3 out of 5 stars

Writer-director Elegance Bratton makes a promising, if low drama narrative debut with The Inspection, a film loosely inspired by his own story as a gay man joining the military. The director briefly touched on this subject in his documentary Pier Kids (2019), about three homeless LGBTQ+ youths in Manhattan, but in The Inspection he fully reveals his own experiences about being queer and homeless.

Ellis (Jeremy Pope) doubles for Bratton at 25 where he finds himself living in a hostel after being rejected by his religious mother (Gabrielle Union). It’s 2005 and he’s closely following the news coverage about the War on Terror in the post-9/11 US and, keen to feel like his life matters, he joins the Marine Corps.

It was a time when “don’t ask, don’t tell” was still in operation, and Ellis (now known by his surname French) is forced back into the closet. The set-up is promising, watching a desperate young man hide in an effort to blend in with the toxic masculinity surrounding him. Inevitably, Ellis fails to disguise his sexual orientation and is thus abused and degraded by both his instructors and the recruits. The Inspection doesn’t skim over the violence and brutality, lingering on it for an uncomfortably long period of time. There’s perhaps too much time spent indulging in crude machismo and not enough about Ellis and his journey.

Claustrophobic cinematography is juxtaposed with Ellis’s repressed desire for the athletic bodies all around him. The Inspection languishes in cramped locker rooms and close-up shots of the recruit’s face. They’re all denied contact with the outside world, as their only connection is a single phone call and lewd magazine clippings sent through the post.

Bratton is a smart filmmaker. He plays with Ellis’s queer fantasies and the homoeroticism of the military in a subtle yet effective way. In many ways ‘locker room talk’ and flirting between gay members is similar. This is the most interesting part of The Inspection, but it sadly lapses back into generic military drama instead of exploring this intriguing juxtaposition.

Despite such a promising set-up, what results is a generic military training movie. The men are all pushed to their mental and physical limits, as showcased in formulaic training footage. Tony Award and Emmy-nominee Pope does a lot of heavy lifting for the film, delivering a nuanced performance that walks the tightrope of projecting hyper-masculinity without losing a natural soulfulness. Pope’s performance deserved something a little more than this uneven narrative.

The Inspection manages to make the US military look horrific while at the same time selling it as a place where one can transform your life, despite violence and intolerance thriving there—with imposing Colonel Leland Laws (Bokeem Woodbine) shouting cliched phrases like “our job is not to make Marines, it’s to make monsters.”

Asides from the lead, there are few sympathetic characters, as the recruits and inspectors often blend together. The most likeable character is Rosales (Raúl Castillo), an instructor who acts as Ellis’s guide and seems to have a tiny bit of understanding for the young protagonist. A little nuance to these senior characters could have added an extra layer to this story. It becomes hard to separate which intolerant recruit is which, sp after a little while they all merge into one toxic male figure.

Set in a post-9/11 culture, The Inspection also deals with casual Islamophobia alongside homophobia. Middle Eastern recruit Ismail (Eman Esfandi) is also subjected to a horrible level of torment, but The Inspection is a little unsure of how to handle these topics with the same sensitivity as homophobia.

Gabrielle Union gives an against type but worthy performance as his mother. Ellis visits her at the start of the film to retrieve his birth certificate, and she’s neither warm nor welcoming to her son, setting newspapers on the couch before he’s allowed to sit down. Union gives the performance of her career as a woman battling her maternal instincts and her religious views.

The Inspection has flavours of Claire Denis’ Beau Travail (1999) with the brutality of Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket (1987). Despite such inspirations, The Inspection fails to push boundaries and remains a surprisingly traditional military training drama. It’s a personal story filled with anger and sadness, but it lacks the layered nuance to pull at the heartstrings. Despite some fantastic performances, the film ultimately relies too much on well-worn genre cliches.


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Cast & Crew

writer & director: Elegance Bratton.
starring: Jeremy Pope, Raúl Castillo, McCaul Lombardi, Aaron Dominguez, Nicholas Logan, Eman Esfandi, Andrew Kai, Aubrey Joseph, Booken Woodbine & Gabrielle Union.