For a film about a complex (and still ongoing) war, this sure tries to simplify things down to moral victories…
“12 Strong” tells the declassified true story of a group of U.S. Special Forces soldiers who were the first to attack al-Qaeda following the September 11th attacks. The film stars Chris Hemsworth, Michael Shannon, Michael Peña, Navid Negahban, Trevante Rhodes, William Fichtner and Rob Riggle and is directed by Nicolai Fuglsig (in his feature debut).
There have been several Middle East war films released the past few Januarys, from “13 Hours” to “Lone Survivor” and “American Sniper” (although grant it the last two were wide releases from the previous year). “12 Strong” continues the trend and for having just a $35 million budget and doubling New Mexico for the mountains of Afghanistan it is competently made and well-intentioned. That being said, an overlong runtime, workmanlike execution and seeming lack of hindsight hold this back from being anything memorable.
I’ve said since “Vacation” (and it was then confirmed in “Ghostbusters” and “Thor: Ragnarok”) that Chris Hemsworth’s true calling seems to be comedy, as the man has great timing and his Australian accent provides some great tonal delivery. He isn’t going down the comedy route here but instead ops to play an American solider (something he did in the “Red Dawn” remake) and does an admirable job at it. You buy him as the leader of an elite squad, and his charm and misplaced hope of the US’ odds of quickly defeating the Taliban let you follow him into battle.
All the cast turn in solid work, from Michael Peña to “Moonlight’s” Trevante Rhodes. They are all cookie-cutter characters, sure, given either the “scene with the wife and kids to show I have something to lose” treatment or the quirky identifying trait (Rhodes is always sucking on a lollypop), but that’s War Film 101. Rob Riggle, best known for his work in comedy, shows up here and while at first it may be hard for some viewers to take him seriously as an Army Colonel you then remember (or if you didn’t know, here it is) that he served in the Marines in real life for 23 years, so he should fit the role better than anyone.
The action here is a little of a mixed bag. Some of the sequences are well-staged and feature some impressive camera work and pyrotechnics but others are pretty generic. Despite being PG-13 not every kill has blood (yet others do, so it’s odd) and there are some close-up/shaky cam shots normally reserved for that of “Taken 3.”
Running at a little over two hours there are some scenes here that could have been trimmed, like the cliché wife-and-kids sequences to give us a faux reason to root for the characters’ survival. There is also the confusion over the film’s message and intentions. All film, Hemsworth and company claim that if they destroy the areas that the Taliban is based off of they will cut the head off the snake and stop future terrorist attacks; the war will be over in a matter of months. Well as we know, watching in 2018, that is far from what happened and we are still involved in the Middle East yet the film ends with a sense of “we did it!” (spoiler: we very much have not).
“12 Strong” honors the brave men who were the first to fight back against evil 17 years ago and features some solid performances from a well-assembled cast. It’s unfortunate that there is a lot of filler in between firefights that feels unnecessary and only extends the film to an unjustified length. It’s not a bad movie and is better than we’re used to getting in the January dumping ground but the artificial rah-rah sentiment and seeming lack of reason (short of to act as a tribute for previously unrecognized heroes) make it hard to fully recommend.
Critic’s Grade: C+