Semper Fi, co-written and directed by Henry Alex Ruben, is a new thriller dealing with the injustices of the modern American prison system. Hoping to be more incendiary than it actually is, this film is an ineffective, albeit somewhat diverting, exercise in trying to make a political statement through cinema.
In the movie, a police officer serving in the Marine Corps reserves experiences a moral crisis because his brother receives an excessive prison sentence due to repeat offenses. Ultimately, the offense that lands the protagonist’s brother in the slammer is a bar fight that goes too far. Yet the film chooses to ignore the fact that his short temper is the cause of his downfall, instead trying to portray him as the victim.
Ultimately, it is difficult to get behind the fact that the character does not deserve to serve time because he is shown to be the instigator of the incident. As a result, the character development in the movie is insufficient. While the film does eventually rally the audience behind the characters, it takes more than the character’s so-called “wrongful” conviction to achieve this.
The more emotionally impactful moments of the movie come later, after the protagonist’s has already found himself in prison. Although the focus of the film is on the unfairness of sentencing against repeat offenders by the justice system, the movie would have been better off highlighting the unethical treatment of prisoners by guards in general. These parts of the film, in which the audience sees the character being assaulted, are the moments that create the necessary emotional connection.
However, the movie takes far too long to get to this point. It isn’t until the halfway point in the film that the protagonist’s brother ends up in prison. Much of the first half of the movie is spent in an attempt to introduce the audience to the characters in a “hang-out” format. Even though this part is pleasant and mostly entertaining, it has little consequence to the story as a whole.
Perhaps the strongest part of the film is its ensemble. Jai Courtney, who plays the movie’s lead, is able to give a performance with much more depth than is usual for him. This just goes to show that, with the right script, he is very talented and has quite a bit of range. That said, it is supporting actors Nat Wolff, Arturo Castro, and Finn Wittrock who often steal the show with their exaggerated but effective turns.
The film is also relatively strong on a technical level. The cinematography looks very solid, particularly during the movie’s more thrilling sequences. During the final scene, the camera is used in a way to heighten suspense and tension, allowing viewers to be drawn into the story one last time before the big statement at the end. The use of music is slightly overbearing at times, but it fits with the tone for which the film is aiming.
Despite the efforts of a talented cast and crew, Semper Fi doesn’t quite overcome weak character development and an unnecessary first half to be effective. While it suffices as passive entertainment, the movie fails to have the substance it so obviously desires.
Semper Fi hits theaters and VOD on October 4.