All the war-zone authenticity in the Arab world cannot salvage the silly Hollywood plot at the heart of "Green Zone," Matt Damon and Paul Greengrass' first collaboration outside the Jason Bourne realm.
Their thriller about the futile search for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq is a visual and visceral knockout that's utterly deflated by a story as common, coarse and unappetizing as Army field rations.
The movie pales further by arriving in theaters just days after the Academy Awards triumph of the vastly superior Iraq war story "The Hurt Locker," a film many people have yet to see. For the price of a couple of tickets to "Green Zone," you can own the DVD of a truly great war film in "The Hurt Locker."
"Green Zone" emulates the let's-build-a-democracy-just-like-ours intent of the U.S. occupation of Iraq in 2003, as chronicled in Washington Post reporter Rajiv Chandrasekaran's "Imperial Life in the Emerald City," a book cited in the credits as the inspiration for the movie.
Greengrass and screenwriter Brian Helgeland have taken a setting rich with novel dramatic possibilities and made up a fictional action tale just like any other, with the same lame plot contrivances and the same stiff, artificial characters.
You've got the incorruptible working-class patriot in Army Chief Warrant Officer Roy Miller (Damon), who leads a WMD team frustrated that detailed intelligence reports continually fail to turn up any traces of Saddam Hussein's supposed arsenals.
You've got the sniveling, scheming bureaucrat in Pentagon intelligence man Clark Poundstone (Greg Kinnear) and an internecine clash with his honorable nemesis in CIA man Martin Brown (Brendan Gleeson). OK, so the CIA good guy thing is kind of new.
And you've got the Special Forces thug in Lt. Col. Briggs (Jason Isaacs).
We all know now the weapons that prompted the invasion of Iraq did not exist. The filmmakers concoct a simple-minded WMD conspiracy to explain the bad intelligence reports, then lob Miller into the middle of it.
Miller's encounter with well-meaning Iraqi "Freddy" (Khalid Abdalla, who played one of the Sept. 11 hijackers in Greengrass' "United 93") leads him to one of Saddam's top aides, who holds the key to exposing the conspiracy.
Other than Abdalla, who captures a sense of Iraqis' conflicted emotions over Saddam's overthrow and the U.S. occupation, Damon and his co-stars deliver nothing more than serviceable performances. The roles do not call for much more, Ryan in particular stuck trying to make her few shallow lines sound meaningful.
There's barely a story to hold "Green Zone" together, the movie just hurtling through firefights and chases, pausing for breath with the occasional revelation to prod Miller on in his quest.
For pure ambiance, "Green Zone" is a marvel. Though shot in Morocco, Spain and England, the action feels as though it takes place in the heart of Baghdad.
Greengrass, who directed Damon in "The Bourne Ultimatum" and "The Bourne Supremacy," applies similar techniques — darting camera work, quick cutting, haphazard framing — to create the same sense of documentary immediacy in "Green Zone."
Only the barest traces of the occupation absurdities revealed in Chandrasekaran's book remain. Poundstone's remark that "Democracy is messy" is a faint echo of the Donald Rumsfeld observation that "freedom's untidy," while the filmmakers toss in a few glimpses of the blind luxury enjoyed in the safe American Green Zone while Iraqis clamor for water and loot buildings outside.
Chandrasekaran's book is a work of sharp, informative journalism. That "inspired by" credit sounds a little insulting when the result is tired, standard action fare such as "Green Zone."
"Green Zone," a Universal release, is rated R for violence and language. Running time: 114 minutes. Two stars out of four.