If the filmmakers behind The Amazing Spiderman were smart, they’d kick that Andrew Garfield guy to the curb and cast Adam Bakri in the titular web-slinging role. The agile young star of Hany Abu-Assad’s Omar would’ve injected some much-needed charisma and energy into that horrendous superhero reboot.
As Omar, Bakri proves early on in the Oscar-nominated Palestinian thriller that he’s a physical marvel, scaling a massive cement barrier that divides the West Bank then barely dodging an incoming bullet. But the endurance tests don’t stop there: He spends much of the film running and jumping through urban corridors like a human pinball.
The blisteringly tense narrative certainly calls for such sprightliness. After planning and executing a sniper attack on an Israeli army base that leaves one soldier dead, Omar and his two friends, Amjad (Samer Bisharat) and Tarek (Iyad Hoorani), find themselves hunted men. During a police raid, Omar’s captured while his compatriots escape, leaving him in the hands of a senior agent named Rami (Waleed Zuaiter). Since life experience is the primary form of currency in Omar, the young insurgent is no match for the older interrogator, who manages to trick his subject into confessing. In order to avoid prison, Omar turns informant.
It might sound like a standard narrative formula, but Abu-Assad transcends cliché by focusing on the dimensionality and drive of his characters. Omar doesn’t fit the angry young Muslim archetype. He’s in love with Tarek’s sister, Nadia (Leem Lubany), and the two have planned a life together. But such naïveté regarding the ripple effect of his actions is devastating. How can this future be attainable after he participates in a brazen terrorist attack? It’s these kinds of moral questions that become Omar’s lifeblood.
Rami turns out to be a fascinating foil because he’s not just a government puppet or ideologue. His life beyond the film’s thriller-genre core is revealed in the middle of a key discussion with Omar. Right as the intensity of the dialogue peaks, Rami’s phone rings. It’s his wife asking when he’ll be home for dinner. Omar watches as the deceiving and conniving man who’s forced him into an impossible situation takes a personal call and shows a completely different side. This kind of flourish stings when the inevitable violence finally strikes.
From a formal perspective, Omar uses its dense metropolitan terrain to create a genuine sense of urgency. Each scene feels claustrophobic, as if merely turning the corner could be a life-altering decision. One climactic chase sequence involving Omar and a squadron of pursuing agents inventively veers up stairwells, across rooftops and down alleyways. Even better, the action doesn’t exist in a vacuum: The real world often gets in the way and sends these racing participants in an entirely new direction.
Considering the political undertones inherent to the story, Omar’s dexterity becomes a sort of protest against the stifling limitations of his surroundings. Each step carries more than just physical weight, each leap a statement of defiance against his country’s occupation. But these ideas are hidden beneath a convincing drama about a flawed man trying his hardest to avoid the easy way out of trouble, which makes their implications far more scathing in hindsight.
What becomes clearer as Omar delves deeper down a slippery and tenuous rabbit hole of betrayal is that one’s ideological life and personal life are forever intertwined. They can never be segregated, no matter how hard we try. Omar—which opens Friday, Feb. 21, at La Jolla Village Cinemas—is not simply an effective thriller; it’s a moral tale with universal themes that takes on the vibe of a film noir in its fatalistic final moments.