Good Performances Can’t Save ‘Semper Fi’ From A Bad Script

by Jonah Desneux on October 4, 2019

in Print Reviews,Reviews

[Rating: Minor Rock Fist Down]

Henry Alex Rubin’s Semper Fi has the feel of a “post-modern indie twist-filled Deer Hunter.” That mouthful of a description may sound appealing to some, while being a major red flag to others. Those on the cautionary side are better off avoiding the film upon its release, as it is exactly what they might fear.

Semper Fi wants to be and say so much in its less-than-two-hour runtime but viciously burns out in its nonsensical second half. All that is impressive in the first half of the film comes to a baffling halt with a complete shift in the film’s plot. In minutes, the intriguing character study established in the first hour is sacrificed for a “thrilling” twist that ultimately becomes a lackluster web of events with little entertainment to be found.

Semper Fi opens at a bowling alley in 2005, as each of the film’s central characters are cleverly introduced through their engraved bowling balls returning to their station one by one. The film’s opening and use of montage effectively showcase the instantly lovable qualities of the film’s stars. The group of men are childhood friends who have stayed close throughout the years and are now reserves in the marine corps. Following their last days  before deployment, the group’s lives are changed forever due to a tragic event before they even reach the battlefield. Taking place before, during, and after their time at war, the group’s admirable bond to one another is felt while the film takes time to examine each man’s psyche during such trying times.

Early on Semper Fi plants the seeds to what could be a great film. There are many films about the bond of soldiers, PTSD, inescapable guilt, all following similar troupes that make it difficult for the dramas to stand apart from each other. These are important stories to be told, but that doesn’t mean almost identical scenarios haven’t been told thousands of times, in the same style, with the exact same message. Semper Fi, however, makes sure not to become victim to the beaten path. The characters are thoughtfully unique and the perspective on war is not one you’d find in your more traditional war film. This is where the strength of Semper Fi lies and creates a compelling experience even as the plot drifts towards a predictable path.

 All of the positives of the film are tarnished in one single moment as an outlandish development in the plot drastically changes the course of the entire film. The realism embedded in the characters is completely squandered for a twist that would be more appropriate in a Walmart Straight-to-DVD Jean-Claude Van Damme movie, not in a complex study on the impact war has on young soldiers. The new direction of the film hinders all character growth and what makes the film compelling before the major shift. Once the twist occurs audiences will be left to ask “really?” as opposed to being carried away by the excitement that writers Sean Mullin and Henry Alex Rubin must have intended. 

Giving credit where credit is due, the film contains a lot of heart throughout its journey. Though saying something has heart has come to be a generic expression, Rubin nicely captures this sincere tone that audiences can relate with. While the plot falls apart and much-needed character development is never found, there is still a constant sense of care given to the film’s themes on friendship. A heartwarming sensation wouldn’t be expected in a film of this nature, but there is always a presence of genuine brotherhood that never leaves the screen.

This infectious optimism the film generates is largely due to the performances of the cast. The ensemble impeccably plays off one another, never allowing their chemistry to be questioned. There can be faults found in individual performances, but scenes with the entire group are alway’s the film’s brightest moments.

Jai Courtney plays the role of Cal, who is the leader of the group. Cal is the most hardened of the friends, while also facing the most internal conflict due to the haunting choices he makes before and during the war. This character should be the most interesting, however, Rubin never gives audiences the right amount of time to pick Cal’s mind. Though distractingly melodramatic at times, Courtney is successful in his portrayal of a man with such deep-rooted personal struggles. Courtney has the range of emotional complexity the character requires and should not take the blame for an emotional connection with viewers falling flat. Cal’s aching conscious is intended to make him unhinged yet relatable, however, the insufficient development of his character makes his actions irrational for the sake of moving the plot along, opposed to giving him greater meaning.

The stand-out performance of the film goes to Nat Wolff, who plays Oyster, Cal’s reckless younger brother. The Wolff brothers continue to shed their childhood Nickelodeon show skin, as they develop into indie darlings. Nat takes a major step forward in Semper Fi getting the opportunity to showcase his dramatic capability. The film does not serve as his vehicle to greener pastures, but his performance in it deserves to be accoladed and get audiences excited foe what he does next. 

Finn Wittrock, Beau Knapp, and Arturo Castro are commendable in playing the rest of the men in the group. Somewhat in the shadows to the storyline of the brothers, these actors make the most of each scene they are in. Wittrock’s character Jaeger and his forced love story is the grandest example of the film entering a realm of camp that takes away from its needed realism. The relationship subplot quickly becomes more cliche than it is important for Jaeger’s development. Wittrock conveys the confidence and charm needed for this role and if he didn’t, all of these segments would be borderline unwatchable.

Semper Fi feels like a completely different film in the second half, and it’s not a very good one. Even with all the goodwill that is built up until the turning point, there is no overarching saving grace. This could be a completely different story if the film committed to this twist earlier on and properly set up for its delivery. Instead, the abruptness is immensely off-putting and you are left to wonder why the decision was made so late into the film. Once this moment hits, the film never comes together and you are left longing for more of the before.


Jonah Desneux

Jonah Desneux is a recent graduate from the University of Missouri with a BA in Film Studies. It’s baffling that someone who just spent four years writing film paper after film paper would immediately want to write some more, but hey, he must love it! Along with writing about film Jonah enjoys writing and performing sketch comedy in Columbia and Kansas City.

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