Review: ‘WarHunt’ (Black Forest moan)

Okay, you can quote The Iliad, but how’s your Brothers Grimm?

In 1945, a U.S. military transport goes down after flying through a murder of crows (pun intended) crashing just behind enemy lines into southern Germany. One-eyed Major Johnson (Mickey Rourke) tasks Sergeant Brewer (Robert Knepper) with the recovery operation but saddles him with greenhorn Walsh (Jackson Rathbone), tagging along to recover a top secret something-or-another. Thirteen men quickly discover they are not alone in the woods, encountering strange totems, mysterious bodies, and breathtaking women — women who will actually take your breath and won’t stop there. You’re not going to show anyone that picture of your best girl waiting for you at home after the war, are you, soldier?

With numerous credits for illustration and concept art, director and co-writer Mauro Borrelli is clearly visually oriented and thinks a lot about what is seen. Intercepting the acquisition of occult objects by the Third Reich is an old WWII trope — most of the Indiana Jones films touch upon it — so there’s a minimum standard when it comes to this kind of fare. Last year’s Blood Vessel about vampires on a not-so deserted Nazi ship was better than it had any right to be, hilarious title be damned. With Rourke dressed up like a secondhand Nick Fury sending a team of choice victims to their doom, is this standard throwaway dreck or above-standard throwaway dreck?

In spite of all the ways WarHunt could go wrong, it works with a combination of atmosphere, dread, and G.I. banter, straddling tired tropes with new or fun ideas. Breadcrumbs of plot are sprinkled between action sequences and horror reveals, building organically to avoid schlock. A monster movie at its heart, the production obscures its antagonists and keeps viewers guessing by pitting victims against one another until the ensemble is whittled down to the final players. A bit of The Blair Witch Project, a little Antlers, and all kinds of The Brothers Grimm, the ninety-minute running time moves things along topped with a smart twist on the “why us, why now” question before the finale.

There are two special effects the production leans into: a misting smoke (which they even adapt for the opening credits) and an “explosion of birds,” both of which look inspired by the director’s work on Dracula Untold; they’re both overused, but they work well enough. The rest is mostly props and practical effects with the occasional digital set; the witches know what’s up and use every advantage they can, pitting experience and abject fear over firepower. Until a slightly confusing ending — clearly a setup for WarHunt 2: WarHarder — the cut is a lean, mean, fighting machine that doesn’t want you to notice the drying paint.

The film plows ahead with as little explanation as possible (and more than a few reveals warranted non-existent explanation), but it manages to hit all the bullet points for sticking to their own rules, an essential element when fantasy meets reality. Rourke doesn’t have much screen time — only slightly more than he’s given in those Expendables sequels — but it felt like viewers were due at least one mid or after-credits scene that never materializes. Is it a credit to the production that it felt like there should be more, or is it merely another trick by the witches to make audiences believe there’s more there than actually is?

WarHunt is rated R for violent content, language, some sexual references — including Mr. Rourke getting to call himself “One-eyed Major Johnson” — and a better tree of life than Terrence Malick’s.

Three skull recommendation out of four

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