In 2013, I’m undertaking the colossal task of seeing and reviewing every single film Sam Neill has acted in or directed, 90 films in total. This post is a part of that review series.
Attack Force Z is a peculiar concoction of styles and ideological sensibilities. On the surface a war drama starring up-and-comers from down under, like Mel Gibson and Sam Neill, along with a noted American actor, John Phillip Law, it blends Australia’s participation in the Second World War with its connection to South-East Asia. It seems to be part glory poem to the Australian forces, part study on the horrors of war, but its concluding message is ambiguous at best.
Produced by The Australian Film Commission and starting with a message from an army official attesting to the authenticity of how the so-called Z Forces are depicted in the film, there is an air of a soldier’s tribute to Attack Force Z from the start, which is never a good sign for a war film.
However, as the action gets underway, following a small group’s secret mission to an Asian island overrun by Japanese forces, that notion soon becomes less clear-cut. Soon after landing, the six-man group is cut down to five when one member is wounded by Japanese sentinels. Instead of taking him back or finding him shelter until they return to the shore, his companion, D.J. Costello (Neill) simply shoots him, so their mission can continue undisturbed. Moral ambiguity is introduced, and quite bluntly at that.
Additionally, Mel Gibson’s squad leader, Capt. Kelly, adds to this ambiguity by withholding vital information from his team throughout most of the film. When they have to rely on the help of a local resistance leader who doesn’t speak a lick of English, relying on the interpretation of Neill’s Costello to communicate with the group, an intriguing mission is born – especially as the Japanese bodies start piling up on their supposedly secret, low-profile mission.
However, as the excitement should carry the action onwards, Attack Force Z stumbles mightily in the second act. Instead of building up to a thrilling climax, it devolves into a tired and cliched war romance between Law’s American commando, Jan Veitch, and a local village girl, while the script leads the rest of the group in a contrived circle to delay the final exposition and eventual showdown with the Japanese occupiers.
The proceedings are not helped by the choppy sound or camera work, and the music is more fitting to an early 50′s American “war-is-a-necessary-way-to-uphold-freedom-and-keeping-our-young-men-looking-dapper-fit-and-in-no-way-morally-conflicted-at-all” film of the worst ilk, than a grounded action-drama that grows progressively darker as it goes on.
Therefore, when we finally get to see Gibson show off his action-star sensibilities and Neill perform his mandatory death-by-heroic-professionalism, something they’re both unnervingly well-schooled in, the intrigue and excitement are lost.
The bright spots, however, are every scene between Gibson and Neill, whether they’re collaborating or squaring off, each with his own view of how to go about business in a war zone. Within a relatively stilted cast, they manage to bounce off each other, and it’s obvious from early on that Gibson’s energetic charm is already developing rapidly. Additionally, there are a few effective moments depicting the uneasy but inevitable integration of cultures, both within the international contingent in the Allied Forces squad and their communication with the local cultures. All of that, however, is quickly dispelled by a healthy dollop of prejudiced and stereotypical portrayal of both Japanese and Chinese people.
Final Verdict: Featuring a couple of strong performances yet only intermittently effective, Attack Force Z has aged poorly, more so than many other war films from the same period. Its technical handicap and wavering directorial conviction draws away from an otherwise interesting story, leaving behind a muddled product. This makes the tagline “Mel Gibson Blasting His Way to Hell and Back” almost comically misleading.