Rating: ★★½☆☆

Israeli filmmaker Eran Riklis’ (The Human Resources Manager) latest feature, Zaytoun, captures our attention right from its opening shots, undeniably striking from a visual perspective, with some scintillating, lengthy takes conveying the desolate, war-torn Beirut. This is a film primarily pre-occupied with families both present and past – particularly that of a precocious young refugee, Fahed (Abdallah El Akal), longing to return to his homestead – yet Riklis is also unafraid to brazenly depict the savagery leading up to Israel’s eventual invasion of Lebanon.

Fahed uneasily bonds with Yoni (Stephen Dorff), an Israeli fighter pilot who crash-lands in Beirut and is captured by the Palestine Liberation Organisation, to which Fahed tacitly belongs. While it’s unquestionably nice to see Dorff in something that’s not straight-to-video for the first time in a while, and he certainly does well enough as one half of the central odd couple, each ultimately bound to the other by a need to survive, and a mutual loss of fathers long before their time. However, there’s no denying the predictability of the premise and its themes; of course, we’re all different but we’re all the same, and why can’t we all just get along? It’s a nice enough sentiment, if by this point a little trite.

Further problematically, there’s not a lot of suspense despite the viscerally fraught situation; even when children are shot – and worse – Riklis’ end product can’t help but feel thoroughly vacuum-sealed. Though the loss of innocence amid mortar shells and gunfire is palpable, this is far more a testament to young El Akal’s impressive performance than the script. Where is the emotional charge? Rather, Riklis wastes too much time on broad, goofy comedy, such as a cab driver who can’t help but play The Bee Gees’ “Stayin’ Alive” at every turn.

As a result the film – much like Yoni after he is unceremoniously shot in the ass by Fahed – limps along only half-way pointedly, stumbling to an inevitable if drawn-out conclusion. The odd couple story is a nice concept – and after Dorff’s strong work opposite Elle Fanning in 2010′s Somewhere, he’s given another talented youngster to verbally spar with – yet the countless silly elements eschew the unique take on the road movie and drag us out of things rather than pull us in with comic warmth.

Male bonding – especially that between a man and child who are not related – is certainly an area with plenty of terrain left to explore, yet aside from a handful of quietly resonant moments – namely a bit of competitive shooting at an abandoned amusement park – it all feels a little piecemeal and hollow. That the film shifts tone between its emotional sweetness and its eagerness to thrill – note a minefield jaunt late in the game – is surely daring, it’s ultimately not particularly well-leavened. It all builds to a hopelessly distended – if unquestionably well-intended – climax that will test the audience’s patience for what is a sweet story dragged too far through the mud.

A pedestrian script stifles a promising concept, in spite of solid performances.

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This article was first posted on October 14, 2012