About an hour into 12 Strong, I started to realize that I was periodically tuning out to mentally watch the better films that were so obviously being cannibalized. Where the best war movies present the atrocities of combat as nothing short of pure horror, here’s one that looks at bloodshed as a thrilling adventure brought to you by the producer of Pirates of the Caribbean. Director Nicolai Fuglsig has taken a harrowing true story and made a film that feels like an adaptation of a Call of Duty game loosely based on it. It’s a glossy, overlong blob of nothing heroically riding in on horseback.
It’s almost as if this film intentionally avoids any possible nuances that could’ve come from spinning a yarn about the first major American Victory in The War On Terror. While there’s obviously nothing but respect here for the brave men who are portrayed, the so-called “characters” that bare their names are lazy trope buggies who exist only to dispense out the same old verbiage about brotherhood and bravery that would sound right at home in Tropic Thunder. Heaven forbid we think anything remotely negative about our studs in camo, so they’re each just about as virtuous and brave as movie characters can be.
These flat characters strangle a talented cast, none of whom get to play to their strengths here. While it goes without saying that Chris Hemsworth has the looks and build of a leading man, he brings absolutely nothing to the table. Hemsworth shines the most when he heavily deprecates his square jaw pretty boy image, but he leans right into it here and the performance is generic as sin. He seems more invested in fighting off his Australian accent than he ever does his enemies. Meanwhile, Trevante Rhodes and Michael Peña rattle off one-liners, while Michael Shannon desperately tries to wring some personality out of his kind-hearted second in command with minimal success.
The only standout character is General Dostum (Navid Negahban), the head of a local militia who join up with our boys to fight the Taliban. Negahban infuses Dostum with earnest conviction, delivering his cheeseball dialogue in a way that almost makes it sound like something a human being might say. A better, more self-reflexive film might have allowed him to be the lead character. Seeing this conflict from the perspective of a native person, who sees Americans dominate a battle that has caused his people pain for his entire life, would have been fascinating. But, of course, then this wouldn’t be a proper American story would it?
Fuglsig is clearly a graduate of the Michael Bay school of action filmmaking and in fairness to him, there’s a fair amount of technical skill on display here. He gives the battles a look that is both gritty and grand, balancing putting us in the middle of the fighting while still giving his camera the space to capture the big payoff moments. That said, this is some of the glossiest and least intense war violence captured on screen in some time. When men get hit with bullets or blow up, they’ll just fall to the ground with a small spirt of red. We never feel like we’re fighting other human beings. They’re targets in a video game that need to be dinged off in order to hit the next checkpoint. Say what you will about Mel Gibson or David Ayer, but they can make a war zone feel like a nightmare and that sensibility is sorely missed here.
There’s also a numbing sameness to every fight sequence. They’re all set on the same sandy mountainsides, with soldiers screaming and taking cover before they stylishly ride in with their horses and go to town. It gets old really fast, especially since there’s so much of it that could come out to trim down this seemingly endless two hours and ten minutes.
12 Strong is about as basic a film as one could make about something as complex as war. It views our world as black and white and as such tells a lengthy story that ultimately never amounts to anything beyond “weren’t those American men brave?” It’s not even the only film of this type coming out in the next thirty days, with Clint Eastwood’s The 15:17 To Paris out in just a couple of weeks. Wait it out for that one, which will at the very least let the real-life subjects it portrays be in their own generic movie about their heroism.