Netflix have delivered a solid string of action movies this year, from the heightened superhero antics of Project Power to the gritty comic book fantasy of The Old Guard, but the most popular of them all was Chris Hemsworth’s Extraction, which became the streaming service’s most-watched original film ever.
Helmed by a first-time director and produced through Joe and Anthony Russo’s AGBO company, there are superficial similarities between Extraction and Matthew Michael Carnahan’s Mosul, but the latter is an altogether more realistic and gripping exercise in tension than Sam Hargrave’s bone-crunching B-movie.
Based on a New Yorker article, Mosul follows an inexperienced cop paired up with an elite SWAT team on the streets of the titular Iraqi city. Falling in line with a squad who have ascended to almost mythical status in the eyes of the locals, Adam Bessa’s Kawa is taken under the wing of Suhail Dabbach’s veteran Major Jasem as the unit advance through war-torn and lawless territory to try and destroy an enemy outpost.
On paper, the setup sounds incredibly familiar. Anyone with even a vague knowledge of the action thriller will be fully aware that the rookie cop pairing up with a grizzled veteran has been done a thousand times before, but Mousl approaches the familiar tropes from a fresh angle. For one thing, the movie is entirely filmed in the local Arabic dialect, adding an extra layer of authenticity to the proceedings. Secondly, instead of introducing the characters and their backstories with the standard expositional dialogue, Carnahan dives straight into the horrors of war and lets the action inform the cast.
Text flashes up onscreen during the establishing shots to set the stage, before Mosul instantly explodes into life with bullets and blood flying across every frame, dropping the viewer straight into the heat of the visceral action. The choreography on display might be reminiscent of Extraction, but Carnahan focuses on the urgency and the sense of overwhelming danger instead of glorifying the pyrotechnics like a standard action movie would.
The narrative is constantly moving forward, but instead of punctuating the story with action sequences as the genre tends to do, Mosul is essentially a wall-to-wall assault on the senses that only slows the pace down intermittently and very briefly, leaving audiences to catch their breath at the same time as the SWAT team. It’s a wise creative decision, because not only does it allow us to organically find out more about these characters, but the non-stop barrage of attacks they find themselves caught up in have us sympathizing with their plight in the knowledge that this is a true story.
We’ve all seen movies like Mosul fall into overwrought and heavy-handed territory before, but the central duo of Bessa and Dabbach pitch their performances perfectly so that the relationship between Kawa and Jasem never comes close to descending into formula. The rest of the team might be painted in fairly broad strokes, but Bessa’s wide-eyed fear and Dabbach’s world-weary intensity create an engaging dynamic.
At a lean 101 minutes, Kawa’s character arc could have felt incredibly rushed in less capable hands, as he evolves from a terrified rookie to becoming integral member of the team in what’s essentially real-time, but the action and story provide enough development and obstacles for him to overcome that you completely buy it. Jasem might be the kindly father figure of the unit, but he’s also a capable and dangerous opponent that always knows exactly where his priorities lie. Underwhelming turns from either of the leads could have sank the movie entirely, but Bessa and Dabbach are nothing short of phenomenal.
Set in the space of a single day with a lot of ground to cover, Mosul almost inevitably rushes through several big moments, and as a result they don’t land as heavily as they should. That being said, the social and political undercurrent of the story is delicately handled and never becomes too preachy or on-the-nose, which is another trap that many similar movies have fallen into in the past.
Instead, the motivations are revealed and the plot advanced through the interactions between the characters, and it feels like an extension of the story as opposed to slowing things down for the sake of an exposition dump to get everyone up to speed. The barbs being traded back and forth by the opposing factions are all rooted in fact and reality, and despite being being an American production filmed in Morocco, there’s nothing about Mosul that feels even remotely staged or ‘movie-like.’
It might not reinvent the wheel in terms of either the action thriller or modern day war genres, but Carnahan has delivered a hugely accomplished debut that’s often harrowing to watch but never anything less than eminently watchable, packed with both nailbiting tension and impeccably-crafted set pieces that mark him out as a director well worth keeping an eye on.
Mosul is now available to stream on Netflix, and you can check out our exclusive interview with director Matthew Michael Carnahan here.
First-time director Matthew Michael Carnahan establishes himself as a talent to keep an eye on with a solid feature debut in the form of Mosul.