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Land of Bad

There are two heroes in the frustrating military actioner “Land of Bad,” and one of them’s more convincing than the other. During a hostage extraction mission gone bad, both heroes fight the kind of terrorists who behead a hostage in an establishing scene and then later philosophize about the real difference between us and them (it’s a doozy).

“Land of Bad” is most compelling when it sticks to hero #1, the capable but inexperienced Air Force Sergeant J.J. “Playboy” Kinney (Liam Hemsworth). Hemsworth’s a believable man of action, thanks in no small part to strong action choreography and filmmaking. His co-star, Russell Crowe, is no slouch either, even though it is harder to appreciate his performance given his irritating role as hero #2. Crowe plays Captain Eddie “Reaper” Grimm, the socially awkward, but professionally adept drone pilot who tries to guide Kinney away from terrorists and missiles, and then eventually towards rescue.

Crowe’s most endearing when he’s staring wide-eyed at mood-lit banks of computer monitors, relaying and extrapolating information with his supportive wing-lady, Staff Sergeant Nia Branson (Chika Ikogwe). Grimm’s a lot less charming when he’s mostly explicitly making the movie’s big bathetic point, all about the military’s failure to support capable, dedicated professionals like Grimm, who has to fight up-hill to be taken seriously. “Land of Bad” may sell itself as a post-“Black Hawk Down” rescue mission thriller, but it’s too often a baggy dramatized lecture about what’s really wrong with the American military and modern warfare.

As Kinney’s handler, Grimm guides Hemsworth’s overwhelmed, but capable soldier while he shoots, climbs, and wades through enemy territory in search of a high priority hostage. The prisoner in question is a CIA spy who’s been gathering intelligence on a dangerous Russian arms dealer. None of that matters once Kinney’s team engages with their bloodthirsty enemies, who, according to some introductory on-screen narration, are among “the most violent extremist groups in Southern Asia.”

The makers of “Land of Bad” mostly reduce their movie’s antagonists to generic obstacles for Kinney, except for a few key scenes that strain to establish why they’re actually the worst. These bad guys (briefly) revel in their psychopathy, torturing and executing their prisoners in a “Saw”-looking cave prison. “I look a man in the eye and I make my choice intimate,” one torture-prone terrorist boasts, moments after Kinney insists, “That’s not the conversation we should be having right now.”

So when is the right time? Maybe not in “Land of Bad,” where hero #1 rarely slows down long enough to explain himself while hero #2 should probably follow suit. Grimm’s a neurotic mess, an energy-drink fueled loner who takes great umbrage with snotty (and notably younger) Colonel Virgil Packett, played by Daniel MacPherson. Some pains are taken to humanize Grimm, mostly during for-the-cheap-seats comedic asides about how ignoble, but also down-to-earth he is.

Grimm’s particular about his work chair. He makes a big to do about Keurig-style coffee pods and is painfully sincere when he tells Branson that a wedding is, “probably the greatest social ritual that humanity has.” Grimm’s also the only one who can bring Kinney back safe, a rote characterization that’s mainly unbearable given how plodding and plentiful Grimm’s scenes are. Why is there so much of hero #2 in this movie, or really, why do we have to know so much about him in order for his rapport with hero #1 to matter?

Grimm accidentally puts his finger on why most of his scenes are so irritating, both as a dramatic break and defense of Kinney’s grisly and sometimes thrilling scenes. Speaking about his fourth wife, he tells Branson the old joke about how you can tell if someone’s a vegan. “They will tell you,” he laughs to himself.

Any “Land of Bad” scene where characters show you why they’re the best at what they do is usually enticing, at least compared when they desperately try to make you see pulpy cyphers as flesh-and-blood people. Director William Eubank already proved his technical finesse and solid understanding in earlier features, like the Kristen Stewart-led 2020 disaster adventure “Underwater.” So it’s not surprising to see that “Land of Bad”’s action scenes are eerily poised and even beautiful because they're dynamically lit and paced, and generally full-throated in their sensationalism. An airborne missile strike that takes out and ignites a hillside of militants (and their truck!) serves as a strong showcase for what Eubank’s latest has to offer. 

In its faint defense, “Land of Bad” delivers simple pleasures, like when Milo Ventimiglia, who’s also in this movie, shanks a terrorist in the neck with a broken dinner plate. Eubank and his collaborators might have delivered a better movie if they’d just made a high-toned programmer. As it is, “Land of Bad” is a pandering drama with some action movie thrills.

 

Simon Abrams

Simon Abrams is a native New Yorker and freelance film critic whose work has been featured in The New York TimesVanity FairThe Village Voice, and elsewhere.

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Film Credits

Land of Bad movie poster

Land of Bad (2024)

Rated R

110 minutes

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