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Lone Survivor. Black Hawk Down. Kandahar. Stick them in a blender and you get this episode’s movie – Land of Bad, a US special forces rescue story set in the Philippines. We look at the plot, the politics and the production history of this anaemic yet very bloody film, which includes the US Air Force and the Australian government, before reflecting on what this kind of rescue narrative is saying about the military.

I came across Land of Bad via one of my many free movie sites, and almost immediately recognised it as a military-sponsored film. Despite it having one of the worst titles I’ve heard for a movie I felt it was worth taking the time to watch it and dig into its production history, which I did simultaneously. This is not a story you have to give 100% of your attention to in order to effectively absorb it.

So we’re going to look at how this film came about, the government support to the production, its plot and its politics and despite it being thoroughly sub-mediocre there’s a lot to talk about.

Land of Bad came out in February 2024 and has taken a little over $4.5 million inside the US and another half a million internationally for a fairly pathetic total of $5.1 million dollars. According to a press release by the Australian government’s Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development, Communication and the Arts (Office of the Arts), the budget was $28 million.

As you’ve probably guessed the film was shot mostly in Australia, and credits Screen Queensland and Tourism Queensland, as well as local government authorities on the Gold Coast. The New South Wales regional government also gets a credit, for post-production assistance including, presumably, tax credits and rebates. Thus, some of that $28 million came back to them via the local and national government in Australia, and the Slovak Audiovisual Fund also chipped in.

There is also a substantial section in the credits thanking companies for their product placement, which I always find bizarre. They pay you to put their products in your film – the appearance of the product is their reward. Why do you have to thank them as well? Most of these companies are alcohol producers – Budweiser, Jura Australia (which is a contradiction since you should only make Jura whisky with water from the Isle of Jura, which is off the coast of Scotland on the other side of the planet), some wine manufacturers and a couple of consumer tech companies like G-Shock watches.

Despite all this, I’d still be surprised if this film breaks even, let alone turns a profit. The post-production rebate in New South Wales, which is only a few years old, is just 10%. The Queensland financial assistance is more generous (they spend hundreds of millions of AUS dollars on this every year), and includes any state payroll tax you’ve paid to Queenslanders who worked on the film. It seems if you employ what they call ‘bona fide Queenslanders’ and get supplies from Queensland businesses you can claim some or all of that back.

However, this won’t cover the biggest expenditure, which is the money paid to two Hemsworths, one Russell Crowe and Milo Ventimiligia, also known as Peter Petrelli from Heroes. They play the major roles in the film and I’m sure none of them came cheap, and while the two Hemsworths were born in Australia that was in Melbourne, in New South Wales, and they now live in America, so I’m sure neither qualify as bone fide Queenslanders.

As to the military content of the film – the US Army and Air Force are not credited on this film. A guy called Michael Speirings is credited as an MQ-9 drone pilot consultant and another guy called Paul Cale is credited as a military advisor, but these are their only IMDB credits and I don’t know if either are active military or not.

However, pretty much every character (excluding the terrorists) is either Army or Air Force, there are helicopters and drones and fighter jets in some sequences which seems to be a blend of real vehicles and CGI. And right at the end of the movie we see Russell Crowe driving into Creech Air Force base in Nevada, with the real Air Force sign outside the gate. I’m not sure if they actually filmed on the base, but they certainly got permission to use the real insignia and seem to have filmed outside it.

Also, the film opens in ‘Palawan Air Base, Philippines’, which isn’t a real place. There is an Air Base in Palawan but it’s called Antonio Bautista, and it is shared between the US military and the Philippine Air Force. It is named after Colonel Antonio Bautista, a pilot killed in 1974 while providing close air support during a mission fighting Muslim rebels.

Which, given that this is a film about troops fighting Muslim rebels/terrorists, would make it the ideal location to start this story. But for some reason they ignored Antonio, possibly because he wasn’t American, and simply called it ‘Palawan Air Base’.

However, there is a line in the script where Russell Crowe refers to one of the other military characters as a ‘soldier’, when he isn’t, he’s an airman, a JTAC (Joint Terminal Attack Controller) i.e. an Air Force guy working with the Delta Force guys, who is in communication with the drone operators, telling them where to drop bombs, where to scan for possible enemies and so on. This is like calling someone from the Marines a ‘soldier’, which does happen all the time and pisses off Marines no end, but it’s exactly the sort of thing that would be picked up in a script review.

Thus, the exact extent of Air Force involvement in Land of Bad is unclear, though maybe they just missed this little technical flaw in the script and otherwise provided access and production support. Given the incredible delays in processing FOIA requests in the last few years I can’t be sure.

What we can be sure of is that the film was supported by the Air Force during development. A recent interview by the Hollywood Reporter with the writer/director William Eubank says that he initially wrote the script for Land of Bad while making his previous film The Signal. It seems Eubank only makes films with boring, generic titles, he also did one simply called Underwater, about a bunch of people underwater.

The article says:

An earlier version of the script was actually thrown out after Eubank and co. spent time with Land of Bad‘s real-life counterparts at Fort Irwin in the Mojave Desert.

“[Jason] Kinney, who was a real JTAC instructor at Fort Irwin, called us and said, ‘Hey, you guys have got to come out and see what we actually do,’” Eubank recalls. “So we went out there and stayed for two weeks, calling in 9-lines to F-35s. So that changed how we looked at everything, including the script. We met real drone operators, and we just scrapped how we had written the initial film. We started over.”

The way Eubank tells it, Kinney reached out to him and invited him to Fort Irwin, this isn’t something he requested from the Air Force. So he went out there and spent some time actually calling in orders to F-35s during training exercises, met some real operators and apparently junked his script and started from scratch.

Thus, regardless of whether the Air Force provided much filming support, they evidently had a profound influence on the script, while a chunk of the money came from the Australian and Slovakian governments. Another state-sponsored fantasy, courtesy of NATO and its allies.

The Plot of Land of Bad

You will not be surprised to find out that Land of Bad is a rescue story, or potentially multiple rescue stories rolled into one. It begins with a special forces operation – three Army Delta Force guys and our Air Force JTAC guy. They are taken up by helicopter to the coast of the Sulu Sea and then do a HALO jump (high altitude, low opening) to get down onto the ground.

I have some questions. First, I doubt if a small helicopter would be able to reach the altitude necessary for a HALO jump, and even if it could, why is this their method of infiltration? Could they not drop them in a small boat 10 miles offshore and have them get to the beach that way? Wouldn’t that be lower risk and easier to pull off?

Anyhow, their mission is to trek through the jungle and find an Abu Sayyaf base where a CIA asset is apparently hanging out, and there’s some talk of Russian arms dealers. It isn’t clear if the asset is the arms dealer or if he knows the arms dealer but it doesn’t really matter – even in this film about terrorists in the Philippines they crowbar in a reference to evil Russians.

The base itself is a large complex of buildings next to a large dam, not unlike the rescue sequence at the end of Kandahar, the Gerry Butler movie we looked at a while back. Why would a rural militant group have such an elaborate base? How could they afford it? And why does this clearly very modern building have a tunnel network running underneath it and into the hills around it? This is half a dozen National Security Council delusions amalgamated into one.

It does evoke a real location, the Darunta base in Afghanistan which was near the Darunta Dam. This was a Soviet military base for a while, before it was taken over by Hezb-i-Islami, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s group, during the Soviet-Afghan war. After that it was allegedly an Al Qaeda training camp, though accounts dispute whether it was part of Al Qaeda in a formal sense or was simply one of many camps through which various people moved, including some members of Al Qaeda.

Back to the film, the extraction goes wrong – an Abu Sayyaf leader shows up, beheads the wife of the CIA asset, who is shot, and is threatening to behead a child when the sniper in the Delta Force team decides to shoot him, then drones start firing off missiles, which allows the kid to escape. Apparently it’s OK to behead women, but not children? Also, the beheading is ludicrously unrealistic in that the guy chops her head off in one clean, smooth motion, using a machete. Not how it works.

All this explodes into a prolonged firefight between our four white American good old boys and our nameless South Asian terrorists. One of the Delta Force guys gets shot up, the other two are killed by an RPG, leaving our Air Force guy the Lone Survivor. His only help are a pair of Air Force drone pilots who help guide him out through the jungle to the extraction point.

Just as rescue number one went sideways, so does rescue number two, of our lone airman. Those dastardly militants are back and as soon as he approaches the pick-up point, gunfire and RPGs start firing off everywhere, as though there were a hundred guys just waiting for him, knowing exactly where he was going.

So, Air Force guy is still stuck in the jungle, wandering around looking for a second extraction point, with the help of our drone pilots, one of which is played by Russell Crowe. He’s an old guy on his fourth marriage, has a temper and a defiant attitude towards authority hence why he hasn’t risen up the ranks and is stuck being a drone pilot. But he’s determined to get a Hemsworth out of the trouble he’s got himself into.

Despite this, the guy gets captured but there’s a stroke of luck – just like in Heroes, Peter Petrelli is still alive. Somehow, he and the other guy hit by an RPG survived with barely a scratch, and were taken hostage, also without a scratch. Peter Petrelli and Hemsworth break out of prison number one and decide to go and rescue the other guy (this being the third, or possibly fourth, rescue mission in this story). The other guy is being held, conveniently enough, at the base by the dam with the tunnel network that we visited earlier.

Because if I was a militant leader who had captured three American troops during an attack on his base that included bombs being dropped from drones, I’d hang around in that selfsame base, knowing the Americans are onto it and a QRF or somesuch must be on its way. These terrorists are not very bright.

Meanwhile, back at the base in Nevada, Russell Crowe is dismissed because he’s spent the last 24 hours or so working on this mission, with no sleep. Despite his noisy, sweary protestations he is replaced by another drone pilot.

So, the rescue plan is to use a bomber to make three runs, three attacks on the base, 15 minutes apart. The first two are supposed to be distractions or diversions, minor bombings to disrupt and confuse the terrorists, while the third one is the big one, designed to destroy the base.

This plan goes to shit because the two remaining guys – Peter Petrelli and Hemsworth – decide to launch their attack over ten minutes before the first diversion bombing. Indeed, I think they end up captured before that first bomb. Maybe they should have waited, let half the terrorists be diverted by that first bombing, and then rushed in there to try to find the other guy? They’re only highly trained special forces after all, and they did set up this whole three bombing run plan in the first place.

Anyhow, the tunnel network has cages and torture equipment and all the rest of it and Peter Petrelli is executed on video camera – though this time it’s a shot to the head, not a beheading. Hemsworth and the other guy, who may also be a Hemsworth (it’s really difficult when the special forces guys all have the same hair, same beard and all talk in this gruff, grizzled way to try to prove how tough they are) along with some Asian guy who is apparently also a captured special forces guy who was never, ever mentioned up until this point, all manage to escape.

However, there’s a final problem – the third bombing run, the really powerful one designed to destroy the base and the underground network. It is still coming, and the three of them are staggering around this half-wrecked tunnel network trying to get out before the bombs hit. Hemsworth uses a satellite phone to try calling the base, can’t get through, so he calls Russell Crowe, who is shopping in a vegan supermarket. Russell somehow, in less than two minutes, rushes from the supermarket down the road to Creech Air Force base, bursts in and charges to the room where the drone operators are, and just in time manages to call off the airstrike.

It’s basically the same ending as in White House Down, where Joey King runs onto the lawn in front of the White House and waves the American flag, letting the pilots know not to bomb the White House to smithereens to stop the terrorists. Exactly how the pilots would know that the girl isn’t part of the terrorist group that has taken over the White House (which is ultimately an inside job, of a sort) is not clear.

For some reason, Land of Bad ends with Russell Crowe and his fellow drone pilot, an African American lady because recruitment, dancing in an aircraft hangar while talking about her forthcoming wedding to some guy we don’t meet in the film. While I could offer many, many, many criticisms of the writing in this movie, this scene bugged me the most, because it isn’t earned, it isn’t set up properly, we never meet this guy she’s marrying, the relationship between these two pilots doesn’t seem like one where they’d be dancing (to no music) in a hangar on Creech Air Force base. And tonally, it’s completely at odds with most of the rest of the film, which is a survival and rescue story with plenty of grisly death and blood and things getting blowed up.

The Politics of Land of Bad

Where Land of Bad gets more interesting is its politics. The film opens with a three-part title, each sentence fading in, which reads:

Currently, the Sulu Sea is home to some of the most violent extremist groups in Southern Asia.

Intelligence agencies from around the world work together in a global struggle where men and women put their lives on the line every day.

We are in a war… We just don’t know it.

As you can see, this is a message film, one with a specific thing it wants to say to its audience, a deeply political film. It won’t be labelled as such because it’s loud and dumb, but it’s just as much a tedious one-note message movie as any smug, condescending liberal tosh.

The problems with this opener, and the entire framework of the story, run deep and strong. Let’s begin with the Abu Sayyaf group, the terrorist antagonists in this tale of rescue and survival and the bonds between soldiers, even if those soldiers aren’t soldiers, they’re airmen.

Abu Sayyaf were founded in the late 80s by a veteran of the Soviet-Afghan war, Abdujarak Janjalani, who named the group after a legendary mujahideen fighter in that war. They were part of the Moro rebellion, which sought independence from the Philippines and was very violent at times, though to what extent they were penetrated by the Philippine authorities is unclear. I did mention in my Ramzi Yousef and Bojinka episodes some of this story.

In 2014 Abu Sayyaf declared their loyalty to ISIS leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi and by the same year the CIA had sent operatives from its Special Activities Division to the Philippines to hunt down terrorists and their leaders. The gang had always had a taste for kidnapping people, including one American who they said they would only release if the Blind Sheikh and Ramzi Yousef were let out of prison. Following their apparent link-up with ISIS, they began kidnapping Westerners and demanding large ransoms, to try to raise funding. Some of these people were beheaded, some were executed in other ways, some were released.

In 2017 there was a large, five-month long battle in and around the city of Marawi, which ended in a fairly comprehensive victory for the Philippine government and military. Many leaders of Abu Sayyaf and related groups were captured or killed, and in the following years their leadership suffered more losses. By 2023, the government declared that the Sulu province no longer had any Abu Sayyaf fighters left in it, and estimates put its membership these days at maybe a couple of dozen, down from well over a thousand at its peak.

So, this opening caption in Land of Bad is fundamentally wrong, and their use of the Abu Sayyaf group grossly misleading. Also, even if Abu Sayyaf were still around in a significant way, why would it be the American military who would be tangling with them? In 2016 there was a new status of forces agreement between the US and the Philippines, whereby five bases would now house US troops, including the Antonio Bautista base mentioned earlier. But one of the provisos in this agreement is that the Americans would not go hunting local militias, militants, terror gangs and so on.

Hence why in this film, where we see them doing exactly that, they didn’t name the base properly, they made it seem like an American-only base rather than one mostly controlled by the Philippines Air Force. The autonomy of Filipinos is completely eradicated from this story, and American supremacy is the name of the game.

Which begs the question, why did the Australians go along with this? One answer comes from some documents I obtained from their military, about the process you have to go through to get ADF (i.e. Australian military) assistance for films and TV. The application form includes several sections where you have to outline how your project helps with the military’s messaging priorities, i.e. they explicitly ask you to explain how your movie is propaganda for them.

Attached to this form is a section titled ‘Key Defence Messages Summary’ where they explain a bit about their concerns and priorities. Under ‘Strategy’ it identifies key defence interests as:

  • A secure, resilient Australia with secure northern approaches and proximate sea lines of communication;
  • A secure nearer region, encompassing maritime South-East Asia and the South Pacific (comprising Papua New Guinea, Timor-Leste and Pacific Island countries); and
  • A stable Indo-Pacific region and a rules-based global order.

I think we can see why and how, even if the ADF themselves were not involved in Land of Bad, the film fits in with these propaganda aims.

As to the specifics of the film – there’s only one scene where there’s any dialogue where anyone questions what they’re doing. Air Force Hemsworth comments that the advanced technology of drones linked up via satellite communications to a base halfway round the world is taking the brutality out of war. This is contradicted by Peter Petrelli, who says war still comes down to one thing – man killing man.

Regardless of what you make of this not especially enlightening debate, the key for me is that even the softer, younger guy is still ultimately saying that what matters is how the people dropping the bombs feel, not the people they’re landing on. In reality, for those on the receiving end it makes no difference at all whether the bomb is fired from a shoulder-mounted launcher, an artillery truck, a fighter-bomber, a drone, a Navy bombardment or anything else.

Thus, this ‘taking the brutality out of war’ is a sick lie, especially when you consider that a significant number of former drone pilots have expressed how disturbing it is to be killing people halfway round the world while playing what are essentially video games while stuck in a shipping container in the Nevada desert. It might take the brutality out of it, but the shock and the moral, mental injuries are more or less the same even for the ones dropping the bombs.

And then there are the three (or four) rescue narratives that find their way into this movie. For large parts of it, Land of Bad reminded me of another very poor film I saw a few months ago – Warhorse One. It’s about a Navy SEAL who – you’ve guessed it – has to rescue someone in Afghanistan, just like Kandahar and Guy Ritchie’s The Covenant. It was written by, directed by and stars the same guy, Johnny Strong from Black Hawk Down, and in this one he has to rescue the infant daughter of some Christian missionaries who are killed by the Towelban, but almost the whole thing was shot in Lake Mineral Wells State Park in Texas. So the hills are quite lush, plenty of greenery and trees, which Afghan hills aren’t exactly known for. Also, the Navy SEAL fund are credited on the film, so they presumably providing funding or otherwise contributed to Warhorse One.

In the Afghanistan films (and there is another on the way) the people being rescued are usually Afghans, who need Americans to help them because they’re so pathetic and made such a mess of the democracy we imposed on them. Or something. In Land of Bad the only civilian they rescue is a child who is never seen again, after having witnessed his father getting shot and his mother being beheaded. All the other rescues, and rescue attempts, are of military personnel, just like in Black Hawk Down, Saving Private Ryan, The Long Road Home and similar narratives.

Consider for a moment what this implies. When a military operation goes bad, we’re frequently told in movies that what’s important is getting our guys back. Not the other consequences of the fuck-up, not the ramifications for civilians or for the wider world, but simply that we saves the lives of those who’ve volunteered to fight and die. Their lives matter. Other people’s lives, less so if at all.

Isn’t this the inverse of what we’re also being told about how they’re making the ultimate sacrifice on our behalves and this is why we civilians should always respect and defer to the military? Which is it? Are they rough tough troops who can handle anything as long as no anti-war protestors get in their face, or are they snowflakes constantly in need of being rescued due to their own recklessness and incompetence? We seem to be getting both images at once – the victim and the hero.