Mandirigma doesn’t really have what one might consider a main character. The one character we get to know best is the film’s ostensible antagonist, Hamda Marawan (Mon Confiado), a terrorist who in the early minutes of the film is behind an ambush that leaves a squad of Marines dead. He also kidnaps a bunch of civilians and holds them in his camp, where he resides with his wife and son. The film then goes on to follow a group of new Marine recruits as they go through training and spend time bonding as a unit. Eventually, the time comes for them to chase down Marawan, and they head into dangerous territory to capture the terrorist and free the hostages.
The logic of the film’s choices is pretty plain to see. This isn’t the story of a single brave hero taking down a terrorist. This is a tribute to the Marines as a whole. It is a collection of people working together, braving dangerous situations in order to keep people safe. It certainly does seem to make sense for the film to concentrate on the brotherhood, never really settling on a single main protagonist to give shape to the narrative.
But knowing that doesn’t actually make the film any easier to watch. It doesn’t make it feel more dramatically sound. It doesn’t give the scenes any more energy. The film’s choices are admirable in a way, but it just doesn’t work out. If this was a documentary, it might have worked out. But the rules of fiction are different, demanding very different things from the story that is eventually told. There are always exceptions, but in general a feature film benefits from having a strong protagonist, if only for the sake of giving the narrative a focal point, or a surrogate through which the audience can process the experience.
In the absence of all this, the film feels shapeless. To its credit, it does feel like the product of a lot of thorough research. The film offers little slices of life as a Marine that feel honest and genuine, as if these scenes were recorded verbatim from the barracks. But that generally isn’t what fuels a movie. A lot of stuff happens in this film, but it’s hard to connect with anything that’s happening. When the big firefight eventually happens, the characters aren’t established well enough to really care about what’s going on.
Contributing to the film’s problems is the production, which just isn’t up to par. At best, it mostly looks like a TV show. It generally lacks the dynamism of cinema, and a sense of scale. Scenes are staged awkwardly, and are edited sluggishly. The film features more than a few conversations that could have been cut more aggressively. Mon Confiado is fine as the one character that actually gets major dramatic scenes. There are more names among the marines, but no really gets to do a whole lot.
One cannot fault Mandirigma for its intentions. It does seem to be driven by a sincere yearning to pay tribute to the brave men and women of the Marines. But there is plenty to quibble about in the execution. There is always something to be said for a film that chooses an unconventional path, but sometimes it just doesn’t work out. In spite of the inherently dramatic situations held within, the film doesn’t really deliver much in the way of dramatic weight. The characters don’t register, and few of their emotions ever make it on screen.