12 Strong Review
Sometimes, marketing can hurt a movie more than it helps. In the new film 12 Strong, that seems to be the case. The film is based off the book, Horse Soldiers, about the first group of American soldiers to run a mission against Al Qaeda following the September 11, 2001, attacks. The film itself features the now de-classified story of SpecOp soldiers, who had to use horses to complete their mission, and, in fact the film had the title Horse Soldiers until late in the summer.
Someone somewhere made the decision to change the name to 12 Strong, which is a misnomer, as only once do we see a group of 12 soldiers go off to fight, and that is during the helicopter ride to the staging ground in Afghanistan. And even that’s debatable because the pilots and support crew pushes the number well past 12. It’s senseless chest pounding jingoism that detracts from an otherwise decent film.
The ill-named 12 Strong is the story of Mitch Nelson (Chris Hemsworth), a captain who takes a staff position in Kentucky to be with his family until the attacks force him to abandon his family for the greater good. His Warrant Officer, Hal Spencer (Michael Shannon) was in the process of retiring, but tore up his papers after the attack. Together, the two reassemble their unit, including Sam Miller (Michael Pena) and Ben Milo (Trevante Rhodes), and eight other virtually nameless men, and beg to be sent to fight our enemies.
The unit is tasked with hooking up with General Dostum (Navid Nagahban), a local Afghan warlord who hates Al Qaeda as much as he hates the Russians, and the other warlords in the region. Dostum will help the Americans take a city believed to be a stronghold for Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda. Leading the opposition forces is Mullah Razzan (Numan Acar), an antagonist so obvious that I’m shocked he didn’t spend his time in the film twirling his mustache and laughing like one of Dr. Evil’s minions from the Austin Powers films.
At one point, Razzan is shown beating and later executing a young teacher for teaching children. Seeing as this is something that the American soldiers did not witness, they could not have told Doug Stanton, the author of the non-fiction book this is all based on, about it, so this extra layer of evil has to be the creation of screenwriters Ted Tally and Peter Craig and it comes across as a little much. Most of us were alive during 9/11, we don’t need to be shown these were bad people with a superfluous scene like this.
The unit of American soldiers and Dostum’s men meld together to form a battalion (see, not 12. Not even close to 12), and the soldiers are given horses, hence the title of the book. Lots of action scenes and battles occur, the bad guys are punished, there are some monologues that try to explain why we are still in Afghanistan now almost 20 years later, and the mission is a success. Hoo rah.
Director Nicolai Fuglsig must absolutely love Chris Hemsworth. Every shot of the Thor actor is framed perfectly, and Hemsworth’s John Wayne-like screen presence here is a distraction. Sure, he’s a handsome fellow, but this is war and war is hell, and seeing the equivalent of a magazine model — especially how he was shot in almost every scene — leading the charge was almost comical.
The true heartbeat of 12 Strong comes in the camaraderie of the unit, especially from Michael Pena’s Sam Miller, who cracks wise throughout the film. In a story that is based in truth, this is what made 12 Strong feel the most real.
As a film, 12 Strong is entertaining, and the action scenes are exciting and well paced. Some of the decisions behind the scenes of the film, like the title, and the director’s man crush on his lead distract, but all in all, the film is is a poignant thriller that makes the viewer question our place in Afghanistan now 17 years later, and those are the questions we still need to be asking, no matter what happens on-screen.
12 Strong is rated R and is in theaters now.
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