There is a lot on the surface of 12 Strong that has been done in war films before, again and again. Grunt soldier characters act like they do in every other movie. Fire-fight sequences involve everyone we don’t care about falling down dead, and everyone that has been established as a character surviving despite being amid insurmountable danger. Themes of camaraderie and learning to think differently about your fellow man abound. Etcetera. Etcetera.
With this, there is plenty of scenes that play out, down to the lines themselves, exactly as you would expect.
Our boys have to say goodbye to their families before they fly out to Afghanistan by way of Uzbekistan. These scenes are obvious, and actresses like Elsa Pataky are wasted in the roles of these soldiers’ wives.
Captain Mitch Nelson (Chris Hemsworth) and second in command Hal Spencer (Michael Shannon) have to quibble with desk-jockey higher ups. We’ve seen it before.
And certain throwaway lines (and a handful of what are meant to be more poignant lines) come off so tired as to compel your eyes to roll. The scene where one character tells another, after a brutal battle, to think with his human heart as opposed to his soldier brain: downright painful.
These issues, large and small, are what make this film a forgettable January war film (think your 13 Hours or your Lone Survivor). Still, 12 Strong is a competent film. At certain glimpses, it is even a good film.
Being a Jerry Bruckheimer-produced film, the scenes of war combat are bombastic and overblown. Explosions abound. Gunfire is exceedingly loud. However, for all this needless and excessive bombast, director Nicolai Fuglsig does a fairly impressive job of executing these scenes. It is Fuglsig’s first big budget film, as well.
The detriments to these sequences are that they are lengthy and repetitive. The film already over-long, the film’s long climax gets to be a bit much. Not to mention that this climax doesn’t utilize spatial coordination effectively, so it reads as the messiest action sequence in the film.
When the film isn’t over-compensating with its action, it serves up drama pretty well. For all its obvious moments and characters, the cast here does a good job creating a squad of soldiers that has an untold history. As clunky as it is in early scenes, the camaraderie of the American soldiers is sold without over-selling it.
Hemsworth does a lot of work in this regard. He has the acting abilities to lead a film, even outside of the Marvel universe. As little as we’ve seen of it to date, I think he is a versatile actor. He can play the action hero. He can play the comic relief. And here he does a serviceable job playing the dramatic center.
The supporting cast also succeeds in filling the shoes of otherwise empty characters. Michael Shannon, Michael Pena, Trevante Rhodes all bring personality to thankless characters. And, ultimately, it is Navid Negahban as the American soldiers’ escort that rises to the surface and gives the best performance of the film. His is the only character that attempts to bring a different angle to this otherwise traditional war film, and he sells it.
12 Strong has the Call of Duty syndrome of war film, in that it throws everything at the wall while never rising above the bland and the boilerplate. When it is out of combat, though, there is enough in the performances that keep the film from being an utter waste of time.
12 Strong: C+
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—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)