12 Strong isn’t a bad movie, but there’s little particularly memorable either. It’s competently made, features a good ensemble and has some riveting action scenes. To that end, it meets the low threshold for war movies.
But 12 Strong doesn’t have that compelling quest like Saving Private Ryan, the intensity of Black Hawk Down or even a creative perspective like Dunkirk. This is a war film carefully designed to check off all the requirements of the genre without going deep enough in the ones that matter most.
The film is based on the true story of a dozen CIA and Green Berets sent to Afghanistan shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks. Capt. Mitch Nelson (Chris Hemsworth, Thor: Ragnarok) leads his unit, which includes Hal Spencer (Michael Shannon, The Shape of Water), Sam Diller (Michael Pena, Ant-Man), Ben Milo (Trevante Rhodes, Moonlight) and Sean Coffers (Geoff Stults).
They’re tasked with aligning with warlord General Dostum (Navid Negahban, American Sniper) to take down Taliban forces in the city of Mazar-i-Sharif. But given the terrain and nature of their mission, the team must adapt to traveling via horseback. The film portrays Dostum as a somewhat reckless, but noble man. A quick Google search reveals that’s probably not completely accurate.
Director Nicolai Fuglsig guides the film so matter-of-factly that it comes off more like a re-enactment than a movie with high stakes. The real story is almost unbelievable, but Fuglsig almost makes it feel perfectly normal.
Character development is cursory. Clearly with 12 soldiers not everyone is going to get adequate screen time, but the script by Ted Tally and Peter Craig doesn’t provide much insight let alone reason to invest in the soldiers on a personal front. Spencer’s family clearly has some resentment for him going into war zones, but it’s never addressed after the opening. Fast & Furious star Elsa Pataky, Hemsworth’s wife, doesn’t get much to work with in her cliché role as Nelson’s dutiful wife awaiting his return.
Hemsworth’s American accent is impressive as he continues to show impressive versatility with his roles. Pena gets some well-timed humor, but the script doesn’t offer Shannon enough instances to shine. Rhodes has some underdeveloped moments that would pay off if more attention was devoted to his mini-subplot earlier.
It’s in the action sequences where Fuglsig seems to find his full inspiration. The action sequences are well staged with chaotic, but mostly easy to follow. These scenes show the precision in the soldiers’ fighting skills and the fearless tactics of Dostum and his men. Visually, the only challenge is making sense of the combatants when Nelson’s men aren’t around since Dostum’s army don’t have distinct outfits.
Fuglsig also made excellent use of the New Mexico filming locations for the treacherous, yet stunning battleground backdrop. Basing a film in the first strike post 9/11 was an interesting choice as this is doesn’t allow for a typical happy ending with the war still ahead.
For those looking for an action film 12 Strong will scratch the itch for those looking for edge of your seat action sequences. If you’re searching for some meaning beyond the conflict wait for the next mission.
Rating: 6.5 out of 10
Photo Credit: David James/Warner Bros. Pictures