Special Forces Review
Don’t be put off by the generic title, Special Forces is actually a solid, predominantly French-language, military action-drama, which plays out using a competent variation to the story from Bruce Willis’s 2003 movie Tears of the Sun. Of course this time we find ourselves journeying to Pakistan instead of Africa, with a French Special Forces rescue team who have to take on an overwhelming force of Taliban fighters after a rescue mission goes off-track.
It may not be particularly groundbreaking, but it boasts an engagingly stylish first act that has a very authentic military stamp on it, a predictable but thankfully action-packed middle act, and a reasonably imaginative and unpredictable extended denouement. With characters that, perhaps because they are largely played by relatively unknown (outside of France) actors, genuinely feel well-developed and distinctive, and military supervision by real-life French Naval Special Forces – who also lend the production a fair few combat vehicles – Forces Spéciales is actually a surprisingly entertaining actioner.
The story follows a squad of six elite French Special Forces soldiers, who are introduced as part of a much bigger military operation, as dozens of troops surround and assault a Bosnian retreat where a suspected war criminal is hiding. Their actions are precise and efficient, breaching the compound and incapacitating – or killing – anything in their way until they retrieve their target, before being choppered out.
Their next mission, however, proves to be a more difficult one. When a female journalist working in Pakistan is kidnapped and prepped for execution, the French Government vow to prevent one of their citizens being executed on live TV and dispatch the team to recon the location before a much larger force assault and retrieve the woman. But time is of the essence, and, when it does not look like backup will arrive in time, the 6-person Special Forces team are compelled to carry out the mission themselves. What should have been a clean and swift in-and-out operation soon descends into a run-and-gun situation where the group, with their cargo in tow, have to escape and evade their sizeable enemy. With a busted comms unit and no backup plan their only choice is the make the arduous trek across the mountains to the Afghanistan border, but they are pursued by a relentless Taliban force who are intent on making an example of them.
2012 appears to be the year for realistic military combat action-movies.
What with Act of Valor having just been released in the US (with a UK release in a few weeks’ time), and Kathryn Bigelow currently prepping her currently untitled “Hunt for Osama Bin Laden” movie for a late 2012 release, it seems like military thrillers with authentic combat are most definitely in fashion. Act of Valor uses genuine Navy SEALs both as consultants and actual cast members in the film, with a view to committing to film cinematic interpretations of some of the real-life operations that these men have been on, and, if Hurt Locker is anything to go by, I suspect Bigelow’s upcoming thriller will take a very similar approach, albeit with bigger names attached to the cast.
Special Forces may not be on the same scale as either of these movies, but it does have one very big common factor – it has been overseen, funded and supported by the French military, and, furthermore, even features a real-life Special Forces soldier who acts as both consultant on the action and actually stars in the film as one of the main characters.
What makes this more interesting is that fact that the plot to Special Forces seems totally ludicrous – wholly improbable – and yet, despite the absence of any coda stating that “the events depicted are based on real-life experiences”, you still get the feeling that the French military would not have so readily supported a completely, preposterously, fictional film about their Special Forces if it did not have a glimmer of truth to it. The reality is, I suspect, that the beyond belief nature of the plot is actually totally in-line with some of the more clandestine military Black-ops that have taken place; indeed comparisons can quite readily be made to Andy McNab’s own Bravo Two Zero. These are stories which seem more far-fetched than anything Hollywood would come up with on the fictional front, and yet they are, more than likely, founded in real-life events.
I’ve already drawn comparisons to Tears of the Sun, the Bruce Willis military action-thriller which has the same basic premise – an elite Navy SEAL team is dispatched to retrieve a doctor from wartorn Africa, but the mission goes awry and the small unit are forced to escape and evade a much greater military force who are hunting them down – but the two are also very similar in the way that they bring to life each and every distinct member of a small, highly trained unit, and the way in which they depict this well-oiled military machine in action.
Unfortunately, the fact that you just may have seen some of this done before gives you the impression that Special Forces is going to be little more than a predictable, clichéd ride, living up to its generic, utterly throwaway title (the original French title Forces Spéciales would have been considerably more distinctive). Indeed, at several key points across the near-two-hour runtime you are certainly reminded of the fact that this concern was not unfounded: you can predict much of what happens to these guys. The clever thing is that, for every grand event which is easy to see coming a mile away, there’s a twist hidden behind it which throws the story off the well-trodden course and mixes things up a little. It does not fully make up for the predictable plot, but it does introduce some nice, original, elements into an otherwise formulaic story.
Where Tears of the Sun had a reasonably famous cast to help distinguish the different characters, Special Forces has the much harder task of establishing each of the 6 team members in spite of the fact that you probably only recognise one of the actors involved. It’s a testament to the quality of the script and the standard of the performances, then, that by the end of it you do find yourself viewing this small unit as comprised of several distinct, different personalities, each fairly well-rounded and pretty far from one-dimensional Hollywood cliché.
The team leader Commander Kovax is played by Djimon Hounsou, who is perhaps the biggest name involved in the production (although Nikita and Bad Boys’ Tckecky Karyo does have a welcome cameo). The twice-Oscar-Nominated Beninese actor is probably most famous for his pivotal part in Gladiator, as well as his acclaimed co-starring role opposite Leonardo DiCaprio in Blood Diamond, but he’s also made solid supporting contributions to the likes of Constantine and Push, whilst his ex-Special Forces mercenary in The Island may feel like something of a precursor to his role here.
Indeed Hounsou is the backbone of the piece, and eminently convincing in the part of the team leader, who makes all the tough decisions – despite the reservations of some of his men – and is forced to hold them all together when the pressure’s on. Hounsou plays the part not wholly unlike Willis did in Tears of the Sun, with a strong, commanding attitude, but enough humanity to give him more depth than your standard cardboard cut-out heroes.
His second-in-command – and best friend – Captain Lucas is a family man who doesn’t know that his wife back home is pregnant with his first child; played by Denis Menochet (who you may recognise as the dairy farmer interrogated by Christopher Waltz in the most memorable scene from Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds) you get the very real sense that Lucas does not want to throw his life away for the sake of one journalist who, he believes should not have been taking such risks in the first place. Of course, as with the rest of the team, their personal feelings never get in the way of their utter commitment to the group, but it’s still this personal input that gives the characters an extra dimension.
Benoit Magimel (who was opposite Jean Reno in Crimson Rivers 2) plays Tic-Tac, the explosives expert who takes a shine to the journalist that they are protecting. The journalist herself is played by the second most famous cast member, Diane Kruger, who was also in Inglourious Basterds, as well as (perhaps somewhat over-optimistically) playing the Helen of Troy in the flawed Brad Pitt swords-and-sandals actioner. Kruger fares reasonably well amidst the others – even if her actions take a distinctly unbelievable turn towards the end – and manages to slow-burn the whole development from a cynical journalist who actually wrote a fairly critical piece about the military, to a woman who has nothing but genuine respect for these men who will do whatever it takes to get her home alive. Still, Kruger is walking in almost the exact same footsteps as Monica Bellucci did for her equivalent role in Tears of the Sun and, as a character, is certainly marginally harder to associate with because of her somewhat ill-advised journalistic actions fairly early on into the movie. Another tough element to swallow is the rather random romance that brews between her character and Benoit Magimel’s Tic-Tac. It must have seemed like a nice idea on paper, but they have absolutely zero chemistry, so you never really believe that these two are really wondering ‘what could have been, in another life’.
Probably my favourite member of the bunch is the sniper, the newest addition to the group, who immediately proves himself as more than prepared to lay his life on the line for his fellow teammates. Little-known French actor Raphael Personnaz plays Elias with utter conviction but distinct humanity, and consequently makes him one of the most interesting characters. Snipers get some of the best screentime in military dramas (from Saving Private Ryan and Mickey Rourke’s deleted cameo in The Thin Red Line to Bill Paxton’s .50 Cal mayhem in the cheesy Navy Seals and the elusive Chavez from Clear and Present Danger, not to mention the aforementioned Tears of the Sun, as well as, of course, sniper-driven features like Shooter, Sniper, Day of the Jackal and Enemy at the Gates) and this is no exception, with some standout sequences – including a tremendous sniper vs. sniper bit – that remain some of the most distinctive moments in the movie. Still, it’s great that they added that extra dimension to the character: his contemplative pause before taking his first shot; his questioning whether they were going to just sit back and allow the Taliban to execute some villagers; his recount of what he saw during the execution to name but a few key scenes of distinction. You definitely get the feeling that this is a good portrayal of a Special Forces unit sniper: at once an integral member of the team but also set apart and often far away from the rest of his men, he is frequently the last man providing cover – and putting his life on the line – as he allows his teammates to make a break for it.
The biggest letdowns in the film come not from its predictability – the effect of which, as stated, is suitably cushioned by the subsequent twists and turns in the plot – but from the terrible caricature villains. For as interesting as the Special Forces unit are, the Taliban soldiers chasing them are paper-thin cannon-fodder; an endless supply of wannabe super-zombies who charge their way into the path of bullets, never having the skill to accurately return fire before they are shot to pieces. At several points you wonder whether the Special Forces unit couldn’t have just held their ground and finished the battle then and there, so useless are their opponents – indeed it’s only the sheer endless supply of them that poses any kind of risk. Worse still, their leader, played by Raz Degan (who was the main nemesis in Oliver Stone’s botched Alexander), is incredulously over-the-top, posturing wildly and executing his own troops as if he were in an entirely different movie – perhaps something late 80s starring Schwarzenegger – and spending the majority of his screentime barking orders in English, which just doesn’t make any sense. Even if he has been Harvard educated, how likely is it that his super-zombie minions have shared the same extravagant background?
Indeed the bad guys do let the side down in this project, leaving some scenes feeling like they were ripped straight out of a high quality First Person Shooter videogame. That said, the overall result is still pretty good considering the budget and the fact that the movie is French-funded and actually predominantly in the actors’ native French language (having become accustomed to seeing Hounsou speaking in English it makes quite a nice change to see him behaving so naturally in French). French action movies are few and far between but, with the very obvious assistance of the French military (who throw in a couple of troop helicopters, an assault helicopter, a heavy cargo plane, an aircraft carrier and use of a military base) the end result is surprisingly glossy and impressive. Of course the cinematography helps no end, with plenty of gorgeous landscape shots of the Pakistan/Afghanistan mountains – the movie was partly shot almost on location, in Tajikistan – and some unusually stylish elements which only add to the experience: from the absolutely fantastic scene-setting use of Big Audio Dynamite’s hit classic E=MC2 during the opening assault montage to the innovative head-on filmwork whilst the team take turns to carry the journalist.
Special Forces is a thoroughly enjoyable military action-thriller which may frequent tread familiar territory but which also throws several unusual twists into the bargain – including the impact of the weather conditions, often turning this into more of a survival movie than a run-and-gun movie – and, furthermore, which maintains a military credibility throughout through expert supervision during the shooting process (watch the team breach the compound in the first scene, or clinically clear the rooms when they are looking for the journalist at the end of the first act). It may not appeal to those who are turned off by movies like Tears of the Sun, but it is definitely worth picking up for anybody who is interested in this kind of military actioner, or even any against-the-odds flicks (think: 300). It may not have the weight of Black Hawk Down or the punch of The Hurt Locker, but it’s still engaging and enjoyable throughout, made all the more surprising considering its French-funded, limited budget ($15M) origins. A surprising little gem that’s definitely worth checking out.