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Ambush (2023) Review

Ambush, from director Mark Burman (Piranha Sharks, South Bureau Homicide) and his co-writers Johnny Lozano and Michael McClung (American Martyr) is the latest film to try and turn one of the most divisive events in American history, the Vietnam War, into mainstream entertainment. Despite a burst of “Namsploitation” films like Missing in Action, The Last Hunter and Siege of Firebase Gloria in the 1980s, the war has resisted attempts to make it the subject of action films, and this doesn’t seem likely to change that.

General Drummond (Aaron Eckhart, The Dark Knight, Chief of Station) sends Special Forces Captain Mora (Gregory Sims, Real Steel, The Midnighters) to a remote firebase to pick up a binder full of names and locations of Vietnamese operatives. Before he can bring it back to headquarters, the Viet Cong attack and steal the binder back. This does not sit well with General Drummond, who orders it retrieved at all costs. The problem is the troops he has available are the engineers under Corporal Ackerman (Connor Paolo, Stake Land, The Last Stop in Yuma County) who are constructing the base. Or, as he sneeringly refers to them, “a bunch of construction workers”.

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He does have a couple of non-engineers however, there’s a tracker named Miller (Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Disquiet, Yakuza Princess) and another Special Forces operative, Crawford (Mac Brandt, Lovecraft Country, Prison Break). However, if Mora had overheard the conversation between Crawford and Drummond he might not be so willing to trust him.

Now if this sounds a bit like Battle for Saipan, with non-combat troops forced to fight, you’re right. But that’s an old trope, going back at least as far as the 1944 John Wayne film The Fighting Seabees. Where Ambush sets itself apart is by taking place mostly underground in the maze of tunnels the Viet Cong used to get around unseen. That’s only been used as a setting once before, and that was The Tunnel Rats by, of all people, Uwe Boll.

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This allows the film to develop a claustrophobic atmosphere and concentrate more on suspense and fear of booby traps, a tripwire that releases live scorpions, pits full of stakes, etc. Which is good because like most low to mid-budget films. Ambush is low on standup battle scenes. It also means, by keeping the name actors above ground, they have an excuse to limit their screen time.

As for the action scenes themselves, the two above-ground battle scenes are OK, but the film’s low budget shows during the attack on the base. It’s fairly obvious they’re shooting around a lack of extras and lack the budget to show much in the way of explosions. Ambush is at its best when staging small-scale skirmishes inside the tunnels, capitalizing on the small spaces to cover for the lack of major set pieces.

Unfortunately, too much of that time underground is wasted on scenes of people complaining about being lost or going in circles. This very quickly gets on the nerves and the film would have been better trimming most of them out. Something that, at a hundred and four minutes, Ambush could easily afford to do.

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It also, rather oddly, seems to want the viewer to care about Drummond and Mora despite the fact they’re willing to bury their own men alive if need be. Ackerman, despite being the one to actually take the risks and get shit done, is portrayed as weak and naive. Drummond gets to utter inspiring speeches from far behind the lines and Mora struts around screaming “I didn’t order you to breath, I ordered you to answer my question!”. Ackerman gets to tell us how much fibre is in an MRE. And as the film ends, the last shot is of Drummond looking pensively into the camera rather than of the few survivors back at the camp.

Another case of a good idea brought down by a poor script, Ambush runs into problems due to mostly unlikable characters and some really painful dialogue. It’s watchable, but you’ll probably end up hitting fast-forward or mute more than once before it’s over.

Saban Films will release Ambush in theatres and on VOD and digital platforms on February 24th. If you want something similar but hopefully better, FilmTagger can suggest some titles.

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