Wednesday, October 02, 2019

Semper Fi: Upstate Homecoming

Throughout their history, U.S. Marines have held the line during some of America’s harshest battles, such as Iwo Jima and Chosin Reservoir. It is therefore fitting they have had the best copywriters. “A Few Good Men” and “The Few, the Proud” are instantly recognizable slogans, but their enduring official motto remains “Semper Fidelis.” Not unsurprisingly, plenty of films have adopted the motto as their title, sometimes with a sense of irony. That is not the case here, but the Latin phrase for “ever faithful” is definitely heavy with significance throughout Henry Alex Rubin’s Semper Fi, which opens this Friday in New York.

“Cal” Callahan is exactly the sort of person you can have confidence in when he is on active duty. The Marine Corps reservist is a cop in a small but rough-and-tumble upstate New York town and formerly the guardian of his troubled brother, “Oyster.” The Callahan Brothers were both supposed to ship out with their friends, “Jaeger,” “Milk,” and “Snowball,” but Oyster will not make the journey when he is arrested and subsequently convicted of manslaughter.

Frankly, he was probably over-zealously prosecuted for the fatal barroom brawl, but Cal still isn’t very supportive initially. However, he changes his tune after his return stateside. Although his petulant younger sibling hardly speaks a word to him, Cal soon discovers he is regularly beaten and abused by the prison guards. When the law refuses to help, Cal and his mates decide to take more direct action.

Frankly, despite Oyster’s self-sabotaging behavior, it is hard to believe any correctional officers would knowingly target an over-prosecuted Marine reservist, who is the brother of a cop and returning Iraq veteran. Regardless, Rubin and co-screenwriter Sean Mullin treat the experiences of homecoming veterans with the sensitivity they demand. Most of the film is a straight drama in the tradition of Best Years of Our Lives (but not up to William Wyler’s standard of quality), until it segues into a blue collar caper. Yet, even the third act action scenes are conducted with a great deal of (messy) realism.

Jai Courtenay taps into some dark places in his impressively raw and anguished performance as Cal. It is an aspect of his game we haven’t had much opportunity to see. As Oyster, Nat Wolff is almost too good, because his peevishness and reckless irresponsibility will make a lot of viewers want to smack him. Finn Wittrock and Arturo Castro bring a lot of soul and depth to Jaeger and Castro. Beau Knapp is also solid as Milk, but he draws the short straw when it comes to screen time and on-screen drama.

Granted, Semper Fi does not always transition smoothly to successive phases of its narrative, but the cast does first rate work. It is small in scope, but worthy of the audience’s attention. There is no question it is considerably better than limited theatrical release and unremarkable one-sheet design would suggest. Recommended for viewers who understand life outside New York and LA (or want to learn a little), Semper Fi opens this Friday (10/4) in New York, at the Cinema Village.