-numbers war-movie stuff: the band of heroes, the heroic sacrifices, the forbidden romance, the shootouts… Unfortunately, Gross can’t help but reach for a tragic ending in an attempt to heighten the impact of his story. Too bad we can see it coming from far away, along with the double-crosses, tangled allegiances and “what are we even doing here?” musings. On a certain level, it’s a wholly average film even in the way it frustrates its audience and really wants them to cry at the end. On another level, it’s hard to be Canadian and not feel at least a frisson of national pride at the result. Consider: the Big Mission of the film is building the eponymous Hyena Road. That’s right: infrastructure building as a national priority in foreign intervention! Still, much of the film actually works just well enough: screenwriter/director Gross leaves the young-sniper hero role to Rossif Sutherland, keeping for himself the far more interesting character of an intelligence officer trying to navigate the dangerous Afghan politics and history, while being the voice of cold hard experience for his protégé. The action sequences are well handled and the production values are convincing (especially on the film’s modest budget). As much Hyena Road’s ending smacks of melodrama, it is remarkably far, far less self-important as Gross’s previous Passchendale. That may take away some of the mythic grandeur of the previous film, but it makes the result more palatable. As Canada reflects upon its afghan experience in the coming decades, I expect more war dramas to make it to the big screen—but as a first attempt, Hyena Road is a modest success.

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