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‘One Shot’ Review: Relentless Action Almost Disguises Thin Narrative in One-Take Film

Explosions, hand-to-hand combat, and clenched jaws are almost distracting enough to make you ignore the stilted dialogue and its wooden delivery.

One Shot

“One Shot”

Screen Media

“He is our one shot to fix this thing,” junior CIA analyst Zoe Anderson says during “One Shot,” and somewhere an angel got its wings, the happy result of not only the film’s title being uttered in dialogue, but its very gimmick as well.

Zoe is trying to retrieve information from a detainee on a CIA black site island prison — the only one left, she’s proudly told upon arrival — though she’s remarkably cagey about what she needs and why she needs it handled in Washington, DC. Perhaps she’d have been more forthcoming had she known her visit would coincide with Jihadists after the same man, and more than willing to slaughter anyone who gets in their path. Luckily for her — and for that detainee, Mansur — they luckily happen to have as their guide Navy SEAL Lt. Jake Harris, as accomplished a marksman as he is in hand-to-hand combat, and whose perfectly coiffed hair never shifts throughout the fighting and explosions. 

Filmed in one continuous take, “One Shot” is director James Nunn and screenwriter Jamie Russell’s efficient, bloody addition to the one-take-wonder subgenre of films. Lacking the polish of other entries such as “Birdman” and “1917,” “One Shot” feels like a first-person shooter video game with the camera reversed for once. After a brief yet stilted exposition-heavy opening sequence in which Ashley Greene Khoury’s Zoe and Scott Adkins’ Jake meet with the laughably antagonistic Site Manager Jack Yorke (Ryan Phillippe, whose volume control seems to have broken during filming somewhere around constant scream), the movie shifts into high gear and proves its reason for being. 

That reason, to be very clear, has nothing to do with the film’s politics — somehow both murky and simplistic — and everything to do with watching an enormous action film compressed into you’re-in-the-middle-of-it handheld vérité goodness. As the site is breached by a truckful of Jihadists, Jake, Zoe, and Masur (Waleed Elgadi) take off in search of cover. And so begins a wave of both nausea (all that shaky handheld camerawork does take a toll) and pleasure. 

“One Shot” cycles through the same audience responses with surprising consistency. First, there’s a sense of, “Wow, what a technical achievement! The sheer amount of work required to not only keep the actors moving but to choreograph the explosions and the blood spurting!” Then, as we begin to settle in and take for granted what we’re watching was done in one take, we begin to worry about the performers. “I wonder how much he rehearsed that roll! Oh man, I can’t believe he’s carrying that actor on his back now. Did he ever drop him? What do they all do when they’re not in a sequence? Do they stay in character?” And then we reach the saturation level that relentless action movies often precipitate, where the quiet moments are so quiet, filled with so many characters impervious to bullets, that our attention drifts. Until Nunn and company ratchet up the tension once more with a massive moment (the grenades are few and well placed here) that once again cycles us back to, “Wow, what a technical achievement!”

If the film had focused on its set pieces and not made time for dialogue scenes, “One Shot” would be a helluva ride. But there’s no getting around the fact that these are cardboard characters, even by action movie standards. There is even one laughably thorough exchange of important information as a character dies, one that would have been welcome to almost everyone involved much earlier.

But of course, no one is really watching “One Shot” for complicated takes on patriotism or the war on terrorists. The draw is the gimmick — and, for many, star Scott Adkins. 

The British martial arts expert has made a name for himself in action flicks from “Expendables 2” to “The IP Man 4.” His particular skillset doesn’t come into play until the halfway mark here, but once it does, Adkins’ dexterity provides a welcome relief from the bombast of the guns and bombs that permeated the film. 

The smartest thing Nunn’s camera does is to shift from perspective to perspective. We’re not tied to Adkins’ character because he’s top-billed; Nunn finds clever ways of keeping viewers involved in what is happening across the island, including embedding us within the Jihadists led by Charef (Jess Liaudin, attractively but perhaps unwisely clad in an artfully unbuttoned Henley). And the various deaths, when they come, arrive in ways both big and small. Several characters abruptly slump down, a small but effective way of adding a layer of reality.

The final shot strains for a cool factor that the movie itself doesn’t need, one that teeters on the verge of smirking territory. Sometimes, being a relentless killing machine with just enough extra on the mind to keep viewers engaged can be enough. 

Grade: C

“One Shot” premieres in theaters and on VOD November 5.

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