It is 1981 and the Soviet Union and Afghanistan are at war after the Russians have invaded. The Afghan Mujahadeen guerillas refuse to be beaten, and in one remote village, there is a surprise attack by Soviet tanks, blowing up homes and massacring the villagers. One tank crew, commanded by the brutal Daskal (George Dzundza), capture a member of the rebels, and Daskal orders him placed under one of the tracks to be questioned, but the rebel is defiant to the last, until the tank crushes him. The tank battalion leaves, with religious anger in its wake, but Daskal's vehicle goes the wrong way, into a desert valley, and to its doom...
This unforgiving war movie was scripted by William Mastrosimone from his stage play, and develops into a game of cat and mouse between the "Beast" and the rebels, who not only want to kill the crew of the tank in revenge, but are joined by more opportunist Afghans who want the vehicle as a prize. It takes a little while to adjust to the filmmakers' approach, as the Afghans speak in their native tongue, but subtitled, yet the Soviets speak American English - if it hadn't been for the date you could have been forgiven for thinking the events depicted were more recent than 1981, what with the American involvement in the following century.
The crew may be led under the iron fist of Daskal, but they don't respect him. He is a proud, hate-filled and bigoted man, and Dzundza plays him with a formidable determination that borders on psychosis. His chief adversary in the tank is Koverchenko (Jason Patric), and we know he's the sensitive, thoughtful one because he wears glasses and writes in the log book; he is the voice of reason after Daskal cold bloodedly kills the only Afghan member of the crew. The other two either drink brake fluid or meekly follow orders, and when Koverchenko and Daskal have a real clash of personalities, the two seal their fate by not backing up the less dangerous of the antagonists.
Daskal is determined to hang onto his tank no matter what, and the chase is conducted under the baking heat (the Israeli locations are a convincing setting for the drama) which is all the more gruelling for the gradual collapse of the war machine's functions. In a balanced script, just as much attention is paid to the Afghans, led by Taj (Steven Bauer), whose brother was killed in the raid. They are trailed by the stone-throwing women of the devastated village, and have salvaged a rocket launcher which they hope to disable the tank with. For them, Allah is on their side, and judging by the way the hapless Soviets carry on, they could be right.
Eventually, the lines between the two sides are blurred when Daskal orders his remaining men to tie Koverchenko to a rock and leave him there to die, either of starvation or at the jaws of the scavenging wild dogs. As luck would have it, the rebels find him, and are preparing to kill him when Taj decides he could come in useful. Sure enough, he fixes the rocket launcher and joins them in their mission to bring down the "Beast" - one rebel makes connections with David and Goliath. The moral is that you can't be a good soldier in a rotten war, and this conflict looks as messy as it can be, judging by the tiny section of it we see. But that's the main problem: with this snapshot attempting to speak for all "rotten" wars, it ends up saying very little that hasn't been said already, and leaves you none the wiser about the Afghanistan war of the eighties, or indeed any war, diverting as the film is. Music by Mark Isham.