The title character of Hany Abu-Assad’s “Omar” is played by Adam Bakri. Fair-skinned, with a slight overbite and an easy smile spread over a skinny face, he’s a likable onscreen presence, and when he makes doe eyes at coquettish Nadja (Leem Lubany), you see the blossoming of true love. It’s the sort of good casting you need in a film like this, the concrete notion of star-crossed, photogenic lovers trapped within a political hellhole. Real life isn’t often as subtle as fiction: there really is a wall that separates them.
Omar spends his off-hours hitching his rope over that barrier, sneaking over to whisper promises to his lady love for a tomorrow beyond walls, a nice house where the two of them could start a family. That’s close to impossible with the Israeli occupation however: each time Omar descends from that rope, on either side of the wall, he needs to be wary of patrolling jeeps loaded with abusive soldiers looking for a guilty-looking kid to torture. When one asks Omar to turn around and stand on a wobbly rock while balancing on one leg, you feel the weight of one region holding the other hostage. Bakri’s Omar is a reservoir of strength, but the actor plays this role as if he’s two steps away from (ir)rationally clocking someone. It’s Omar’s friends that take the fight back to the Israeli guards themselves: Tarek (Iyad Hoorani) and Amjad (Samer Bisharat) fancy themselves as freedom fighters, chipping away at their overseers, one righteous kill at a time. While all around the same age, Tarek, Nadja’s brother, is the one barking the orders. His severely thick eyebrows add to the feeling that Tarek is always inspecting surfaces for cracks: when he announces that another character is a traitor to their cause, his friends give him unquestioning allegiance. The clownish Amjad sports a massive jaw and a penchant for impersonations of western movie stars. Had Tarek not mobilized the trio, you get the sense Amjad would be happily cracking jokes and doing his Brando impersonations with friends at the local dump.
Abu-Assad previously directed “Paradise Now,” and you can see how his filmmaking instincts would result in a film like “The Courier,” the dodgy “Transporter” ripoff which is sandwiched in between these two efforts. His first inclination is to let conflict unfold with a burst of violence: here, Omar and friends live in constant fear of the rampaging police officers who only need to suspect the crew of subversion in order to lock them up. “The Courier” was ultimately meant to be an explosive franchise-like vehicle for Jeffrey Dean Morgan, but the film suffered from a script that melded real-life crisis and outlandish set-pieces. Here, placing thrilling free-running sequences in the midst of a political conflict, Abu-Assad seems more at home. Physically, Bakri’s got a tight running style that leads to increased speed, but limited mobility and controlled athleticism. This allows for tight cutting when Bakri moves from one terrain from another, while maximizing the camera coverage and speed in which he covers a certain chunk of space. When he takes off, so does the movie.
The picture’s strongest element likely comes courtesy of an Israeli officer who busts Omar and sends him out into the world to betray his friends. If Omar rats out his buddies, not only does he have a clean path to survival, but he also gets the overprotective Tarek out of the way, allowing him to be with Nadja with no further obstacles. Of course, given the nature of this arrest, there’s the question of whether that side of the bargain would be fulfilled if Omar turned traitor against his associates. Waleed Zuaiter is the actor who interrogates, and sometimes tortures, Omar: his sadism feels practiced, and he turns it on and off at will. Zuaiter is the film’s most interesting actor: he makes a personal phone call in front of Omar, exasperated by the relatives on the other line, and when he hangs up Zuaiter gives him a moment where he uncomfortably attempts to slide back from his domestic personality to a more professional one, like one animal imitating another. Amidst the politics of the situation, he understands that Omar is probably guilty, but giving Omar a chance to do the right thing lessens his paperwork and lets him get off work earlier.
Ultimately, “Omar” gambles too hard on the side of propulsive action setups. The logic of the film starts to slip in favor of thriller tropes where everyone and no one is a suspect at the same time. And a late-film love triangle seems like a cruel complication for a film that otherwise reveals compassion in its characters for the tough choices that must be made. By the film’s third act, alliances are made and broken, but the film doesn’t even properly establish a time frame for these actions, particularly given Omar’s under-developed, under-explained home life. You can feel the film slipping away as certain characters begin to fondle the triggers on their guns, and as the picture stretches what could be a taut, involving short into feature length. Still, the film moves well and glides on the strength of a number of tight action sequences. Knowing that “Omar” is about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and that it’s nominated for the Oscar for Best Foreign Film, might scare away the red-meat eaters in the audience. But this is easily more exciting and tense than any genre film 2014 has seen thus far. [B]