It’s not a great movie, but there’s occasionally — occasionally — something pleasantly old-fashioned about American Renegades, a military-heist adventure set during the Bosnian War. Released in Europe last year under the title Renegades, the film has actually been on the shelf for a bit, but one wonders if its origins might date back even further. Back to when people actually made military-heist adventures, for example.
The movie follows a group of American soldiers stationed in war-torn Bosnia who’ve discovered a massive underwater stash of Nazi gold. As a handsomely mounted opening sequence informs us, during World War II, a group of Yugoslav Partisans blew up a dam to flood the occupied town of Grahovo, where the Germans were hiding treasures pilfered from Paris. Now it’s 1995, and our heroes are a hot-dogging, wise-cracking bunch of Navy SEALs; early on in the film, they lay waste to what seems like half of Sarajevo with a tank chase. But their intentions here are partly noble: One member of the team, Stanton (Charlie Bewley), has fallen for a local Bosnian woman, Lara (Sylvia Hoeks, who made such an impression in Blade Runner 2049 last year), and they intend to split the loot with her. Twenty-seven tons of gold bars isn’t exactly the sort of thing you stroll out of a lake with, so the team concocts an elaborate plan to parachute down at night, dive to the underwater city, and create an air bubble inside the tower of a submerged church to get the gold out before anybody sees them.
The main problem with Renegades is that the first half, which should help us get to know the main characters better, is a bit of a slog, with uninspired action sequences, generic conflicts, and some truly atrocious banter. The biggest name in the cast is J.K. Simmons, cashing a check and overacting as a shouty general who regularly reprimands our heroes with some dreadfully cliché lines. (“You realize you broke every oath you took when you decided to embark on this little escapade?” “Jesus Christ, this man’s Navy is not what it used to be, not by a goddamn country mile!”) By the time the actual operation rolls around, when we should have a better appreciation for the role each of our heroes must play, they still seem like a shapeless group of anonymous Americans, performed by a mostly Europudding cast of vaguely familiar but not particularly memorable faces.
But then the heist itself, shot mostly underwater, is actually lots of fun. The director, Steven Quale, isn’t a brand name, but he’s demonstrated some effectiveness behind the camera — he directed Final Destination 5, the goofiest of the Final Destination movies, and Into the Storm, a film whose intense tornado sequences were matched only by its dim-witted story and script. But Renegades was co-written and produced by Luc Besson, who was raised by diving instructors and whose early work, like The Big Blue and Atlantis, was infused with a genuine love of the sea. And true to form, the underwater photography and stuntwork have an authenticity and clarity to them.
It’s only in this second half that we might begin to understand why Renegades got made in the first place. Even the lack of meaningful character development starts to seem like a virtue: Dive masks and wet suits cover and distort facial features, so that by and large, we can’t really tell who’s doing what when our heroes are underwater. They become, in that sense, like a smoothly functioning machine, and the film finally starts to work. But then J.K. Simmons shows up to shout some more, and everything goes bland and stupid yet again.