Friday, June 7, 2013

CANNON FODDER: "There's a New Conflict in the Middle East..."

Cannon Fodder (2012)
Director: Eitan Gafny
Rating: 4.5 / 10
Seen via: Digital Screener

With the zombie craze showing no signs of slowing down, sometimes I wonder if it'd be better to hole away in a bunker and wait for its inevitable decay. It takes a special twist on the subject to spark my interest these days, such as the pared-down character-driven approach of the recent indie endeavor Dead Weight. Another trick is to incorporate some regional flavor, as in Alejandro Brugu├ęs' Juan of the Dead, in which the Cuban setting played an integral role in the story. This seems to be Cannon Fodder's approach, as it proudly brandishes the title of the first Israeli zombie film (although not the first Israeli horror film - that title goes to Rabies). I was interested to see how the decades of civil unrest and tribulation in the middle east were worked into the story of this film, and whether it'd rekindle my interest in a trend that won't seem to die.

The film gets started quickly, opening with our hero Doron (Liron Levo) having his honeymoon interrupted by a call from a former employer. Doron is an ex-special forces operative for the IDF, and his commander needs him back on the job to lead a crack team of soldiers on an urgent mission. The group is charged with the task of retrieving a Hezbollah leader who is believed to have been responsible for developing biological weapons, and is currently at large in Lebanon. Doron is skilled enough that this should be a routine mission, except things don't pan out quite so easily once he's in the field. After his squad is attacked by a series of crazed "civilians" while approaching the Hezbollah compound, he begins to wonder exactly why the IDF is interested in the man he was sent to capture and how much he hasn't been told.

Cannon Fodder adopts one of the more traditional zombie plots by pitting a military squad against a zombie horde. Along with the well-worn story come several familiar archetypes. Doron's squad consists of Avner (Gome Sarig), a sort of naively devout Jew, Moti (Emos Ayeno), a pure-hearted African immigrant, and Daniel (Roi Miller), a slur-spewing meathead who's too headstrong for his own good. While the backgrounds are different than you'd normally see in a Western zombie flick, the characters are mostly one-note (the hero, the goofy guy, the noble minority, and the jerk) and their interactions play out in a pretty predictable fashion.

I was very interested to see where the film went with its political subtext, but at the same time somewhat wary. Contrary to the social consciousness in Romero's early zombie films, I've noticed an alarming amount of recent entries into the genre playing on xenophobia and homophobia in really off-putting ways. With such a potentially touchy subject at the core of Cannon Fodder, I'm happy to say that it's handled deftly. While it's occasionally jarring to watch IDF soldiers gunning down Arab citizens - er zombies - it doesn't feel exploitative. The introduction of a sympathetic character from the opposition also helps balance the film, and at one point the characters even explicitly address the zombies as an enemy outside the regional conflict.

At the same time, I feel that the film missed an opportunity with its premise. By eschewing political commentary for the structure and feel of an action film, it gives up the ability to say much of worth. By the end of the film I kept looking for something to take away, but came up with nothing more than I would have gotten out of an American action film. Maybe that's the point though. An Israeli zombie film that fits right so seamlessly with its ilk will undoubtedly attract some interest in its home country. As anyone who's ever watched a film set in a familiar location knows, it's kind of fun to watch a story play out on your home turf. But it'd be nice if the regional flavor was played a larger role in the narrative.

If you're an effects purist, you may find the use of CG here somewhat off-putting. I'm willing to overlook its limitations when I'm caught up in the flow of a film, and most of the time that was the case. The action is generally well-shot, well-paced, and constitutes the most engaging portions of the film. There are some really well-crafted scenes near the end of the film (see the image above). On larger scales the seams begin to show a bit - mostly when large crowds of zombies are being blown up or hit by cars. While I appreciate the ambition, bigger isn't always better.

Now that Israel has gotten its first zombie film, I'm looking forward to seeing how the second turns out. Cannon Fodder lays a decent foundation, and I'm interested to see how future films will build on it.

Thanks to director Eitan Gafny for sending me a screener copy of the film. Cannon Fodder has been showing at film festivals across the U.S., most recently the Cape Fear Film Fest in Wilmington, NC and the Las Vegas Film Fest, where it was awarded the "Wild Ace" award for Independent Spirit. Future screenings include the Hoboken Film Fest in New York. You can learn more about the film at its Facebook page.

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