Chris Hemsworth steps away from the MCU for a much more grounded outing with 12 Strong, a film that tells of the U.S. Special Forces team that was sent into Afghanistan not long after the 9/11 attacks. The team’s mission: team up with an Afghani Northern Alliance warlord (Navid Negahban) and his men to take down Taliban strongholds. Despite his lack of experience in active warfare, Captain Mitch Nelson (Hemsworth) has nevertheless earned the respect of his loyal and equally determined men, who are ready to put it all on the line for the mission.
If you’re after a safe, war film with well-crafted action sequences and thorough respect for those that risk their lives in the military, this may be one for you. If you’re approaching 12 Strong in the hope of finding something relatively new in the genre, you’ll be disappointed. Put me a little in both camps then.
When a film is based on very real incidents, it’s only natural that some things may seem, for lack of a better word, familiar. After all, if certain events unfolded a certain way in real life, then it’s the filmmaker’s prerogative to bring them to the screen with some sort of truth, regardless if we’ve seen it done before. However, where some things can border on cliché is in how characterisation or plot developments are delivered. Which is were 12 Strong occasionally stumbles.
First-time feature director Nicolai Fuglsig certainly has an eye for strong visuals with the energetic sequences on the battlefield, his period working as a photographer capturing the Kosovo War likely instilling in him the ability to lens war zones effectively. But his skills aren’t really proven suitable away from the combat. It’s the quieter periods, the familiar set up, the basic characterisation, the tendency to perhaps oversimplify emotional drive (wives at home, bad-guy terrorists, hoorah!) for viewers that, while not necessarily being detrimental, stop 12 Strong from being more than an adequate, and somewhat forgettable, war pic.
The issues mostly come down to the script. The familiar and almost tick-the-box route the screenplay takes is somewhat surprising since it comes from Oscar winner Ted Tally (The Silence of the Lambs) and Peter Craig (The Town). Again: it’s not an overtly disappointing element, but one you wish was just a little more fleshed out without aiming for the obvious beats.
Luckily, 12 Strong does have a nice amount going for it. The cast is solid, with Hemsworth comfortable as a gutsy leader, and nice support from reliable talent Michael Shannon and Michael Peña. Negahban is a standout as General Dostum, carrying with him a certain charm and screen presence that works nicely alongside Hemsworth’s Captain Nelson. The quieter scenes the two share prove to be some of the film’s more effective character-driven moments. Unfortunately, while certain soldiers get a second in the spotlight here and there, you’ll be hard pressed to be emotionally gunning for the team as a whole; I found myself forgetting that certain guys had been in the unit the whole time.
There’s also no denying the craftsmanship of the war scenes. The action is very well staged and becomes more impressive as it all progresses, bringing in tanks, horses, and aerial attacks, with a focus on geography so that we’re well aware of what’s going on and where. On a big screen with a suitable sound system, 12 Strong delivers some fist-pumping combat.
At 130 minutes, the film does border on outstaying its welcome, without offering too much more than serviceable and familiar storytelling techniques and a proud salute to its heroes. Still, there’s an old-fashioned vibe to 12 Strong’s gung-ho earnestness that keeps it engaging for much of the way through, and if that doesn’t do it for you, the combat sequences just may.
THE REEL SCORE: 7/10