‘Tommy Guns’ Review: A Shape-Shifting Spectacle of Military Life

Portuguese boys train for service in occupied Angola in Carlos Conceição’s drama, which incorporates elements of a ghost story.

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By Natalia Winkelman

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Deep in the Angolan forest in 1974, a woman from a local tribe encounters a Portuguese soldier and shares a tender moment of connection. For a few beats, this early scene in “Tommy Guns” suggests the serendipity of a blossoming love story — until the soldier abruptly snaps into violence. This tonal about-face is par for the course in Carlos Conceição’s shape-shifting drama, which brims with visual intrigue while snaking through an agitated series of set pieces.

Following this episode, the story pivots to observe a troop of Portuguese adolescents living and training in a remote military camp. The boys exercise, chant and traverse the grounds under the gaze of their despotic colonel (Gustavo Sumpta), who seeks to mold them into ruthless combatants. At once boyish in their innocence and intimidating in their brutality, they form a tight-knit crew, and Conceição often arranges them before the camera as a solemn band of postured bodies.

The bridge between the startling prologue and the zanier scenarios that follow — including a colonel securing a sex worker for the squad — does not take shape until the film’s final act, which hinges on a jumble of ghost story elements. It’s a stylized spectacle, and the effects can feel discordant. Conceição eventually chips through the horror genre enamel to expose a message about the futility of war, but the tale’s miscellany of moods dulls its ultimate power.

Tommy Guns
Not rated. In Portuguese and Nyaneka, with subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 58 minutes. In theaters.

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