To draw the profile of Isa Abdullah Ali you'd need to pull from multiple sources. Mix Mike Tyson, G.I. Joe and Kwai Chang Caine and you'd have pretty good starter dough. American Jihadist is Ali's rendition of "Love is a Battlefield" and seeks to tour with him into the red zones of war; retracing the internal (and external) hemorrhaging that manufactured a homegrown, unforgiving Soldier of Islam. What follows is a hardcore offensive by a film crew trying to tap the goods of this rogue, demon-channeling warrior. The doc has potential to perform like a sleeper cell; detonating at the exact moment it stands to carry out the biggest box office "boom."
Pinning down American Jihadist is futile. The picture itself is a moving target. The title's loaded and so too is the subject-locked and loaded, that is-both verbally and physically.
Isa Abdullah Ali used to be Clevin Raphael Holt. He came out of the hardscrabble D.C. projects and routinely lost his lunch money and dignity to street punks. Ali was sporting fatigues even before he was even old enough to reach car pedals. Uncle Sam's Army taught Ali how to fight-gave him a calling and a skill-set that triggered something hideous.
The Army caught the youth in his grown-up lie and discharged him. But Ali was already a man. Still going by the name Holt, he went back to the hood, left his broken home and went to live with his preacher uncle. Despite conventional bible-thumping discipline he caught on with the Islam of the fanatic kind, and so was born Isa Abdullah Ali, freedom fighter.
When war seized Beirut in the 1980s, Ali took up arms to fight alongside his fellow Muslims against the so-called Zionist regime of Israel. It's here the cloak and dagger tales are backed-up. Fellow soldiers confirm they ducked mortar rounds with Ali. Inspired by Iranian leader Ayatollah Khomeini, Ali followed the battle taking on infidel Russians, Iraqis and Serbians.
The sword and a crescent tattoos on his forearms pale in comparison to the bullet wounds that mark most of his torso and inner thigh. This God-fearing zealot is like two sides of one coin, flipping back and forth; he alternates between peace lover and killing machine. In one moment he recalls offing his enemy: "I put that lead on him and POP-that was it...The more blood I saw the more blood I needed to see." Then he switches speeds and becomes a restrained pacifist: "You don't want to show the beast that comes out of you."
He is both an assassin and a lover. The filmmakers lift a hefty load to pry into this brutal soldier's recesses. But as a subject I feel Ali treaded very carefully through land mines of culpability-he plays God with his stories and few can contradict his version.
What's more is the filmmakers took an incredible journey to gather sources from all ends of the earth. Their interview span CIA profilers to former operatives to the Ayatollah of Lebanon himself. The forthcoming nature of these insiders is staggering.
Director Mark Claywell and his company took noble aim at this soldier who swore off his country of origin to fight for something bigger than himself. While I suspect the film's title may strike a nerve with Ali (the word Jihadist is so loaded) once he watches the film there is much to laud in the way of scale and scope. Sure, the guy ran the table in the interviews. Was he a U.S. spy? The answer to the question is almost spelled out, but you're never quite sure. Ali keeps you close but doesn't let you get full access.
The twist of fate and the spoils that accompany it make for what many might peg a savage defector who unleashed ruin onto innocents. They will call Ali a treason artist or terrorist who beat the system and justifies his 170-plus kills. Now calling Bosnia home, he's never been charged with a crime despite being a "known terrorist." But short minded labels neglect to truly portray this stubborn, no-mess, perpetrator who believes he fought for his own sort of peace. Do away with preconceptions and scripted bad guys as seen on big screens or in news articles and see Ali as a man who's heart was gotten to very early. He detests death but will fight bloody until he's the last man standing. The film manages to discover a rare species of human that evokes one unforgettable mindfuck.
Sales Contact: Glen Reynolds
Director: Mark Claywell
Screenwriter: Jody Jenkins
Producers: Mark Claywell and Jody Jenkins
Running time: 72 min.