There’s something inherently creepy and eerie about the darkest depths of the English countryside; wraith-like mists drifting between towering, tightly-packed trees, crisp leaves cracking underfoot, an unnatural stillness save the distant sounds of the local fauna. Soldier of War (retitled from the original Aux) plays effectively with these tropes, scenes of something nasty lurking and hunting in the undergrowth generating tension and a distinct sense of unease. They are, in fact, Soldier of War’s greatest strength because the rest of the film is a stiff, awkward combination of police procedural and tame slasher movie; it’s a coupling which does neither narrative any favours, and the two really don’t sit together well in what often comes across as an extended episode of The Bill with a particularly nasty serial killer on the loose.
Two kids hunting rabbits in a remote forest discover a long-hidden underground bunker. Something dangerous lurks within; one of the boys is dragged away screaming, the other runs off into the road and is knocked over. The police are called in to investigate, and it soon appears that whatever’s in the forest has a grudge against the police... or at least people in uniform. In a nearby (rather palatial) care home, alarm bells start to ring for Jack (Rhys Davies) who recalls an unpleasant incident from World War 2 and realises that one of his own ghosts from the past has come back to haunt him.
Soldier of War is a clumsy, if well-meaning movie that’s hard to dislike despite its faults. The film has decent production values - its budget seems to run to what seems like dozens of speaking roles - and is competently directed. But the script is a bit of a lumbering beast, dragged down by acres of exposition and the characters rarely rise above the level of the aching stereotype. Most of the acting is acceptable (with a few notable exceptions) and Rhys-Davies gives the whole thing a respectability which would otherwise entirely elude it. But the script asks us to accept that Jack was a young soldier in 1940 conscripted to a very special “auxiliary unit”, which would make his character not far short of a hundred years old. Rhys-Davis is one of our veteran talents, of course, but he’s not quite in sight of his centenary just yet.
Ultimately a sloppy structure and terrible pacing conspire to scupper Soldier of War; the film fizzles out when it should be building to a big, dramatic climax and whilst there are a few bits of gore and blood-letting, it all seems a bit tame and there’s no real explanation for what’s going on or how the misguided Bob Squires has survived for over seventy years in a bunker or quite why he’s so disfigured beyond some random reference to something supernatural. Yet, despite its failings, Soldier of War has a ramshackle entertainment value - there’s one for the poster, boys - which makes it highly watchable if entirely forgettable. Hopefully, however, Soldier of War isn’t the best that John Adams can do, as there are signs here of a writer/director capable of quite a lot better given a vehicle more challenging and better suited to his strengths.
SOLDIER OF WAR / CERT: UNRATED / DIRECTOR: JOHN ADAMS / SCREENPLAY: JOHN ADAMS, PETER ADAMS / STARRING: JOHN RHYS-DAVIES, ROSIE FELLNER, TANYA FRANKS, THEO DEVANEY, GARY MAVERS / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW