12 Strong Review
The Magnificent Twelve
Nicolai Fuglsig's directorial debut 12 Strong is a Bruckheimer-fuelled true story of a squad of a dozen elite soldiers sent to take on the Taliban in the days after 9/11.There's certainly merit to be found in this little-known tale of the early days of the war in Afghanistan, a brief moment of notionally untainted heroism which carries with it the unfortunate baggage of knowing just where things were going to end up. The elite operation - Task Force Dagger - declassified a few years ago, and detailed in Doug Stanton's non-fiction source book Horse Soldiers (which would have been a better name) could have made for a more promising start to a deeper inspection of the conflict in better hands. Hell, someone like Kathryn "Zero Dark Thirty" Bigelow could have afforded us a rich and dark reflection on the encounter.Or it could have gone full Michael Bay in the hands of someone like, well, Bay himself, taking a Benghazi-sized break from mind-numbing Transformers sequels to deliver lightweight politics and heavyweight, heavily stylised action. Either would have, unfortunately, likely proved more entertaining than Fuglsig's uninspired by-the-numbers war-western, which wants to repurpose this dubiously victorious moment as a modern war-set take on the classic Magnificent Seven, but manages instead to turn in another slick cookie-cutter product which bares a closer resemblance to a modern war-set take on that classic's recent, unexceptional remake.
Chris Hemsworth leads the charge as the young and (surprisingly) inexperienced man in charge of the group, tasked with journeying in-country to take a valuable position before the Taliban can get a foothold, joining up with the local Afghan general (Navid Negahban, who played Abu Nazir in the early days of Homeland) in charge to help rally the troops and put a stop to the attempted invasion. Of course, it's not as easy as they thought it might be, and they're immediately forced to take to horseback to navigate the hostile mountain territory.
12 Strong takes its time setting the stage, slapping plenty of text names across the screen to introduce the assortment of real-life characters, and then giving us an on-screen count of days in country just to remind us how long this supposed in-and-out job actually takes. Indeed, for a movie which plays so lightly with the characterisations and politics of the sensitive conflict, the two-hours-plus runtime is wholly unjustified, painting broad strokes of unnecessary caricatures (does Michael Pena ever get hired to play anybody other than his usual wise-cracking self?) and making us wait a painfully long time to get to the somewhat anticlimactic action.
At worst, just plain derivative and, at best, just plain unmemorable
Indeed it's in the actual action where you'll most miss those quintessential Bay-isms that this fledgling director just doesn't have a handle on - not just in how the action sequences are delivered, but in a seeming refusal to go far enough from reality when depicting them. If you're going to have troops charging on horseback with assault rifles then why not go the full hog and fictionalise entire mini-skirmishes, proper Magnificent Seven-style, to provide more satisfying visceral payoffs. Instead Fuglsig holds back a little bit in his direction, offering up a few formulaic slow-mo explosions but still sticking to the territory of the real-life exploits, wherein this crack team often found that their most important role was knowing when to call in an airstrike. Robbing the film of tension, and failing to build any depth beneath the shallow foundations of this undeniably jingoistic venture, we have little left to engage with or enjoy.
Ultimately, though, 12 Strong's biggest misstep is in how it frames this particular operation. Interestingly, Randall Wallace's Mel Gibson war vehicle, We Were Soldiers attempted a stab at something similar for a modern film about a positive victory during the Vietnam War, with far better results, being much more respectful towards at least nominally painting both sides of the battle (12 Strong's enemies are almost entirely identified and characterised by wearing black) and at least giving the characters some semblance of an arc across the piece. It also delivered claustrophobic chaos in the action sequences.
12 Strong just isn't a very strong effort; at worst just plain derivative and, at best, just plain unmemorable.
Our Review Ethos
To comment on what you've read here, click the Discussion tab and post a reply.