Recently released on DVD as part of the "Sci Fi Essentials" series, Manticore (Image Entertainment) is a tele-movie with a mildly successful current events hook: the Sci Fi Channel creature feature centers on a unit of American soldiers who come up against a mythological beastie that's been resurrected as the ultimate Iraqi Weapon of Mass Destruction.
Though opening on a credits sequence showing two thieves as they rummage through the artifacts of an Iraq museum, the movie's first quarter looks more like a modern war story than a science fiction single feature. If you walked into the living room late, in fact, you might initially think you were watching an episode of the short-lived FX series Over There.
We see battle-savvy Sgt. Baxter (dependable Robert Beltran) and his unit as they half-heartedly interrogate Iraqi locals about recent looting incidents, then are forced to fend off an attack by insurgents. Hovering on the edge of the efficiently filmed battle action is an arrogant imbedded "DNN" reporter (played by Deep Space Nine's Chase Masterson) and her scruffy loyal photog. These two representatives of the much-maligned mainstream media lead our soldier heroes into further danger by wandering off in pursuit of a rumored cache of WMDs.
What they don't know, of course, is that a cave-dwelling Iraqi warlord (Faran Tahir) has revived the manticore, a legendary creature that the movie tells us is part lion/part dragon/part scorpion, to smite all military and civilian unbelievers. The flick plays fast and loose with this legendary creature – where most imaginings of the monster give it a human head, the CG Imagers make its facial features more leonine – but that's a small plaint. What matters to the movie are its disemboweling claws, its piercing scorpion tail and its ability to Hulk-leap into the back seat of a helicopter without anybody noticing it's entered the cockpit.
The manticore's been let loose in an isolated Iraq village – where it's slaughtered most of the inhabitants by the time our intrepid soldiers arrive on the scene – and it isn't long before our cast of vaguely familiar looking TV actors (among 'em, CSI: New York's A.J. Buckley) come face-to-face with the monster. At first, of course, our unbelieving soldiers don't recognize what they're up against: seeing the grisly piecemeal remains of the slain villagers, Beltran's sergeant implausibly posits that it's the work of "a wild animal, something that might have escaped from the zoo." But once a few disposable members of the unit are decimated by the creature, the truth becomes harder to explain away.
Lurking in the background is Tahir's villainous warlord Umari. Though the movie opened with our soldier heroes interrogating Iraqi villagers, they still instantly accept Umari as one of the good guys even though he looks about as benign as a 24 henchman. Possessing a fiery-eyed medallion which gives him control over the creature, Umari plans to use the manticore to retrieve the land he believes belongs to him, though the specifics of this back story are left pretty vague. Hey, he's a warlord; he's Middle Eastern – what more in the way of character explication do you need?
Characterization aside, what we really care about are the bloody monster massacres. The title creature's moves are variably believable, but not bad for a low-budget TV movie. Though the night attack scenes at times look too damn dark to be anything but annoying, the day-lit finale – where Baxter, spunky corporal Heather Donahue and the obligatory village urchin have a showdown with the beast – is good, cheesy fun. The manticore's destruction is clever, if not quite clever enough to be convincing. Still, watching Blair Witch's weepy victim heroine get her shot at bashing the monster with a sledge hammer has its own kicky charge.
As for Manticore's slight attempts at layering a War on Terror subtext onto its horror story, they don't really add much to the movie. Our MSM reps mainly serve to score some none-too-surprising satiric points: in one scene, we see Masterson's reporter carefully smudging dirt on her face for on-camera "versimilitude." (You're telling me that network news is more interested in image than in substance? Wow!) Baxter and his fellow warriors will be heartily familiar to anyone who's ever watched a war flick made since All Quiet on the Western Front. Soon as one of the unit shows pictures of his stateside love to his peers, for instance, you know the guy is toast.
Image Entertainment's "Sci Fi Essentials" DVD proves to be a fairly no-frills affair – doesn't even offer closed captioning for us geezers who occasionally have issues with muttery acting – though I'm not sure any bonus commentary could add to our understanding of this serviceable little timewaster, anyway. I do have to wonder what specifically makes this TV movie an "Essential," though. Perhaps it's the presence of two alum from the Star Trek franchise?