- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 22, 2001

''No Man's Land" begins in a literal fog of war.
The setting is Bosnia in June 1993. A group of Bosnian replacements is being led by a cranky, gnarly guide at night, and the fog looks impenetrable. Three men within arm's length of one another share cigarettes ignited from a lighter belonging to one of them. This indulgence fuels the guide's bad temper.
Bad luck catches up with the patrol at daybreak. When the fog clears, the men find themselves in a valley in clear sight of a Serbian battery. Only one of the hapless targets, Ciki (Branko Djuric), survives. His desire to retrieve the discarded lighter when he sees it proves almost fatal. Ciki finds refuge in an abandoned trench, the last haven for some dead comrades. Later in the morning, two Serbian soldiers are ordered to check out this shelter. Ciki watches from concealment as they booby trap one of the corpses with a mine. He then kills one Serb and wounds the other.
This grimly compelling prelude is destined to misfire on writer-director Danis Tanovic, but not because of the difficulty of sustaining what appears to be an open-air theatrical polemic that pits two antagonists, Ciki and his temporary captive, Nino (Rene Bitorajac), in explosive proximity for a period of time. The initial promise culminates when the enemies begin to recognize that they may have more in common than they care to admit. Not only a language and a military obligation, for example, but a young woman named Sonja.
Unfortunately, war does not allow enough time to expand on these affinities. Outsiders begin to intrude, particularly a party of French "peacekeepers" under U.N. authority. Then a sensation-seeking British TV journalist named Jane Livingstone (Katrin Cartlidge) reawakens all the hair-trigger rivalries that seemed to be cooling down as the soldiers talked.
The filmmaker's jumpiness seems evident when he starts playing fast and loose with who has the upper hand: Nino contrives to get the drop on Ciki, who then gets it back, etc., etc. These exchanges have a certain comic value for a while, as if we were meant to officiate a wrestling match and award points for reversals.
Jane, the self-righteous troublemaker, is contrasted unfavorably with a French officer named Marchand (Georges Siatidis), a peacekeeper willing to take exceptional risks to spare lives. The British come in for further caricature in the form of Simon Callow, cast as the local U.N. commander, Col. Soft, a line-of-least-resistance type who is irked at having to interrupt a sexual liaison in Zagreb. I'm not sure why the Brits attract a double portion of flak from Mr. Tanovic, a Bosnian. Perhaps certain scores are being rhetorically settled. One of the movie's incongruous charms for Americans may be that no American characters get singled out for conspicuous contempt.
The filmmaker himself cannot escape suspicions of hypocrisy and opportunism. The setup becomes more congested and incoherent than necessary if its purpose is to clarify the waste of civil war in a compact and eloquent way by concentrating human interest on a pair of brave but irreconcilable men.
Mr. Tanovic virtually abandons character development between Ciki and Nino at the halfway point. They become not only the occupants of an abandoned trench but hostages to a mission of character exploration that gets lost in a fog of political posturing and bombast.

"No Man's Land"
RATING: R (Occasional profanity and graphic violence, in a setting of wartime combat and peril)
CREDITS: Written and directed by Danis Tanovic. Cinematography by Walther Vanden Ende, production design by Dusko Milavec, costume design by Zvonka Makuc and music by Mr. Tanovic. In Serbian with English subtitles.
RUNNING TIME: 97 minutes

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