Take the unquestioning military-worship and broad counterculture misrepresentations of a standard faith-based movie, remove the Jesus references, and substitute mild fuzz-guitar pop for country music and you get Purple Hearts, a wounded-warrior movie aimed primarily at Disney kids who’ve grown up on Descendants star and singer Sofia Carson. If none of that means much to you now, it won’t once you watch it, either.
Carson, who plays Cassie, performs numerous songs in the film, some of them cover tunes and others originals written by Justin Tranter (who has penned hits for Ariana Grande and Demi Lovato). As an example of the former, she gives an electric zhush to standards like “Sweet Caroline” with a baby-talk, Betty Boop voice that makes Gwen Stefani sound like Marianne Faithfull. As Cassie begins to write her own songs, they become somewhat more vocally soulful, but no less plot-stalling in a Netflix movie that’s way too long at two hours and two minutes. The premise—sassy feminist singer/bar server Cassie and whitebread delinquent-turned-Marine Luke (Nicholas Galitzine) marry for the money and health benefits just before he ships out to Iraq—deserves 90 minutes, at most, to explore, presuming you believe this concept deserves the time of day at all.
Considering the film looks like it was shot at Camp Pendleton—depicting basic training like it’s a fun P.E. class instead of the usual drill sergeant cliches—it’s obvious that there are no circumstances in which these protagonists will get away with defrauding the military. Nor will liberal Cassie and conservative Luke ever so much as criticize the premise of U.S. troops in Iraq, a military operation the film unambiguously frames as somehow protecting American lives. Instead, the characters deliver lines like, “What exactly would you like us to do—go over there and teach them pronouns?” or “So what does the tattoo say, ‘Socialism Now’?”
Cassie begins the movie rightfully putting such people in their place, especially Armando (Nicholas Duvernay), the platoon’s primary bigot/misogynist who longs to kill “A-rabs” and uses pickup lines like “We’re good enough to fight for your ass, but not enough to touch it?” But because Cassie is diabetic and unable to afford her insulin—and Luke owes money to some bad people—the two agree to a sham marriage, despite the fact that they otherwise loathe each other.
Fortunately for him, she seems to have a real fetish for dudes who show vulnerability, so when he actually does so behind closed doors, they have sex despite no prior chemistry whatsoever. (Technically they’re married by then, so thankfully it’s not sinful.) Purple Hearts would be a lot more interesting if it interrogated the specific moments of weakness that attract Cassie to Luke, but that’s far too complex an idea to explore in this kiddie pool of sentimentality. Once he ships out, she’s immediately inspired to write her first original song, “Come Back Home,” because of course that’s its name. It’s an instant hit. Then after suffering an injury in the line of duty, he actually comes back home—except he doesn’t have a place to live, because they never formally moved in together. Insufficiently wacky odd-couple roommate shenanigans ensue.
A viewer doesn’t have to possess the omniscience of Emperor Palpatine to understand that everything from here will proceed exactly as they almost certainly predicted from the start. But fealty to an obvious opposites-attract formula doesn’t itself ruin the film. Rather, it’s that it lacks any real spark between characters we’re meant to root for, compounded by utterly facile political discussions in which she repeatedly capitulates to his point of view, while a number of scenes that are key to the plot happen entirely off screen. In a Claire Denis movie, perhaps, that’s a bold and deliberate choice. In one that’s a showcase for Sofia Carson and broad, pandering flag-waving, it’s either financial corner-cutting or creative laziness.
That said, director Elizabeth Allen Rosenbaum (Sneakerella) has a good eye for night scenes, especially during an attempted burglary and a particular moment of regret. The shadows come alive in different levels of blue, accentuating the essential mood of the main character in the scene, usually Luke. Too bad, then, that most of the movie takes place during the day in sunny Oceanside. Meanwhile, both Carson and Galitzine are beautiful people—presumably one of the film’s primary draws—but their love scenes convey neither heat nor emotional substance, and consequently aren’t much fun to watch.
More fun, however, is realizing that Luke’s hard-ass dad is played by Linden Ashby, an actor probably best known as Johnny Cage in the original Mortal Kombat movie. If only Purple Hearts was less about tugging at your heartstrings, and more about ripping them out...