Henry Alex Rubin and Sean Mullin got it half-right.
The team behind the script for "Semper Fi" starts out strong with a story of a close group of childhood friends who are Marine Corps reservists. Building the band of brothers is done with great skills and respect. The writers took their time showing the heart, humanity and hope a group this close can share even in the darkest times.
It's the second half of the movie that takes an unforgivable turn. Rubin and Mullin get points for not making this a traditional buddy movie, but their decision to take the plot down an unexpected road _ and never getting back to the pure feeling of friendship that drives the first half _ leaves "Semper Fi" lacking.
The leader of the group, Cal (Jai Courtney), is both a by-the-book police officer and a no-nonsense leader on the battlefield. He has two major problems that are turning him into an emotional and physical wreck. The most monumental weight is an incident that happened in the heat of battle that haunts him and makes him doubt his decision-making.
Then there's his reckless younger half-brother, Oyster (Nat Wolff), who lives under a tempest of bad luck and horrible decisions. A deadly bar fight is the latest strike for Oyster, and he's given what his family and friends believe is an unfair prison sentence. Oyster's fate is what tests both his brother's loyalty and the all-consuming code of honor the military buddies share.
Rubin ("Murderball"), who also directed the film, shows great skill in leading his actors through the opening half. Casting Courtney as the leader works because of the determination the actor shows. Cal makes every look he gives and every move of his body sell the moment. Courtney makes Cal both a person to be admired and pitied.
The director gets the same performance out of Wolff, Arturo Castro, Finn Wittrock and Beau Knapp as the buddies. By the middle of the film, there's no doubt they are friends who will do anything to protect each other. It's that anything that sends the movie reeling in the wrong direction.
The only character that remains true is Cal, as Courtney continues to play the confusion he feels when his heart and mind argue two different approaches. He also never lets the audience forget this is a man who is desperately searching for a way to make his pain go away. More of a focus on Cal and an ending that didn't taint the heroic nature of the group would have made the second half as good as the first.
Rubin also should have taken advantage of having Leighton Meester in his cast. Even in a film that concentrates on the relationship between men, there should be room to give the female characters more to do than just hanging around bars.
Part of the problem is Rubin has not had a lot of experience directing fictional productions. Combine that with the almost unbreakable connection every writer has to their script and Rubin never gave himself a needed distant perspective to see how cataclysmically wrong the movie becomes.