Taking its name from a strategically important dam in Afghanistan’s Helmand province, Kajaki follows a group of British soldiers as genuine horror unfolds around them. This modern war film comes with a “based on a true story” tag, and arrives on the back of November’s remembrance commemorations—some of the film’s proceeds are going to military charities—so one might be mistaken for thinking that Kajaki will come off as melodramatic or emotionally manipulative. However, director Paul Katis, in his first feature film, has created a gripping, and very tense drama that portrays the horrors of war while leaving interpretation open to the viewer, something rarely achieved in recent war movies.
Set on one cataclysmic day in 2006, the film starts out typically enough. We are introduced to a number of British soldiers who inhabit a pair of small fortifications in Helmand, watching them as they engage in banter with each other. Then on a routine mission everything changes as one of them steps on a mine, obliterating part of his leg, and they realise they are in the middle of a minefield left over from a previous Russian occupation (always the damn Russians). The situation becomes a rescue mission as the soldiers battle with the elements and their own army’s blunders.
There’s nobody that could be strictly defined as an antagonist here and indeed, the film plays out with barely a shot being fired. Instead, the drama is found in watching a close-knit group of friends as they professionally attempt to deal with the situation. Their banter continues even as the terror unfolds, something that wouldn’t work were it not for the solid cast. As the story goes on, a leader emerges in the form of a medic played by Game of Thrones’ Mark Stanley, who puts in a strong performance.
Kajaki is not for the squeamish, it depicts its protagonists’ injuries in graphic detail, and as the ordeal goes on, the entire film becomes caked in mud, blood and dust. At times it genuinely feels like a horror film, some points are excruciatingly tense while in others the hysteria becomes surreal as the soldiers turn delirious through morphine.
Playing out mainly as one scene, the film could perhaps have worked equally as well as a stage play, however its running time lets it down a little. At almost two hours it doesn’t quite have the legs (pun intended) to hold itself up for that length of time. There is a point reminiscent of gangster flick Lock Stock where the audience will find themselves asking, “can everyone stop getting blown up?”
The film tips into sentimentality slightly towards the end, but for the most part, Kajaki is a strongly written, intense drama that tells its story without ever pushing an agenda. It doesn’t succumb to the pitfalls of other recent war films in wearing its politics on its sleeve. While it might not be the greatest war movie in recent memory, audiences will take from this film whatever they want, depending on what they bring to the table, and for that Kajaki has to be praised.