Battle for Saipan (2022) Review
Battle for Saipan was directed and written by Brandon Slagle (Frost, Attack of the Unknown) and stars Casper Van Dien (Mad Heidi, Assailant), Louis Mandylor (Renegades, Bring Him Back Dead), Eoin O’Brien (English Dogs in Bangkok, Troy the Odyssey), Devanny Pinn (Death Count, Of the Devil), and Jeff Fahey (The Long Night, Skin Traffik). It’s about a group of medics and wounded soldiers defending a hospital during a Japanese assault in Saipan.
The Plot: I’ll admit I’m a sucker for siege films set in locations that are typically not associated with the general synopsis, but the standoff setup doesn’t guarantee an engaging plot. Via its wartime setting, Battle of Saipan was able to get away with the minimal plotting of cut-off warriors waiting out downtime, but the few threads it does have aren’t carefully woven.
At the tail end of World War Two, the Japanese army has launched a final offensive against the Americans, who’ve invaded plenty of islands, including Saipan, which is currently playing host to a squad run by Porter (Mandylor) that’s just been hit by a surprise attack. Conveniently, his mission is to reach a combat hospital, which he and his last man do. A little more depth could’ve been added to the simple goal, if not for the sake of the narrative than for the sake of the character. Maybe have Porter on a mission to secure a mounted weapon, only to be forced to choose to save his last man or keep trekking. Something like that.
Hoping for reinforcements, medic Vic (Van Dien) pleads to General Carroll (Fahey) for relief for nurse Ava (Pinn) and a handful of others to little avail. Neatness isn’t needed in a feature like Battle for Saipan, but Slagle adds it anyway, as Porter eventually arrives with news of another wave of hostiles. Since Carroll can’t or won’t do much, there’s a bit of a discussion that goes on as to whether or not defending the hospital with the handful of ready men like Connor (O’Brien) is the best idea.
The predicament doesn’t have time to develop, and neither does anything else, as the assault launches and the allies are locked into combat with frequency, forcing them to defend the hospital until they die or help arrives.
It’s barely a plot, but for all intents and purposes, it’s enough for Battle for Saipan. Aside from some title cards with background info, the movie operates in a vacuum and without much panache.
The Characters: Among the unending list of World War Two movies, there’s rarely a cast that focuses on those who weren’t exactly combat-effective being forced to fight. While this does add some vulnerability, Slagle doesn’t reach for anything else.
Despite being up for almost every waking hour, either operating or punching a makeshift heavy bag, Vic can’t rest. Battle for Saipan lets tiredness become one of his only traits, as his ability to get the wounded to focus on his comforting and diverting words becomes his other. It’s hard to tell if the tiredness has had much effect on his work, as surgical scenes aren’t common, and equally blurry is the question surrounding his breakdown. Van Dien isn’t a skilled enough thespian to clue the audience in as to whether the sights and sounds are getting to him, or if it’s a chronic case of exhaustion.
Porter is a typical New York-born, hard-nosed fighter with a rough upbringing. With an equal number of scars from his time in the war and his time at home, he’s had enough by this point. After hearing of Carroll’s inactivity, Battle of Saipan makes the wise decision to show the way Porter got his scars: action. He takes charge of the men effectively, though the supporting cast doesn’t act the part; even though they were only given a single note to play, a lot of the others don’t sell the fatigue, including the nurses, making it seem like Vic is the odd one out in his stress.
General Carroll isn’t around for much of the feature, but it’s clear why the discourse around him is so mixed. He’s more likely to sit back and drink alcohol and smoke cigarettes in his office than even attempt to remedy the situation. Though this is all that’s written on the page, Fahey gives the impression that the character just can’t hack it anymore. At least someone else besides Mandylor brought their acting A-game.
The Action: Claustrophobic action is tough to pull off, no matter the context, but with a World War Two setting, Battle for Saipan faced an uphill fight that it only sometimes comes out on top of.
It’s a good thing that Slagle chose a hospital as the setting for the bulk of the movie, as the few outdoor action scenes don’t stick. That’s not to say they’re poor, but the director seemed as though he wanted to get the most out of Mandylor without thinking about it, as the Japanese soldiers – despite getting the drop on Porter’s squad – miss the leader with everything but a bayonet, forcing some almost but not quite martial arts that don’t gel with the time period.
Once Battle for Saipan moves indoors, it resolves the former problem, as the corridors get tightly packed with both allied and axis combatants but faces new ones in the form of intelligibility and variety. The first wave of these breachers is handled unremarkably, as disconnected inserts of allies find and kill Japanese soldiers who’ve taken out Americans off-screen, only to culminate in a middling shootout where a bunch of poorly acted extras get taken out of the picture. Slagle gets the job done in showing the direness of the situation, with indiscriminate fire taking out nurses and medics amongst everyone else, but it’s a weak start.
From the halfway point onwards, the action gets a bit more interesting, but not much more so. With a large chunk of the already limited number of physically able people around, Slagle forces the characters of Battle of Saipan to slink around the hospital, careful to check every corner and cranny to reach a disconnected part of the facility that can be better defended by everyone who can stand. The tools are the interesting part, as the nurses gather supplies to make traps and bombs out of medical equipment and a few explosives that make the second half of Battle for Saipan more kinetic than the first.
The Technics: For a clearly low-budget production, Battle for Saipan fares acceptably. Within its constraints, the production didn’t allow for much in the way of flair or style, so the director had a workmanlike avenue ahead.
Since the script seemed to be written with the budget in mind, the movie has a couple more action sequences than one might expect. Though the CGI, what little there is, doesn’t look great, a few practical explosions and squibs go a long way in preserving the imagery in what could’ve been another penny-made production with film school results; Niccolo De La Fere’s (Ether’s Paradise, The Two Brothers) camerawork can be a little shaky and Daniel Figueiredo’s (Jezabel, Maneater) score is entirely out of place, but the larger picture looks the part.
All but requiring a fast approach because of the script’s drawbacks, the movie moves like it should, working through a few character beats and subplots before the invasion begins, only to quicken once it starts. Despite the room arguably being too crowded for stylistics, the director tried anyway, and that didn’t pan out, as unnecessary slo-mo and ADRed quips feel too modern for a period piece. Thankfully the feature goes fast enough to glaze over these stumbles.
With limited expectations, Battle for Saipan gets the job done in most departments without ever impressing in any of them. It’s not a battle of willpower to sit through, and it’s not much else either.