A well-meaning, independently financed movie about the spiritual and philosophical struggles of a sleeper-cell jihadi leading up to a planned suitcase-nuke terrorist attack, The Algerian plays out more like an exercise in cinematic Socratic method than anything resembling a cogent drama. Written and directed by Giovanni Zelko (from a story conceived with lead actor Ben Youcef), the film is at first only haphazardly structured, but soon tumbles into temple-rubbing silliness, undone by speechifying and cardboard characterizations.
The story centers on Ali (Youcef), a young immigrant and engineering student studying in Los Angeles. After a cold open that establishes the tragic backstory that makes him a candidate for religious radicalization, the rest of The Algerian tracks back and forth between Ali’s sleeper-cell training and his Stateside interactions with various people he encounters, like on-leave serviceman Patrick (Josh Pence) and bike shop owner Mohammed (Zuhair Haddad), a fellow Muslim immigrant.
As an actor, Youcef is smart enough to underplay the generalized isolation and other fears rippling through his character, and similarly, composer James Bartlett makes use of some understated music. But The Algerian puts all of its ideas and conflict into its dialogue, and then repeats them over and over amidst a flat, thinly imagined visual palette and static compositions. One rarely has a sense of any legitimate, broader world, which could have fed a sense of the tension and conflict within Ali. Instead, once Ali meets a character, he tends to meet up with that character again and again at the same place. That’s great for scheduling on an independent film, I well understand, but it makes for an unconvincing movie.
Much of The Algerian seems intended as a sort of sociopolitical parable for our times, with scenes of Ali’s interactions with the aforementioned Mohammed and a kindly local imam, Suleyman (Harry Lennix), cast in relief against sequences of training by his radical-minded overseas benefactor (Said Faraj), who is laying the groundwork for a grand holy war. As awkward as that might sound, it could conceivably work—portraits of devout, nonviolent Muslims counterbalanced by a perverted religious ideology—if only Zelko could craft passably realistic supporting figures to fill out Ali’s perspective. Instead, The Algerian presents a risible array of two-dimensional types.
Ali’s meetings and relationships with women are especially hilariously contrived and tone-deaf. First he gets to lay waste to a couple of goons who sexually harass a young woman, Lana (Candice Coke), outside a club, in a spastically edited scene whose carefully blocked physical takedowns slot comfortably alongside latter-day, porcine-era Steven Seagal. Promulgating weary clichés of damsel-in-distress lubrication, the movie then has Lana foist herself on a pious, hesitant Ali. He also gets close with Sara (Tara Holt), a pretty blonde college student who’s naturally, instantly smitten by his classroom defense of his Berber heritage. They study together, and Sara throws herself at Ali, but he wildly pushes her away when he sees her Star of David necklace—all before magically setting things right by pointing out that they’re “practically cousins” (because, you know, Abraham and all).
Most frustratingly, though, Zelko overplays any very basic sense of Ali’s social and societal disconnection (having his lead repeatedly profess that he prays and studies alone, or explain that he goes by Al, “short for Ali”). If Zelko would simply trust more in silences and the faces of his actors, especially of Youcef, he might have crafted an engaging and thoughtful movie about the inner life of a would-be terrorist.
Instead, Zelko indulges every strident instinct—the equivalent of highlighting text in multiple colors, until it’s all a muddy wash—and overwrites his way into scenes that can only be described as stupid, the worst of which culminates in Lana confessing that after her mother died on September 11, 2001, she was raised in a string of foster homes and “raped so many times.” The Algerian tries to juggle interpersonal drama with the more overt elements of a ticking-timebomb political thriller. The result is a film that ends up dropping everything.
Director: Giovanni Zelko
Starring: Ben Youcef, Candice Coke, Tara Holt, Harry Lennix, Josh Pence, Said Faraj, Zuhair Haddad, Seymour Cassel
Release Date: June 26, 2015 (L.A. and NY); July 10, 2015 (wide)
Entertainment journalist Brent Simon is a superb parallel parker and sworn enemy to auto-play website videos, as well as a member of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter.