‘American Sniper’ wasn’t a film that I was fond of at the time, but its legacy is something that I particularly dislike. Thanks to the success of Clint Eastwood’s rousing “kill all the evil brown people” war parable, Hollywood essentially revived the old-fashioned war propaganda picture. The latest is ’12 Strong’, a military epic that borrows superhero casting so that we get to see Thor, Zodd and Ant-Man’s best buddy take on the Taliban.
Every bit as expensively mediocre as recent recruitment movies like ‘Lone Survivor’ or ’13 Hours’, ’12 Strong’ is sure to make a mint off exploiting military-supporting audiences and will never even register for anyone else.
As always with these sort of flicks, ’12 Strong’ is based on a true story of military heroism. In this case, it’s actually kind of an interesting one that remained classified for years and is now represented in a statue where the Twin Towers once stood. We flash back to 2001. September 11th has rocked the world and the U.S. has made it a mission to invade Afghanistan and flush out the Taliban. However, the terrain and culture are so difficult to navigate that not even the most experienced Marines can handle it. A mission is launched to meet up with local freedom fighters and take out a Taliban warlord, but no one has worked with the local contacts before or knows how to deal with this new type of warfare.
Fortunately, a gang of hot shots is just talented enough for the job. A crew led by Chris Hemsworth (playing Capt. Mitch Nelson), Michael Shannon and Michael Peña have torn up the training regimen, but have no actual combat experience. Through a mixture of confidence, cockiness, and good old-fashioned moxie, Nelson talks his way into the job. His team suit up and quickly make contact with new collaborator General Dostum (Navid Negahban). Nelson soon realizes that this job will be even harder than he thought. The new “soldiers” under his command are untrained men and children who ride horseback into battle against tanks and rocket launchers. Their leader rants about the importance of having the heart of a warrior rather than the training of a soldier. Uh oh, this is going to get tricky.
’12 Strong’ at least differentiates itself from most of the recent military propaganda action movies by taking time to humanize some of the Afghan characters. That’s genuinely rare in these things. Obviously, the villains never speak and are given a level of evilness one step beyond silent movie moustache twirling. That goes without saying, but in Dostrum and his soldiers, ’12 Strong’ tries to give layers to some of the non-Americans in the cast, which is a welcome change of pace. Granted, characterization is limited to ranting about warrior codes and slowly learning to accept that Americans know best, but at least it’s a start. Despite the fact that this is based on true events and actual people (complete with a photo card at the end that shows the real heroes, who are predictably far less movie star gorgeous than this cast and far more mustached), the movie is painted in the broad militaristic and action movie strokes of a ‘Rambo’ sequel.
That shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise given that this movie is produced by none other than Jerry Bruckheimer, whose idea of subtlety is blowing up two tanks instead of three. He’s taken a genuinely inspiring story and remarkable acts of warfare and simplified them down to action movie beats. Admittedly, that action is pretty strong. The first-time director that Bruckheimer hired (Nicolai Fuglsig) takes marching orders well, shooting every explosive set-piece from enough angles to be edited for maximum trailer impact. (You best believe that drone cameras fly around every moment of combat to maximize those production values.) The movie is such a swirling, explosive, and machine gun-happy bit of action pap, it’s almost too easy to forget that’s it’s a true story. It mostly just feels like a bunch of Jerry Bruckheimer nonsense with a sentimental wrap-around narrative. That’s definitely exploitative of the subject matter and purpose of the movie, but Jerry doesn’t seem to care. Or, at least he’s done enough cocaine since the ’80s to ensure that he no longer has the capacity to care.
Perhaps the saddest aspect of ’12 Strong’ is how it wastes such a strong cast. Hemsworth uses approximately none of his charm and spends most of his time wrestling with an American accent that he can’t seem to master. Michael Shannon gives quite possibly the first lazy and detached performance of his entire career, which is damn disappointing. The casting coup of hiring actual former Marine Rob Riggle is wasted on expository dialogue. Only Michael Peña bothers to charm up the screen, and even he’s punished for it by disappearing for the bulk of the running time. It’s almost as if this movie supposedly honoring real heroes isn’t actually about them or their humanity at all. No, it’s all about blowing up as much stuff as possible to make sick trailer reels and showing off enough awesome military gear, clothing, and token heroism to cause an uptick in enrollment during the coldest weeks of January when everyone questions their direction in life.
I hope ’12 Strong’ at least succeeds in its cynical commercial and militaristic goals, because it sure doesn’t offer much artistically. See ya this time next year for a similar review of a similarly shitty military movie.