“Allegiance” opens with title cards explaining that the Bush Administration deployed National Guard units to Iraq in 2004 when military forces were stretched thin, forcing thousands into a foreign combat zone for over a year even though they had signed up for one weekend a month. On the basis of this establishing information, the audience is primed for a film that examines the emotional and physical tolls of military service, not in a melodramatic way, but rather in a way that’s honest and compelling. Ultimately, this isn’t what writer/director Michael Connors delivers. The film is essentially an escape thriller masquerading as a military drama, which is to say there’s plenty in the way of action craft but very little in the way of human introspection. The characters are pawns of the plot, and nothing more.
Adapted by Connors from his own 2006 short film “Recalled,” what we have here is yet another disheartening example of a good concept mired by bad execution. Examining the reality of military deployment on those soldiers not mentally prepared for it is indeed an idea fit for a movie, but only if it’s done with respect and intelligence. The characters in this film have real motivations, but their actions are so formulaic and mechanical that there’s nary a scene when any humanity is visible. That this went unnoticed by Connors and his producer Sean Mullin, both of whom have military backgrounds and served in the New York National Guard, is nothing short of shocking. You’d think they would be the most qualified people to make this movie, given their firsthand experiences. And yet, this was the best they could come up with?
The driving force of the plot is National Guard Specialist Chris Reyes (Shad “Bow Wow” Moss), whose unseen son is terminally ill. His request for compassionate leave is denied; Reyes is the best medic in the entire battalion, and because a unit is being sent into combat, medical care will almost certainly be a requirement. Desperate for a way out, he begrudgingly turns to the film’s central character, Lieutenant Danny Sefton (Seth Gabel), for help. Sefton, an ivy-league graduate with a cushy job and powerful family connections, has lost the respect of his unit after receiving a last-minute transfer that would keep him on American soil. Despite this, he remains on the base and helps the soldiers prepare for deployment. Already in hot water, he puts his reputation even further on the line by orchestrating a way for Reyes to go AWOL.
A more thoughtful film would have had considerable time devoted to the emotional underpinnings of going AWOL, especially under this particular set of circumstances. If you were the parent of a dying child, would you not protest being sent thousands of miles away into a combat zone, despite the commitment you made to your country? The great failure of this movie is that, rather than the emotional underpinnings, far more time is devoted to the technical details of Reyes escaping. This is itself bad enough. It’s made worse by the fact that the entire escape sequence, which consumes roughly half of the movie, is reduced to a grabbag of highly improbable clichés borrowed from most heist movies, prison dramas, and spy thrillers. By structuring the film in a way that’s more action-oriented, Connors sacrifices nearly all character development; never once do we believe that Reyes is a father, that his boy is going to die, and that he’s emotionally driven to reunite with him.
There are exactly two scenes that show some degree of depth, which tells me that Connors is not past all hope as a filmmaker. Both are brief, private conversations between Sefton and his replacement, Lieutenant Alec Chambers (Pablo Schreiber), a combat veteran called back into duty after being wounded overseas. In one, they discuss, with some understandable restraint, their feelings about being, or not being, deployed into a combat zone. In the other, they talk to one another about the women that have been or currently are in their lives. Although it’s obvious that Chambers is keeping an eye on Sefton, as it’s strongly suspected that he and Reyes are up to something, there’s still the sense that the two are actually being developed as authentic human beings. In those scenes, they’re not adversaries; they’re people with genuine emotional complexities.
For the rest of the film, they, and just about every other character, are reduced to action-movie typecasts. Before having bearing witness to a laughably implausible epilogue sequence, we have to endure the climactic final confrontation, which is essentially a scaled-down version of a chase. In those moments, all traces of believable character development are lost; the actors are reduced to pieces of machinery, as evidenced most glaringly by the moment when Sefton and Chambers get into a fistfight on the perimeter wall. How disappointing that Connors, who obviously has knowledge of the military, would let his film become so pedestrian. It’s always painful to have to say yet again that a film had the potential to be so much more than it what it ended up being. I’m sorry to say that “Allegiance” is the newest in a long line of such films.