Man Down doesn't start well. Soldier Gabe Drummer (Shia LaBeouf) is seen rescuing his captive son in an abandoned building as helicopters fly overhead. Why he has to rescue his son, why there's danger, and the identity of the antagonists are all unknown, which means it's an action scene without context, which means it's pointless. And no, it's not so expertly staged and executed that it's good enough to exist on its own.
Thankfully, director Dito Montiel's (Empire State) film gets progressively better as it goes, culminating in a substantial ending that is good enough to make the movie worth recommending.
Man Down has three intersecting storylines, and each is compelling in its own way: The first tells of Marine Corps grunt Gabe as he survives basic training with his best friend Devin (Jai Courtney) and goes to Afghanistan. The second storyline features Gabe speaking to a military shrink (Gary Oldman) about the horrible events he experiences, and the third chronicles Gabe's search for his missing wife (Kate Mara) and son (Charlie Shotwell) after a virus wipes out most of mankind. Any of these plotlines on their own would've made for an interesting narrative; all three together creates a jumbled, incohesive mess.
Yet by the end it all comes together, in part because everything — including the aforementioned out-of-context opening scene — is explained with saddening clarity. This is not an accomplishment of proper pacing, as there are far too many scenes that should have been excised, including at least five minutes worth of Marine Corps basic training that amount to nothing. At 92 minutes it's hard to say the film is too long, but it is; if co-writers Montiel and Adam G. Simon could've gotten to the heart of the action, and told the story with precision, it would've made the movie imminently more enjoyable.
It's interesting that given LaBeouf's reported off screen antics he's recently chosen roles, both here and in last summer's American Honey, in which his characters are a bit cuckoo. In both cases, however, they should not be laughed at. In American Honey his character represents the degradation of the American dream to its most primal level, and Gabe is a soldier who doesn't know how to cope with his life being torn apart. These are intense, complex roles that he's handling well; mind you his talent was never an issue, so if what he's doing will get people to work with him again, mission accomplished.
One thing Man Down does well by the end is showcase the terrors of military veterans' PTSD, and in doing so it suggests it's a much bigger problem than people realize. Beyond identifying the problem, though, is the larger issue of how to help the veterans suffering from it. Man Down may help in that regard, but the film is unlikely to be embraced on a large enough scale to make a significant difference.