In a way, Kilo Two Bravo could almost function as “torture porn.” It’s certainly gory. It also draws a lot of its power from our subconscious awareness that we’re all flimsy, messy meatsacks that can be dismembered with horrifying ease. Finally, the film’s scenario dabbles in a certain absurdism: A three-man patrol in Afghanistan accidentally wanders into an old minefield in a dry riverbed, and one of the soldiers gets his leg blown off. The rescue effort sets of a series of cascading mishaps, triggering more mines, and trapping the soldiers in clusters on the riverbed as the injuries, desperation, and severed limbs pile up.
But it’s not torture porn, thanks to two key aspects: One, this actually happened. Kilo Two Bravo covers the real-life experience of a small troop of British soldiers who encountered an unmarked Russian minefield – left behind from the 1980s invasion – near Afghanistan’s Kajaki Dam in 2006. Two, the script by Tom Williams and the direction by Paul Katis are both models of steady craftsmanship and honorable intent. This is not some prurient indulgence of existential squeamishness. It’s a genuine examination of war and heroism, and an exercise in everyday human empathy.
The film opens the day before the incident, so we see the soldiers as they lay about their outpost and pass the time. The production is British, as are the actors. I didn’t recognize any of them, and frankly the accents were so think that I had trouble following the dialogue in the opening act. Later in the film, when there’s dialogue you really need to hear, it’s easily discernible. So the early scenes function in a kind of impressionistic manner, giving us a feel for the daily life, rhythms, and emotional textures of the group as a whole, as they play card games and trade good-natured insults.
That night, they have a brief exchange of gunfire with a nearby Taliban roadblock, and it’s remarkable how routine and almost amusing the modest firefight is. That disables the roadblock, so the next morning, three of the soldiers suit up and head down to investigate, which leads them into the riverbed and the minefield death trap.
It’s at this point, when the explosions and the screams start, that distinct personalities emerge. There’s Stu Hale (Benjamin O’Mahony), the member of the three-man patrol who’s initially injured. Then there’s Stu Pearson (Scott Kyle), one of the ranking officers at the outpost who is, at least for a while, the de facto leader of the rescue effort. Mark Wright (David Elliot) is the soldier who is the most grievously wounded, but who paradoxically becomes the heart and soul of the troop, relying on his words to keep his comrades steady and sane as he lays there in the dirt. And Tug (Mark Stanley), the outpost’s laidback medic, is probably the closest thing Kilo Two Bravo has to a lead protagonist.
At first, the soldiers are confident they’ve mapped out a safe route from the edge of the riverbed to Stu’s injured body. They conclude they need to move him to another spot that will be easier to defend should the Taliban show up. So two of the men begin the slow and terrifying work of digging through he dirt with their knives to clear a path. They think they’ve got it nailed, but it quickly becomes obvious the routes they thought they had aren’t safe at all.
Things as mundane as falling rocks or a body shifting set off more explosions. Pretty soon you’re hiding your face every time someone takes a single step, and the simmering dread of the very ground around them forces the soldiers into feats of problem-solving that are both grim and bizarre. Meanwhile, the difficulty of communicating their situation to other outposts becomes maddening: At one point, a helicopter arrives to help them, but the helicopter crew doesn’t realize the situation with the mines. The frustration – as the soldiers desperately try to explain over the noise why they can’t move to the open helicopter door a mere fifty feet away – is visceral and wrenching.
Yet amidst this, the soldiers’ humanity comes to the fore. When Stu Hale starts up with the usual “tell my wife” dialogue, he inspires one of the most hilarious and deeply-felt “don’t you lose hope on me now” speeches that’s ever graced a war movie. Later, one of the injured soldiers confesses it’s his birthday. So Mark and Tug lead the injured men in what may be the worst, yet most necessary rendition of “happy birthday” in human history.
Kati’s frame is bright and detailed, saturated by the oranges of the Afghanistan desert, and against that backdrop the flesh and blood and burns stand out vividly. His direction is effective, capturing both the sweep of the desert hills and lakes, and the otherworldly claustrophobia of being unable to move in the middle of a wide-open landscape. Williams’ writing has absolutely no frills: He plays out the story, with no flashbacks or subplots to distract from the relentlessness of the proceedings. The film’s conclusion is quick and efficient, offering one sad and poetic moment only. Indeed, after the ratchet of tension, the roll of real-life photos over the end credits – accompanied by a perfect song by Phoebe Katis – is deeply cathartic in the best sense.
If you’ve got the stomach for it, Kilo Two Bravo is definitely worth seeing.