In some ways William Eubank’s Land of Bad is a standard, if perfectly well-assembled and enjoyable action thriller which sees a unit of crack soldiers sent on a mission into the jungle. The action is staged with skill and it certainly gets the pulse racing. The buff and brooding likes of Liam Hemsworth, Milo Ventimiglia, and Ricky Whittle give serviceable performances as they take on some faceless terrorists. So far, so normal. Yet this is also a film where a character is doomed by another soldier pointing out a photo of his wife and kids, indicating that there’s something at least a teeny bit knowing going on. And then there’s the fully rogue element of a decidedly non-buff Russell Crowe and it becomes something different. Whether it improves a decent but quotidian shoot-em-up is up for debate, but it sure makes things interesting.

Rookie Commando Playboy (Hemsworth) is sent into the Filipino jungle as part of a Delta Force unit to retrieve a CIA asset, stuck in enemy territory following an Islamist operation launched in South East Asia. The mission goes horribly wrong and Playboy finds himself alone and surrounded by enemy soldiers. Attempting to steer him through the situation while providing the judicious assistance of some ‘Fuck Yeah!’ firepower is drone operator ‘Reaper’ Grimm (Crowe), an unconventional presence who annoys his superiors but fires a mean rocket.

Russell Crowe seems to have completely relaxed into a new phase in his career as an off-kilter genre specialist. The imposing, athletic stature of Gladiator is long-gone, and there are some of us who will always consider it a minor tragedy that Peter Weir never got to direct Crowe and Paul Bettany as Aubrey and Maturin again after Master and Commander. But Crowe brings something compelling to what could be a rote aggressor in Unhinged, and seeing the now rotund actor wobbling around on a tiny Vespa in The Pope’s Exorcist is a little delight on its own. Here he brings a jittery energy as a drone pilot who may be riddled with idiosyncrasies but is very good at his job. It’s a precariously balanced character, and Crowe just about pulls it off, but even he can’t entirely wrestle his character cleanly into the narrative. Still, even though the joins are clear, it’s still curiously engaging and Reaper makes an entertaining counterpoint to the solid, more conventionally heroic, presence of the frowning Hemsworth.

Land of Bad shouldn’t work, and it’s hard to argue with anyone who feels like the two threads of the narrative go together about as well as the US military and actual victory in any conflict since 1945. The tonal whiplash between the two is never clearer than when it cuts abruptly between a desperate Playboy attempting to escape the terrorist bunker and Reaper trundling round a supermarket on his own mission for vegan cheese. It’s a strange choice for sure, but you have to credit Eubank and co-write David Rugerio for sheer chutzpah.

The film also feels like it’s trying to make a thematic point about the use of drone warfare here. The offbeat, strangely anti-authoritarian drone pilot Reaper is posited as opposite to the central antagonist who lectures Playboy on the moral superiority of getting up close and personal, despite having earlier cleaved off a woman’s head. It’s a variation on a discussion that us ‘civilised’ nations have had with ourselves at least since the Maxim gun became the weapon of choice for enforcing Empire. It’a a bit of mealy-mouthed equivocation on the part of the filmmakers. It’s not a film that anyone goes into expecting handwringing over shock and awe firepower given its clear delineation of good and bad – and might is right.

Flawed but fun would be a fair summary of Land of Bad. You can’t discount that Eubank’s craft as an action filmmaker, and there are several moment where he knows when to dial the action down and ramp up the tension. His grasp on his narrative isn’t quite so sure, but adds a specific, slightly anarchic texture that sets it apart, and Crowe’s performance is memorable – third act supermarket sweep and all. Gung ho goodness tempered with the hint of a self-satiric edge, it’s a bit of a rough diamond.

Available to stream from Fri 26 Apr 2024