“Why would a man like you help a woman like me?” says Lana (Candice Coke) to Ali (Ben Youcef) when he comes to her rescue after Lana’s abusive date punches her in public. It’s a baffling question, and not just because it is despairingly clichéd. The situation doesn’t merit this question at all. A man like what? A woman like whom? What does Lana know about Ali that we don’t? As it turns out, none of this information matters to Giovanni Zelko, the debut filmmaker behind the asinine The Algerian, and, even though the exchange only happens a quarter of an hour into the film, it doesn’t matter to the viewer either. Even by that early point, it’d have to be a miracle to find a viewer who hasn’t checked out of the film yet.
The Algerian tells the story of Ali, an immigrant to the United States who, as a child, witnessed the death of his mother in a bomb explosion—or what the film assumes we will perceive as an explosion despite the risibly poor visual effects. He arrives in America with an un-American dream: to carry out a vague mission against The Great Satan. He’s a member of a terrorist cell disguised a student. Within the first few minutes, it’s clear that Zelko is going to waste a rare golden opportunity to carve a three-dimensional character from a Middle Eastern lead, but if you stick with the film, characterizations only get more disappointing. Ali meets only a handful of people in America, each a poorly sketched archetype to convey one of Zelko’s shallow ideas. Writing about these characters grants them much more legitimacy than they deserve, but two of them stick out like particularly sore thumbs.
Aside from Lana, who reveals herself to be the Hooker with a Heart of Gold, there’s Suleyman (Harry Lennix), an American Muslim inelegantly worked into the film to offset any accusation of Islamophobia—did you know there are Muslims who smile and will not give you unsolicited lectures on Middle Eastern history? There’s also Sara (Tara Holt), an attractive Jewish classmate. Ali briefly has a fling with her, only to violently push her back when he learns of her religion. This relationship provides the film’s most consistent source of unintentional laughs, what with Holt’s horrid performance—her flirting would be more subtle if she walked into every scene stark naked—and the film’s careless (and somewhat anti-Semitic) resolution to their break-up. It’s hard to imagine who is offended more at the implications of this relationship: Muslims, Jews, men, women, or blondes (who in the opinion of the film, are definitely dumb).
The Algerian is not offensive because it doesn’t abide by rules of political correctness, but because of its sheer incompetence on every level. This is a film in which story and plot are both mistaken for relentless exposition; political nuance is forgone in favour of the simple rule of thumb that America is superior to the rest of the world; the ambiguity of race and gender relations convey the filmmaker’s misunderstanding of both; and performances are delivered with all the grace and poise of a corporate sexual harassment video. It is hard to encounter a film that lacks even a single redeeming quality; that The Algerian achieves that is probably its biggest accomplishment.