Wars transform the soldiers that participate in them.  Men and women in combat can be broken down, built up, or both in positive and negative ways.  Because the young tend to serve, their stories, and the films that tell them, can mirror a late-term version of the “coming-of-age” archetype.  The fingerprints of forced maturity appear all over the likes of “The Deer Hunter,” “Platoon,” “Jarhead,” and dozens of other films.  In all honesty, the trope is overused and over-familiar and that’s the first mistake of “Sand Castle.”

The opening voiceover from lead star Nicholas Hoult begins the inevitable point-hammering of this recognizable story route.  The constantly agape Brit plays the fictional Matt Ocre, based on the experiences of debuting screenwriter, burgeoning actor, and Iraqi Freedom veteran Chris Roessner.  He’s (stop me if you’ve heard this before) too-smart of a guy to be dressed in fatigues and carrying an M-16.  Ocre tells us he joined the U.S. Army Reserves for the college money two months before 9/11.  He finds himself deployed in the infantry two years later, right before we watch him pound his hand and wrist in a Humvee door to gain an injury that will keep him on the sidelines from combat.  

That’s quite a forward introduction for a reticent individual that doesn’t mesh with the weight room of alpha male meatheads and stock geographical stereotypes in his platoon.  Glen Powell of “Everybody Wants Some!!” is the loquacious, shit-talking, and tobacco-chomping Texas redneck Chutsky that behaves exactly expected.  Neil Brown, Jr.’s storytelling, knuckleheaded narcissist Enzo and the wannabe soulful top gunner played by Beau Knapp, double-dipping in the Iraq War after “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk,” round out the grunt squad led by “Prometheus” standout Logan Marshall Green’s composed and worldly mature Sergeant Harper.

In the days after the invasion of Baghdad, the higher-ups have tasked Harper’s crew to join Special Forces Captain Syverson (Henry Cavill) in the hostile village of Baqubah within the untamed Sunni Triangle.  Their mission becomes to assist in the repair of a crucial local water supply station their own Allied forces damaged in air strikes.  Repairing unearthed mainline pipes and trucking a tanker of water two times a day put the men in the crosshairs of the disenfranchised and combative locals that do not want the Americans there, even if they are preaching cooperation and correcting their own mess.

“Sand Castle” is a Netflix acquisition for their exclusive original film brand and the sophomore feature film of director Fernando Coimbra (“A Wolf at the Door”).  Coimbra’s film boasts impressive and immersive location work in Jordan and Roessner’s dramatized personal account does carry competent realism in the dangerous setting.  “Beasts of the Southern Wild” cinematographer Ben Richardson brings technical merit with long tracking and Steadicam shots hovering through the urban and desert thicket of squibs, ricochets, and tracer rounds.  Unfortunately, the heavy-handed musical score from Adam Peters does not add compelling flavor to his effective visuals.

Too much of this film stands as a wasted opportunity with underutilized talent.  We’ve seen Nicholas Hoult’s distant and unawakened characters before and in better films.  His central transformation is ineffectively mild.  If you’re going to cast the “Man of Steel” himself for his beefy frame, let Henry Cavill do something with a little muscle and machismo.  As a co-headliner, he’s little more than a fringe character whose biggest moment is telling off a sheikh with untranslated colorful language.  He should be leaving us awestruck with more than that.  The only two performers that exude tangible personality are Logan Marshall-Green and Glenn Powell, wringing extra juice and engaging charisma from their stereotypes.

Like “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk” before “Sand Castle,” this film feels ten years too late to make any resounding statement.  Asking the tough questions of social and political commentary has become the prevailing desired detail in chronicling this war, with "Zero Dark Thirty" at the top.  The premise, while thankfully direct and simple in its size, is too slight in answering any “to what end” doctrine that better war films can emanate from credits to credits.  Even with its “coming-of-age” overtones, “Sand Castle” lacks the complexity to tell a stronger story.   

LESSON #1: IT’S HARD TO BE HUMANITARIAN HOLDING AN ASSAULT RIFLE-- The U.S. contingent working in Baqubah keep preaching to the influential locals that they are there to help.  They wonder why they cannot garner citizen assistance and cooperation.  Well, you bombed their nation with force and now overrun their homeland on a high horse of righteousness.  If the roles were reversed, we wouldn’t cooperate either.  Change your approach and your price when it comes to occupied/occupier relations.      

LESSON #2: A GOOD SOLDER IS PROUD AND READY-- The rallying mantra of Harper’s company before any shit hits any fans is “proud and ready,” extolling the dual importance of honor and initiative necessary for a soldier to defend their country, starting with the man or woman next to them.  Ocre’s unenthused narration objects to say “shame is attached to every war story.”  Maybe, but a good soldier who learned and grew from his or her experiences, good and bad, replaces guilt with integrity and character.