Route Irish burns with a searing sense of the injustice of Britain’s involvement in Iraq war and the privatisation of modern conflict. But if this you think this means it is boring, you’d be wrong. It might have a steely moral core, but the action is fast, the characters believable and the twists intriguing.
Although the film is about Iraq, all the action is set in present day Liverpool and the Middle East is only visited in grainy, sepia-tinged flashback. If Ken Loach’s previous film, Looking for Eric, was humorous and largely optimistic and probably watched by a wider audience than usually sees his films, this one is bleak. Loach’s fury never lets the film become depressing however.
Fergus Molloy (Mark Womack) is an ex-SAS scouser whose best mate has recently died. He was killed on the infamously dangerous road into Baghdad, known as Route Irish. Fergus is not just depressed and angry about his friend’s death, he also feels guilty. He had been working as a security guard or ‘private security contractor’ and persuaded Frankie (played by the chirpy Liverpudlian comedian John Bishop) to join him in Iraq.
It soon becomes clear to Fergus that Frankie’s death wasn’t just tragic, there was something dodgy about it too. He starts to look into what exactly did happen and his investigation, in best thriller tradition, reveals an ammo box of worms around which the film hangs. You might say that Route Irish doesn’t have the best ever plot in the paranoid thriller genre, but that is not exactly the point. The film has other concerns.
In 2004, Paul Bremer, the head of the US Coalition Provisional Authority (who ruled Iraq for the US government in Washington) issued one of his final orders before returning to the USA. CPA Order 17 stated that: “Contractors shall not be subject to Iraqi laws or regulations in matters relating to the terms and conditions of their Contracts…” This was asking for trouble and gave, it could be argued, carte blanche to a group of people who were already pretty trigger happy. By 2006, it was estimated that there were 100,000 private security contractors working in Iraq. This was ten times as many as during the first Gulf War in the early Nineties. Here was a recipe for destruction – tens of thousands of men with guns who were not subject to the usual laws of combat.
It’s not really giving too much away to reveal that the baddies are the contracting companies. The privatization of conflict is Loach’s most obvious target, within the more general focus on the damage of the Iraq war, for both Iraqis and Westerners. But Route Irish is not a purely ideological rant, not quite.
The film paints a believable portrait of a society of tough men – soldiers, ex-soldiers and contractors – and their relationships… to war, civilians and friends. Fergus has a particularly complex relationship to Frankie’s widow and it’s elements like this, as well as the uncovering the mystery, that gives the film depth.
Route Irish is unlikely to leave you feeling uplifted, but you might be left feeling ready to take on the powers that be.