Punctuated with tension and the screen presence of Aaron Eckhart and Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Ambush (2023) economically makes its concept work and surprises in its effectiveness as an action thriller.
The plethora of direct-to-home-video actioners is too much to keep up with in the last handful of years. Not to mention, the significant amount of films released only to be buried in the graveyard of streaming complicates things even further. It’s almost imperative that these lower-budget flicks would need some instant grab to catch even a handful of viewers. This is how many actors have funded their recent careers, like Bruce Willis, Nicolas Cage, and Mickey Rourke.
However, Ambush nabs the fascinating combination of Aaron Eckhart and Jonathan Rhys Meyers to do just that. Although both stars have had some incredible films or TV shows under their belt, the combination idea proved very provocative to me. Drop them into the middle of a Vietnam war flick, particularly one geared toward the horrifying idea of being stuck in underground tunnels, and you’ve genuinely perked my curiosity.
Ambush is a surprisingly entertaining and punchy action thriller, powered by some strong casting, and using its budget smartly to power its tension and narrative force.
It’s not that Vietnam War films are all that common these days, not in comparison to decades previous, and when one does pop up it’s usually in the realm of a larger studio flick. When it’s a lower-budget film like Ambush, it comes as a surprise.
Fortunately, director and writer Mark Burman, along with his co-writers Michael McClung and Johnny Lazano, know that there is one aspect to the war that would fit within their budgetary constraints… the underground tunnels. While Ambush opens up with a smaller-scale siege on an encampment being built in the jungles of Vietnam, it quickly shifts its gears from the jungle down into the tunnels below the surface.
Here, the sets are limited and the scale of production can be controlled better. In some cases, this can be a hindrance, but Ambush utilizes it well. The similarities in the tunnels play into the labyrinth aspects of its plot and Burman gets to throw in some washes of light color (blues, reds, yellows) to give the tunnels a nightmarish quality. With some secondary performances that pop through the increasing tension of these sequences, moving Ambush from the jungles to the dirt-walled tunnels is a smart cinematic move.
In terms of that cast, Ambush manages to deliver some great moments from its ensemble work. While Connor Paolo serves as the film’s lead, leaning into his leader-in-training character arc for the duration of the film, Ambush is truly more of an ensemble piece. Paolo serves as the audience surrogate well, but he’s hardly the bread and butter of what Ambush has to offer despite his best efforts.
Much of the secondary cast ends up stealing whole scenes in many of their key moments and it’s enough to keep the momentum moving when the narrative can become bogged down in repetition. Someone like Patrick R. Walker gets to strut his stuff on screen, adding to an already impressive back catalog of character actor roles, and it makes for some entertaining war-time drama. The team sent down into the tunnels gets to make the most of their screen time, overall, and the various tension between the characters comes crackling to the surface. It’s not inherently original, but it’s well done.
Granted, like so many of the bigger stars in these types of films, Aaron Eckhart is limited to a cameo as a general, delivering tough guy dialogue to his troops from a single set room, but doing it admirably, I suppose. The same goes for Jonathan Rhys Meyers who is introduced as a character, a wild card one at that, which will play a larger role, but he ends up being more of an elder statesman who delivers much-needed gravitas to key scenes later in the film.
Drones and Shadows
With a well thought out setting and a solid cast, there is only one other aspect to Ambush that it needs to be entertaining for its audience: some decent action set pieces. Most war films tend to lean into some of the more spectacle-driven sequences and that’s how Ambush kicks things off. The jungle raid is driven by explosions and drone shots and it satiates that craving (perhaps expectation?) as soon as it can.
The rest of the film, however, maneuvers away from the big spectacle in lieu of more intimate action. There’s a fair share of the good ol’ ‘splosions throughout, but not the big fiery kind.
The action evolves into close-range firefights or classic fisticuffs and the tunnels allow director Burman to cake most of it in shadows to cover up the seams of stuntmen or other behind-the-scenes aspects. It’s not my favorite way to do the action because, yes, we want to actually see the hard hits and solid stunts, but it’s a choice that does help the film work through its rough edges. To its benefit, it does manage to embed its emotional weight into those action set pieces.
Although my expectations were heavily tempered by the scale, as a war-focused action thriller Ambush manages to exceed in many aspects. It moves at a quick pace, never overstaying its welcome, and it slathers on some solid tension through its use of tunnel settings and close-quarter thrills. The secondary cast carries it through its key emotional beats and its big stars add a nice elevation just when it needs it.
The biggest landmines that Ambush attempts to tiptoe over are the relative trope-heavy script that never quite finds the heights in storytelling it needs and the budgetary restraints that prevent it from maximizing its period setting. However, in the grand spectrum of things, what Ambush accomplishes is quite surprising and for those looking for a rough-around-the-edges action thriller then it’s hard not to be taken in by Ambush.
Writer, podcaster, cinema fiend, drive-in mutant, kung fu fanatic, horror hound, vulgar auteur, and sometimes human being. I’ve been writing about cinema for over ten years now, dedicating my time to all genre cinema. Co-creator of Blood Brother Film Reviews and co-host of the No Franchise Fatigue podcast.
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