“Thriller” and “war movie” are loaded genres. They connote high-speed car chases, depleted uranium shells fired from hovering AC-130 gunships, Navy SEALS storming compounds, bullets, explosions, artillery, more explosions, airstrikes, even more explosions. This cacophony of testosterone-driven action is ammunition expended for the sake of a mission — a heist, a raid, a strike, whatever you call it; it’s like a game of capture the flag. You have two sides and a clear objective. You attack and defend, you win or you lose. The mission thrusts forward and completes with orgasmic release. Bin Laden is dead, the treasure is ours. The stars are aligned, justice is restored.
But what happens when a thriller or a war movie comes without all this ammunition? What happens when you encounter an unloaded film, one whose suspense and conflict do not involve bad guys and napalm-flavored justice applied liberally to open ego wounds?
Kajaki (titled Kilo Two Bravo for North American distribution) gives us an answer. Released in 2014, this independent British film tells the true story of a small contingent of British paratroopers serving near the Kajaki Dam in Helmad Province, Afghanistan. The film’s first 30 minutes are utterly unremarkable, focusing on the mundanities of Forward Operating Base life — getting water, going for a swim, working out, sitting around and staring at beautifully desolate valleys through dusty binoculars and underutilized gunsights. Frankly, this first half hour feels rather boring. You become somewhat acquainted with the characters, but not enough to remember their names. You do get to see an airstrike from Dutch F-16s, but the footage is dark and the occasion is unremarkable. You begin to wonder: does anything happen in Afghanistan?
Then the movie quite literally walks into a minefield. Three members of the detachment are out on patrol when Lance Corporal Stu Hale, a sniper, steps on a mine and blows off his leg below the knee. Hale and his comrades have stumbled into the middle of an old minefield left over from the Russian occupation of Afghanistan, 25 years prior. There’s no Taliban shooting at them; they’re in a different kind of danger zone, and Hale still needs to get out. Fortunately, other members of the detachment start rushing in to help. Someone orders a medivac, others stabilize and move Hale to a better location, and some calm returns to the situation. Despite the fact that you’ve just seen someone’s leg blown off in all its gory detail, Kajaki starts getting boring again.
But just when you’re ready to turn away, another Stu — Corporal Stu Pearson — slips, falls, and sets off mine number two. Shit, shit, shit — it finally dawns on you that maybe there’s something more to this movie. A sense of paranoia sets in, as if you’re trapped in the minefield along with the paras, waiting for evac to come. Your pulse quickens. OK, maybe this is it, two’s enough, let’s get on with it. You rationalize yourself into calmness again, but it’s harder than before.
Thump, thump, thump — the rotors of a descending British Chinook come into earshot. Rescue is here but something is awry, because the paras are waving their hands and screaming “fuck off!” As it turns out, no helicopters with winches — which are needed to extract Hale without risking more detonations — were available, and out of some bureaucratic fuck-up this massive twin-rotor machine is about to touch down in the middle of a minefield.
Oh god in hell, you’re thinking at this point. I can’t watch this anymore. This is agonizing. But by god, the agony is so thrilling! Two mine explosions and one medical helicopter have made your heart race far faster than ten thousand cluster munitions and a squadron of F-22s from a Michael Bay movie. You barely know the men in the minefield, but you’re worrying about them. You’ve begun to understand — yes, something does happen in Afghanistan, and it’s more horrible and bleak than you thought it could be. And you know what? It wasn’t C4 or testosterone that brought you to that realization, it was agony, pure, unadulterated, desolate, horrid agony.
Another hour of footage passes after the Chinook’s attempted landing but it drags on forever; the agony is too immense. There’s the screams of legless men on a lifeless minefield, the frustration of a medic unable to reach his patients, the mind-numbing incompetence that thwarts the arrival of a fantasy medivac hovering like an invisible elephant in the room (but not the right room). And who can you blame for all this, inanimate mines? What’s the point of it all if there’s no liberating getting done or Taliban getting killed? What the hell?
There’s no justice at the end of Kajaki. There’s no victory parade either. There’s release, but from agony, not ecstasy. It’s a difficult film to watch, but it’s something that stays with you and haunts you so much more than even Saving Private Ryan. Kajaki is an unloaded film, and that makes it so, so much more dangerous.
An unloaded film is like an unloaded rifle. Without bullets, you can still kill. You take the rifle, walk up to someone, and you beat them with it until they die. What’s more gruesome, what’s more frightening? A single bullet that silences, or the repeated infliction of blunt force trauma interspersed with grunts and screams? Pulling a trigger is easy. Looking your victim in the face and smashing that face with the butt of a rifle? Now that’s hard. And that’s Kajaki.
Kajaki (Kilo Two Bravo)—United Kingdom. Directed by Paul Katis. First released November 2014. Running time 1hr 48min. Starring Mark Stanley, David Elliot, Malachi Kirby, Paul Luebke, Scott Kyle, Benjamin O’Mahoney, and Ali Cook.