We Die Young was directed by Lior Geller, written by Geller and Andrew Friedman, and stars Jean-Claude Van Damme (The Bouncer, The Last Mercenary), Elijah Rodriguez (Sicario: Day of the Soldado), Nicholas Sean Johnny (Yes Day), Charlie MacGechan (Brash Young Turks), and David Castaneda (The Tax Collector). It is about a young boy and his brother trying to get by in the gangland of Washington D.C., and their run-in with a war veteran that could change all their lives.
The plotting is pretty pedestrian but equally compelling. Lucas (Rodriguez) is a boy that works for Ricon (Castaneda), the boss of the MS-13 gang, in order to survive and keep his younger brother Miguel (Johnny) safe and out of the lifestyle that he is heading towards. Lucas sells to plenty of people, including Daniel (Van Damme), an ex-marine, who Lucas has befriended.
After being assigned to deliver some drugs to a special location, but after seeing Miguel being “jumped-in” he intervenes and drops some while there, which upsets Jester (MacGechan), Rincon’s underling who was tailing Lucas despite Rincon’s protestations. Daniel is taking a fixed-up car for a test ride after he fixed it up at his job at a mechanic’s shop; the three run into each other and Daniel decides to help the brothers leave the city.
The characters in We Die Young are excellent. Lucas makes for a compelling protagonist that helps to bring the audience down into the grimy world of crime with an explanation as to how one could end up, or even start there. Miguel is also a strong character; striving to impress his brother by volunteering to work as a drug deliverer, much to Lucas’ disapproval. Their older brother was killed in Afghanistan, their father left them, and their mother is never mentioned.
It is saddening stuff but never feels unbelievable. Both of them have aspirations of playing baseball, trying to tread water until they can leave the gang world behind. Daniel, a veteran who lost his voice in combat and has become a drug addict, is changed by seeing the death and tragedy he tried to escape occurring once again. Rincon is solid too, having a personal life and not just being a bad guy with no explanation. Performances are mixed, Van Damme, Johnny, and Castaneda are all great, but Rodriguez and MacGechan leave something to be desired.
Drama in We Die Young is always kept at the human level, never trying to create a grander, more large-scale impact on the audience to win them over. While there are brief mentions of Rincon’s operations outside the city, the focus on the people behind it all is never strayed from. The relationship between the two brothers is strong in that they both act like brothers, protecting and looking out for each other, while the younger of the two is trying to be like the older one to curry favour with him, although he does not need to.
A veteran’s perspective is examined; how a man could physically go from Afghanistan back to the US and not quite return in every sense; seeing death and struggle similar to his time abroad, and having to deal with an injury that has made life even more difficult. It’s good work.
Technically the movie begins to slump. While the story, characters, setting, and most of the performances excel, there are some aspects of We Die Young that hinder the viewing experience. During action sequences and even regular photography, the camera is hand-held, which would be fine if the camera was held steady. During the action, there is a lot of hyper editing and needless hyper editing at that. Since JCVD is not doing any martial arts in this, and the gunfights are straightforward, it just feels like the movie is trying to fit in with some others while not needing to do so.
We Die Young is a solid movie that brings a new antagonist to the table while simultaneously keeping the drama on a very human level, making a solid effort with some annoying issues all the more frustrating. It is a good movie, but the shaky cam and some misplaced sympathies keep it from being a very good movie.
We Die Young is available on DVD, Blu-Ray and streaming platforms via Lionsgate.