Review by Daniel Lima
Sometimes, it’s clear when a filmmaker has two creative instincts at war with each other. In the case of 3 Days In Malay, it appears director Louis Mandylor wants to make a serious dramatic work that grapples with the horror of war, and the scars it inflicts on the fighting men who endure it. It also looks like he wanted to make a fun action movie. He is more successful at achieving one of these goals than the other, and unfortunately, it’s not the one that the film focuses its energy on.
Mandylor stars as a combat veteran in World War II, recently transferred to an outpost in the Pacific, at the height of the Guadalcanal campaign. As he begins to mesh with his new unit, which includes an old family friend with animosity towards him, the threat of a Japanese assault on the base looms large. Ultimately, it’s up to the brothers in arms to stave off enemy forces until reinforcements can arrive, pushing them to the brink and testing the bonds they’ve forged.
Broadly speaking, there are three ways to approach a war movie: pure propaganda, deconstruction, or the soldiers' stories. The first emphasizes the moral righteousness of the heroes’ cause, the second the moral bankruptcy of forcing human beings to kill each other. 3 Days in Malay takes the third approach, focusing on the soldiers themselves, their aspirations, and relationships to make their sacrifices more meaningful. That they are on the side of the angels is taken as axiomatic, but the film would rather be a stirring wartime action-drama than a jingoistic screed.
Achieving that requires the ability to build strong, self-possessed characters who feel like their lives extend beyond the confines of this particular story — an ability that is sorely lacking here. Most of the soldiers are entirely indistinguishable, with only a handful of characters given even an idiosyncratic quirk. The dialogue is all boilerplate, what you’d expect any roughnecked grunt in any generic war movie to say. That the performances are almost universally clumsy and uncomfortable makes this lack of definition even more stark. Even Mandylor himself, normally a reliable screen presence, is thrown off by some of the most confounding accent work of the year.
For the few characters with any definition, they still never develop beyond genre cliches. Mandylor and his old friend from the neighborhood are feuding, but it’s never made entirely clear why, and their personal arcs ultimately never feel essential to the story being told. The rest of the ensemble fares even worse, filling in thankless stock roles like “dutiful chaplain” or “sassy love interest” and being given nothing more to chew on before being unceremoniously killed off or disappearing from the narrative entirely. For a movie meant to put a human face on the cost of war to so utterly fail at humanizing its characters is damning.
The fact that the drama is so uncompelling also makes the technical deficiencies more noticeable. The visual style is drab and bland, with that desaturated palette meant to announce that this is a serious movie, but actually reveals a lack of a unique vision. The composition is serviceable, if unimaginative. Surprisingly, it’s the sound design that is the most egregious: never matching what is happening on screen, often looping the exact same ambient noises through a scene, almost as if someone googled “crowdsounds.mp3” and slapped the first result on in post. Taken with the dull character work, it makes the film feel wholly disposable.
The actual wartime action set pieces are a mixed bag. The firefights are taxing affairs, just shot/reverse shot of the heroes shooting at enemy forces with even less characterization than themselves. The scale is mildly impressive considering the budget, and the sound design in these shootouts is actually commendable, but they quickly become monotonous. Worse still, there are three of these in quick succession, and they all look and feel exactly the same.
There are, however, a handful of hand-to-hand brawls, and these are the only scenes where the movie shines. In these moments, the film feels more like the World War II adventures of the 1970s, using the setting as the backdrop for genre thrills. The choreography is simple and hard-hitting, there is an effective use of space, and the camerawork captures the breadth of the action. It is clear that Mandylor has picked up a few things working with the likes of Sammo Hung, Scott Adkins, and Jesse V. Johnson. When the soldiers conveniently forget they’re holding guns and charge in bayonets affixed, this does everything you would want from a fun wartime action flick.
Unfortunately, that is not what 3 Days in Malay is. This is an attempt at a grounded human drama that plays out in the harrowing confines of war. Unless the aim was to make the experience of watching this as grueling as a three-day jungle siege, this is a goal the film does not accomplish. Those fight scenes give a tantalizing look at an alternate take on the material, one that plays to the strengths of this director. Instead, this is a dour, boring slog, with just enough promise to make sitting through it all the more frustrating.
3 Days in Malay is available in theaters and on demand August 11.