DirectorWilliam Kaufman, Johnny Strong
Release Date(s)2023 (November 7, 2023)
Studio(s)Operator Films (Well Go USA Entertainment)
- Film/Program Grade: C+
- Video Grade: B+
- Audio Grade: C+
- Extras Grade: B
A multi-tasking filmmaker can sometimes create a cinematic gem but risks letting ego get in the way of others’ contributions. Johnny Strong wrote, co-directed, starred in, edited, and composed the music for Warhorse One, a war drama about a Navy SEAL in the midst of enemy territory and his efforts to be brought back to safety.
A helicopter with a Special Forces team on the way to rescue a group of missionaries from insurgents is hit by enemy fire. The team’s leader, Master Chief Richard Mirko (Strong)—code-named “Warhorse One”—falls from the chopper before it crashes. Disobeying orders from base, Mirko determines to carry out the mission on his own.
Alone in the mountains of Afghanistan, Mirko makes his way cautiously to the last place the missionaries were tracked. En route, he encounters fire fights and emerges miraculously unscathed. Continuing on, he discovers a lone survivor, Zoe (Athena Turner), a missionary’s five-year-old daughter, and must get her to safety as well. A large part of the film is devoted to these two as they trek through treacherous territory toward the Pakistan border. Danger lurks at every turn and bad guys pop up as in a Whack-a-Mole game only to be conveniently outwitted and dispatched by Mirko, who appears to have an endless supply of bullets.
Between gunfights, Mirko and Athena talk about war, its devastation, and why innocent people are often caught in the middle. Apart from platitudes to soothe a frightened child, Mirko doesn’t have many answers for her questions. He’s not a man of deep philosophical thought.
Strong stages the action sequences effectively enough but they’re indistinguishable from one another—lots of hiding behind rocks and shooting until fatal shots hit their mark. The finale, which could have come from the John Wayne playbook, involves Mirko single-handedly taking on scores of insurgents to rescue Zoe.
Despite its abundant action sequences, the pace of Warhorse One is sluggish. There are easily places where they could have been tightened. At over two hours, it’s too long and too slow. It’s also filled with convenient coincidences that belie actual close combat.
Predicating the entire film on Mirko’s disobeying orders is a stretch. No soldier with the kind of training Mirko has undergone would dare disobey a legitimate direct order, however much he may disagree with it. The screenplay presents Mirko as heroic, but taking on a mission alone in enemy territory is foolhardy and reckless.
Strong has little dialogue for most of the film. Mirko has to seem alert and cautious, and Strong looks the part of a highly trained soldier. Of course, in keeping with decades of action films, Mirko seems to have a knack for diverting bullets aimed at him and having his own bullets hit their mark. This isn’t a role that requires Actors Studio training. Some roles require reactions to show what characters are thinking but Strong projects only one expression—cold determination. Even with Zoe, his Mirko never softens his manner.
Young Miss Turner, with her angelic face and sad eyes reflecting Zoe’s recent trauma, is an unusual co-star. Though Zoe comes to trust Mirko as savior and protector, there’s little screen chemistry between Turner and Strong. This may be because Mirko, as written, doesn’t know how to deal with a child rather than because Strong was unable to show empathy, but the lack of real connection hurts the screen relationship.
Warhorse One was captured digitally by director of photography Joey Nicotra and presented in the widescreen aspect ratio of 2.35:1. Not much technical information is available, but the picture quality is sharp and nicely detailed. Mirko’s dirt- and sweat-covered face, the lush scenery, flashes from automatic rifles, bullets hitting rocks, and details of Mirko’s fatigues are well rendered. The color palette is varied, ranging from the dark clothes of the insurgents to the brilliant, sunlit green trees on the mountains. When we see Mirko’s commander communicating with him from the base, the scene is bathed in an eerie blue light. Camera work is straightforward, with few interesting shots. There’s a large number of lens flares, which suggests that Strong kept them in purposely, but there seems to be no dramatic reason and they’re distracting. A few key moments are shot from Mirko’s point of view but most of the scenes are shot objectively. The firefights are repetitive and lose their impact. CGI is used in an early scene when Mirko’s helicopter is hit.
The soundtrack is English 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio. English SDH subtitles are available. Dialogue, what there is of it, is clear, though Strong speaks in a low voice throughout. The mix at the beginning is downright bad, with music overwhelming conversations, making it difficult to hear what’s being said. Later, the balance is better. When the insurgents speak to one another in their native language, white subtitles are shown on screen. Sound effects include raging river rapids, bullets hitting rocks, leaves crunching underfoot, automatic weapon fire, small explosions, grunts, bodies being pummeled, and a few piercing screams.
Bonus materials on the Region A Blu-ray release from Well Go USA Entertainment include the following:
- Commentary Featurette (58:10)
- 3 Days in Malay (1:39)
- Kill Shot (1:13)
- Aporia (2:27)
- Trailer (2:21)
Commentary Featurette – This is not a typical commentary, in which a director or film historian provides background as the entire film runs. Co-writer/co-director Johnny Strong discusses the film as edited sequences from it are shown. He notes that the opening sequence turned out to be controversial because a character speaks about how unhappy he is about the U.S. government’s plan to leave Afghanistan. Strong says that a director’s loyalty is to the story. He regards Warhorse One as an anti-war film, and makes a point of mentioning Charles Chaplin as his template for a complete filmmaker. Strong started as an actor but decided to create his own projects. He trained in mixed martial arts, knife throwing, and archery. He speaks about making a point of showing characters reloading their weapons. At one point, three men in a firefight reload at the same time. He drew upon the classic trope of “the slayer entering the cave to confront the dragon.” An imprisonment scene was intended to reflect real conditions, with a look of fear and real frustration. In terms of screenwriting, Strong discusses “something satisfactory” when something happens in a film that you want to happen. The message of Warhorse One is that war is necessary for the protection of human life. War victims are not only children whose families are destroyed but also those who fight the wars.
Warhorse One is a mediocre war picture that includes many tropes of the genre while attempting to add sentimentality by having an innocent little girl join forces with a hardened soldier. Moreover, the film commits the greatest sin of action pictures—it impedes narrative drive with a slow pace.
- Dennis Seuling