Around Elements of Madness, story is everything. We’re not looking for giant budgets, major studios, or the biggest names; we’re looking for an interesting idea or an engaging twist on something old. Enter the Scott Thomas Reynolds-written (2nd Chance for Christmas) Christopher Ray-directed (2nd Chance for Christmas) Assault on VA-33, a film whose elevator pitch is “Die Hard in a hospital.” While that describes the DNA, what separates itself is the detail work of the characterization and the material between the action. Ray himself spent seven years in the military and as a government contractor for six more, so he’s very familiar with how the military is treated or viewed post-service. Surprisingly, it’s these details which make Assault memorable, offering a bit more pathos to an otherwise predictable adventure tale.
Military veteran Jason Hill (Sean Patrick Flanery) finds himself in a fight to save his wife, Dr. Jennifer Hill (Gina Holden), her colleagues, and his daughter, when Russian terrorist Adrian Rabikov (Weston Cage Coppola) seizes control of the local Veterans Affairs Hospital, known as VA-33, in order to get revenge on a patient. Thanks to his knowledge of the layout, both as a patient and husband, he has the advantage, but with the numbers not in his favor, it’s only a matter of time before Rabikov’s team finds him.
I have never served in the military, so there’s a certain aspect of this film which I can’t speak to in its authenticity: the presentation of and depiction of PTSD. Both of my grandfathers served, my father was in the reserves (as were other relatives), and I’ve had close friends serve. Choosing to protect one’s country, no matter which country it is, is truly something that should be recognized as a sacrifice. The thing is that the general public, more often than not, puts on airs when it comes to veterans. Holidays meant to honor become commercialized and politicians use them in an attempt to score points. We wave our flags and spout platitudes, but the moment one raises a complaint or implies some kind of weakness, we, as a society, often cast them out. With the defunding and removal of most veteran or psychiatric support in the United States over the last several decades, plus the rise of alpha male mentality, there are fewer and fewer options for vets to receive the help they need. This is the subtext that runs through quite a bit of Assault, turning the overly macho tropes of the Die Hard or Lethal Weapon series, and the like, into things which hamper the hero’s victory. In this wrong place/wrong time narrative, Jason immediately calls in suspicious activity having noted changes in patterns at a facility he’s been in and out of frequently as both guest and patient. However, upon finding out that he’s a patient there, Police Chief Malone (Michael Jai White) immediately disregards the warning, presuming Jason is merely confused or troubled. Narratively, it allows things to get nastier and more dangerous before the cops get involved, but it underpins the very real issue of how the phrase “we thank you for your service” is nothing more than a brush-off via an insulting banality. From Malone’s perspective, Jason’s call for help is nothing more than the ramblings of a broken individual whose grip on reality is so loose that even considering, for a moment, that what Jason is saying is real can’t be possible. From an outsider’s perspective, that must feel very isolating.
Pre-insurgence, the script offers moments where we see Jason struggle with his PTSD as the sound of a coffee maker produces physical ticks and the forced remembrance of trauma. This enables the audience to get a sense of what triggers Jason, upping his stress and pushing him psychologically. As a point of reference, thanks to the memeification of the term, to be “triggered” doesn’t mean to be irrationally angry, insulted, or to be made uncomfortable in the sort of “gotcha” way individuals use the term in both social media and in real life. It means to induce a strong emotional or behavioral reaction due to intrusive thoughts or memories. The current common use of “trigger” is cruel, dismissive of real trauma, and condescending. What’s interesting about Assault is the purposeful depiction of other vets at the hospital and how they react to the terrorist occupation. One character runs away at the first chance, while, in another scene, one character fights alongside Jason. Both characters are correct in their reaction, even if the audience disagrees while attempting to cite the cinematic hero’s code as why there’s only one good option: “fight.” The fact that there are differences in reaction speak to the script’s attempt to get the details of trauma correct. For Jason, he’s not fighting for himself but for his family, and Flanery uses his line delivery and physical performance to convey how much he’s pushing through to achieve his goal.
Beyond this, though, Assault is a fairly by-the-numbers action thriller which underuses its best attributes and overuses the inferior. White’s Malone is fairly ineffectual, likely a restriction caused by the characterization mentioned above, so audiences don’t get to see the talented martial artist in action. Similarly, if you’re familiar with Mark Dacascos’s work (Only the Strong, Brotherhood of the Wolf, Cradle to the Grave, John Wick 3), it’s hard to believe that anyone in this film could best the accomplished fighter, but it happens. Thankfully, the scene is staged in a way where Dacascos is featured prominently so, even in brief, he makes an impact. The one actor who makes the biggest impact with the least amount of work is Rob Van Dam’s Zero, a lookout who never leaves the van despite countless hilarious pleads to do just that. In the same way that Flanery’s Jason is given several moments of dialogue-related bravado, that’s all Van Dam has and it’s really funny. Flanery himself is no stranger to physical performances and holds his own well whether with fisticuffs or firearms, appearing comfortable inhabiting Jason. Sadly, Coppola’s Rabikov is so over the top that it undercuts the more seriousness of the rest of the film. This happens a few times where the intended humor doesn’t land given the overall tone of the film and having Coppola chew the scenery while attempting to be menacing just rips you right out of the film.
Despite some overall cleverness in the staging and plotting of the bad guys and the little details exploring veteran trauma, so much of Assault on VA-33 has not only been done before, but we’ve seen it done better. One can forgive forced dialogue, the obvious camera ogling of the sole female bad guy, and even a big performance from a villain in a film as sleek as this. One can even admire how the subtext speaks to the alienation of veterans once society no longer has use for them. But it’s hard to ignore the aspects that build over time, highlighting missteps in creating tension or the illusion of a scene being on foreign soil when it’s obviously in America. The cast most certainly gives it their all, as does Ray, in attempting to honor those who have served while also seeking to entertain. Unfortunately, one aspect is executed more evenly than the other.
In select theaters April 2nd, 2021.
Available on VOD and digital (rent) April 6th, 2021.
Available on DVD and digital (own) June 8th, 2021.
Final Score: 2.5 out of 5.