Warhorse One (2023) Review

Warhorse One (2023) Review

“Warhorse One” Theatrical Poster

Director: William Kaufman
Co-director: Johnny Strong
Cast: Johnny Strong, Athena Durner, Raj Kala, James Sherrill, Siya, Todd Jenkins, Danny Augustus, Michael Sauers, Xander Gòmez, David Ibrahim
Running Time: 125 min. 

By Henry McKeand

Is the POW-MIA action film making a comeback? It’s been nearly four decades since John Rambo went back into the jungle to retroactively win Vietnam, but “The War Ends When I Say It Ends!” flicks seem to be resonating in 2023. Earlier this year, we had Guy Ritchie’s The Covenant, which saw Jake Gyllenhaal’s soldier head back into hostile territory to rescue the Afghani interpreter who saved his life. The concept played on a First Blood-esque idea of taking care of the loose ends left after America pulls out of a country it’s invaded. Warhorse One, the latest team-up between William Kaufman and frequent collaborator Johnny Strong, is now also using the US withdrawal from Afghanistan as a narrative backdrop.

Not that it’s much of a narrative. The film opens on a phone call between two government agents discussing a last-minute plan to help a family of Christian missionaries escape Afghanistan as American troops are leaving the country. The rapid, politically charged dialogue and frantic direction suggest that this’ll be the kind of jargon-heavy thriller that Paul Greengrass was making during the height of the war. However, any complexity soon disappears to make room for the real plot: A Navy Seal Master Chief (Strong) has to save the daughter (Athena Durner) of the missionaries after both his team and her family are killed by the Taliban. 

There are no twists or attempts to subvert the movie promised by the logline. That means that you’ll see a whole lot of bonding between the gruff operator and the innocent little girl as they evade the Taliban trying to kill them. Kaufman has become a fan favorite DTV director over the past ten years thanks to movies like Sinners and Saints and Daylight’s End (both of which starred Johnny Strong), making him a no-brainer choice to tackle this kind of stripped-down premise. This time, he’s getting some help behind the camera from Strong, who wrote the film with Kaufman and composed the score in addition to co-directing and producing. It’s an impressive undertaking, but Warhorse One isn’t the chest-thumping action film it could’ve been. 

I won’t even dwell on the questionable politics or the way it dehumanizes its Muslim characters. So many beloved action movies have exploited real-world conflict in the name of popcorn thrills. But when Stallone and Norris and Reb Brown (he counts, too!) healed America’s wounded ego by challenging the North Vietnamese to a rematch, it at least resulted in nasty propaganda movies that were also fun. For most of its runtime, Warhorse One is decidedly unfun. 

Sadly, that could be said of so many action films these days, as directors can’t seem to learn from the mistakes that have been plaguing the DTV market for a decade now. I don’t want to keep writing the same criticisms for the rest of my amateur critic career, so, inspired by Warhorse One, I figured I’d write up a list of things NOT to do if you’re considering making a low-budget action movie. After this, I expect only 10/10s going forward.

6. Cut Out the Establishing Drone Shots: Look, I get it. Drones are cheaper than ever, and you can get some great looking aerial b-roll for relatively cheap. That doesn’t mean you have to do it! You might think that shots that look like Nat-Geo stock footage will make your movie feel “bigger,” but they don’t. Instead, they just call to attention how generic everything else is. You’re not Michael Bay, and you’re not directing the modern classic AmbuLAnce.

5. Unscrew That Silencer: I’m sick of the thwips. Suppressors certainly have their place in the action movie canon, but enough is enough. There’s a reason why 80s action films featured big guns and big explosions. Because it’s cool! This is pure lizard brain logic, people. There’s something deeply unsatisfying about seeing a “tactical” protagonist taking hushed shots at enemies who are firing loud machine guns at him.

4. No More “Operators:” I get that movies like this are marketed towards people who have a non-zero chance of crying at a Call of Duty cutscene, but always make sure that your operator (I hate that word) protagonist passes the “First-Person Shooter Test.” Is he more interesting than the wordless grunts you play as in most FPS games? If the answer is no, then it’s time for a rewrite. This shouldn’t be difficult considering that most first-person game protagonists don’t even speak. Stoic doesn’t mean boring, so start thinking of some actual character traits for these guys. Johnny Strong is a good actor, but his hero here is just another boring Special Forces blank slate. 

3. Nothing Tacti-Cool About It: You know how stupid it was to see muscle-bound meatheads dual wield SMGs and mow through hordes of baddies without ever taking cover? Yeah, let’s bring that back. I think we need a twenty-year moratorium on drawn out scenes where the good guy takes cover and pops out every once in a while to pull off a suppressed headshot. 

2. Get Out of the Woods: I brought this up in my Kill Shot review, but why are so many movies just two people walking through the wilderness together and sometimes getting into shootouts? It’s deeply uninteresting after a while. Even John McTiernan, one of the great American action stylists, needed to introduce The Predator in order to keep things exciting. If you don’t have access to The Predator (you don’t), then let’s get some visual variety.

1. Keep It Tight!: First Blood: Part II is 96 minutes long. Warhorse One is 125 minutes. You feel it. 

I feel bad being so hard on Kaufman and Strong. They’re talented guys, and the film perks up in the final 30 minutes, turning into something that resembles a modern Cannon flick (this uptick in quality happens after they get out of the woods).  The final shootout is fun and brutal, which is all anyone’s asking for. It should also be noted that Athena Durner turns in an awesome child actor performance, and her rapport with Strong is sweet and simple. 

Still, even with all the skill involved, Warhorse One is boring when it should be exhilarating, sedate when it should be vicious. Kaufman and Strong should search for the things that work in the film and use them to make something better (and shorter) in the future. Tip: they’re the same things that have worked in action movies for half a century. 

Henry McKeand’s Rating: 4.5/10