Thursday, January 18, 2018

Review: "12 Strong"

"12 Strong" is the true story of the Horse Soldiers, the nickname given to U.S. Army special forces soldiers and intelligence officers who were the very first to fight the terrorist enemies in the aftermath of 9/11. Their actions, which were reported at the time in fall 2001, would seem on its face like a bunch of Hollywood hooey: literally riding horses against Soviet-made tanks and artillery.

It really happened, so here is the now-declassified cinematic version of events. Starring Chris Hemsworth and Michael Shannon, it's an invigorating war action/drama that shows how modern soldiers had to relearn their craft in order to take the fight to an enemy with a literally medieval mindset, embracing rather than fearing death, while having to rely on new allies who were often more interested in fighting ancient tribal grudges.

At 140 minutes, the movie is rather too long, particularly the action scenes that make up the bulk of the second half. Director Nicolai Fuglsig ("Exfil") knows how to stage military mayhem well, but not when to cut it off. Sequences often devolve into repetitive snatches of an American killing three Taliban with three bullets, while they themselves avoid thousands of round shot at them.

Hemsworth plays Mitch Nelson, the grounded but unseasoned captain of the best squad, part of Task Force Dagger, while Shannon is Cal Spencer, the grizzled chief warrant officer who acts as his right-hand man. When their team is first deployed in Afghanistan, the Northern Alliance warlord they've been assigned to assist, General Dostum (Navid Negahban), at first assumes the older man is the leader, because he has the "killer eyes" the younger captain lacks.

The rest of the team falls into the usual rogues gallery blend of background players, where you get just enough information to learn their faces and personalities without every really getting to know their names. Michael Peña plays Sam, another one of the senior guys on the crew. William Fichtner and Rob Riggle play the two colonels overseeing the mission from afar.

That's a pretty solid cast, and I was a little disappointed the script -- by Ted Tally and Peter Craig, based on a book by Doug Stanton -- doesn't give them more to do than spout the usual grim/heroic lines and fire a bunch of guns. It's the first movie I've seen Michael Shannon in where I thought that any number of actors could do what he did.

How much of what's depicted is literally true, I cannot say. Certainly the names and specific events have been changed around. 

The basic mission remains the same, though, to fight elements of Al-Qaeda and the Taliban through a succession of villages up the mountain pass of Tiangi Gap, with the goal of capturing the pivotal city of Mazar-i-Sharif before the winter snows make the route impassable. Officially their job is to stay in the back and call in air strikes, but of course they soon get into the midst of the firefight.

If it were a Western -- which, in a way, it kind of is -- "12 Strong" would be what we call an old-fashioned "oater": straightforward, effective, full of gunplay, not especially original. But like the men it heralds, it gets the job done.

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