The Recce boasts stylish filmmaking and a clear sense of tension—but it lets the genre do all the heavy lifting, writes Mischa Alexander.
There’s a lot that can be appealing about war films: immediate tension, striking set-pieces and easily staged conflict between protagonist and antagonist. However, the popularity and countless examples of the genre can result in films making use of those advantages, without adding substantive and unique elements of its own. The Recce, directed by filmmaker Johannes Ferdinand Van Zyl, is a film that depicts the war in a competent and engrossing way, yet is ultimately a standard story with generic characters.
The plot centres on soldier Henk Viljoen (Greg Kriek), a character who, despite having served his conscripted service, leaves his family and pregnant wife to serve as a special ops member of RECCES in the South African border war. You’ll have to look up the broader context of the war—the film shows no interest in exploring the history. On a mission to assassinate a Russian general, Henk is falsely declared KIA and has to deal with harsh terrain, intense injuries and enemy combatants in order to try and make it home.
Something that stands out is the constant use of diegetic music, where the soundtrack came from inside the world of the film so that the characters can hear it. It contrasts nicely against the silence and threat of the combat scenes and adds to the ‘normal world’ atmosphere that punctures the reminders of war. The cinematography also serves to home in on this theme. It’s not done in a classically cinematic depiction of war; it’s mostly shot at very close angles that draw the audience into the precise movements and emotions of the characters. There’s a lot of subtlety in both, and the film isn’t afraid to be slow and precise at times. There’s the intensity of both conflict and emotion to be sure, but the film is at its most engrossing when reflects the precise actions of someone who knows that every small movement and moment counts.
It’s good that the visuals and sound design add a lot to this film’s tone and style, because the writing and characters detract from it. Take a moment to think of every young rugged soldier trope in the book, and that’s Henk in a nutshell. Kriek plays him admirably, but you don’t really get to know much about him aside from the fact that he is good at shooting and getting shot at. The same goes for the rest of the cast. Albeit well performed, they’re performing archetypes first and characters second.
If the typical depiction of soldiers in combat is something that appeals to you, then there’s likely something you’ll get out of watching The Recce. The film is clearly trying to address the violence and human cost of conflict and the heartlessness of paper pushers away from the front and the pain suffered by those that are left behind. However, the film revels in the honour and valour of those actually doing the fighting, depicting Henk and the other fighters without moral qualms and through rose-tinted spectacles. As such, the film’s message a tad disjointed at times.
The Recce is released on digital streaming platforms from 8 February.
Words by Mischa Alexander
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