In the ruins of a post-apocalyptic America, former marine, Gabriel Drummer (a beefed-up Shia LaBeouf), still traumatised by his experiences serving in Afghanistan, searches for his missing wife (Kate Mara) and child (Charlie Shotwell), aided by BFF and comrade-in-arms Devin (Jai Courtney). Suffering from PTSD-related flashbacks and haunted both by memories of an idyllic homelife shattered by the fog of war and of his post-battle debrief by a sympathetic army psychiatrist (Gary Oldman) who suspects all may not be well with him, Drummer’s search becomes more desperate the closer he gets to his target.

After its derisory Cannes bow which prompted jeers and catcalls, it’s not hard to see why Man Down has attracted the vitriol of some mainstream critics. Like much of former hardcore punk Dito Montiel’s oeuvre it’s earnest, lacks subtlety, and boasts a third act twist that’s frustrating principally because it’s so obvious, practically Danza slapping the audience around the chops. But paradoxically it’s Man Down’s earnestness, its obviousness that allows it to work. A pound shop Scorsese, Montiel’s greatest strength has always been not his writing or direction, both of which are pedestrian at best, but the loyalty he inspires in his actors, his earlier films (Fighting, The Son Of No One, A Guide To Recognising Your Saints) boasting terrific, intense performances from the likes of Channing Tatum and Shia LaBeouf in frankly mediocre fare. Man Down is no exception, succeeding principally because LaBeouf commits body and soul to the role even while Montiel ties himself in knots juggling multiple timelines.

While Oldman and Mara are as reliable as ever and Jai Courtney delivers an ambiguously sympathetic turn that may be the best of, certainly, his Hollywood career (it’s not often you comment favourably on a Jai Courtney performance), if you stick with Man Down after guessing it’s final act twist during the film’s opening credits, the reason you’re sticking is Shia LaBeouf. The cinematic equivalent of Marmite, you either love him or hate him, LaBeouf is never less than watchable and is one of the most interesting actors working today, investing himself totally in his work whether it’s thick-ear Michael Bay pap, his Dick Van Dyke goes porno turn in Nymphomaniac, his mischievous appropriation of Marina Abramovich and Eric Cantona in his performance art or his method turns in the likes of Lawless and Fury where he guzzled moonshine during filming or repeatedly stabbed himself in the face, his trademark intensity inspiring Rob Cantor’s Shia LaBeouf song, LaBeouf himself cameoing in the music video.

Physically pumped to the max and bulging from his T-shirts, his paranoid, traumatised soldier in Man Down is a walking raw wound, his performance one of naked intensity that hurts to watch. Perpetually tearing the scab off, investing himself totally in the role, LaBeouf is as vital in the physicality of the film’s basic training and action scenes as he is in the quieter moments, his semi-improvised scenes with Charlie Shotwell, the young actor playing his son, heart-breaking while his scenes with Oldman’s superior officer feel like an evenly matched sparring session, two fighters at the top of their game warily circling each other, trading shots.

Ultimately hobbled by its lack of budget and Montiel’s lack of imagination, Man Down is still a painful, affecting plea on behalf of America’s abandoned veterans, the mental and psychic wounds it alludes to far more real than the post-apocalyptic world it depicts.

Movie Review: Man Down
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