12 Strong works as a tribute to the real-life American heroes who lived it, but is an overall generic war film without much substance.
The latest film from veteran Hollywood producer Jerry Bruckheimer, 12 Strong marks the feature film debut for director Nicolai Fuglsig. It tells the true story of a declassified mission from the outset of America's war on terror, in which a small group of soldiers were among the first deployed to Afghanistan to fight back against the Taliban. Its primary aspiration is to raise awareness of this incredible moment in history by giving these brave men a moment in the spotlight for all to see. On that front, the film is moderately successful in its goals, but doesn't reinvent the wheel. 12 Strong works as a tribute to the real-life American heroes who lived it, but is an overall generic war film without much substance.
12 Strong begins on September 11, 2001, as America mourns the horrific terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Despite filing for a cushy desk job so he could stay close to his family, Alpha 595 captain Mitch Nelson (Chris Hemsworth) requests to be reinstated as his team's leader so he can go overseas to defend the United States. Colonel Max Bowers (Rob Riggle) agrees to send the group out, and Mitch is joined by comrades such as Chief Cal Spencer (Michael Shannon), Sergeant Sam Diller (Michael Peña), and Sergeant Ben Milo (Trevante Rhodes) to go to Afghanistan.
There, Mitch and his team are tasked with rendezvousing with the Northern Alliance's General Abdul Rashid Dostum (Navid Negahban), with the two leaders joining forces to deal the Taliban a major blow. Their primary mission is to assume control of the Afghan city Mazar-i-Sharif, hoping to accomplish their objective before the weather makes conditions unbearable. Meanwhile, Nelson and Dostum's contrasting personalities threaten to derail the mission, forcing the two to try to overcome their differences for the greater good.
The film is a mixed bag in regards to its execution. On the positive side of the spectrum, Fuglsig does a good job of portraying the camaraderie and sense of brotherhood that exists between military members, as the main cast have chemistry with each other that shines through on occasion. Whether the ensemble is joking with each other while on base or trying to survive together in the heat of combat, viewers get the sense that this is a cohesive team with years of experience. There is also ample time dedicated to showcasing the relationship between Nelson and Dostum, which serves as the film's primary subplot. Those two characters share a decent amount of screen time with a nice arc as they learn valuable lessons about each other. Their dynamic may not be the most emotionally-rewarding this genre has seen, but it works for 12 Strong and pays off.
Unfortunately, Ted Tally and Peter Craig's script has various shortcomings that prevent 12 Strong from reaching its full potential. Several of the characters are shortchanged and ultimately come across as two-dimensional individuals whose only real purpose is to flesh out the team. There are attempts to give some of the soldiers more to do (see: Milo's evolving friendship with his child "shadow"), but most of these sadly ring hollow due to insufficient characterization. The pair also have a hard time avoiding classic war movie clichés (concerned families back home, on-the-nose thematic dialogue) that are designed to tug at the heartstrings and not much else. 12 Strong deserves credit for striving to reach the bar set by its predecessors, but it falls a little short.
As one might expect, first-time director Fuglsig isn't seamless as the helmsman. Where he struggles most is with pacing, as the film arguably overstays its welcome with a runtime of 130 minutes. While the story itself is fascinating and character motivations clear, the lack of emotional investment in many of the individuals can make it drag at points. The action sequences Fuglsig stages are adequate - in that they firmly establish how overmatched the American soldiers are - but they do grow repetitive as the film marches on and none of them truly stand out as the battle audiences will remember long after the movie is over. Still, the director has a steady hand at crafting set pieces and will hopefully improve as his career progresses.
In regards to the performances, Hemsworth makes for a solid lead as Mitch, portraying the soldier as a well-meaning hero eager to go head-first into danger. While this isn't the most challenging dramatic role the actor has played, his screen presence and likability are more than enough to have audiences root for him - especially when the going gets tough. Hemsworth is complemented by Negahaban as Dostum, playing an effective riff on the mentor/mentee relationship. Their interactions can be tense or insightful depending on the situation, and credit goes to Hemsworth and Negahban for pulling it off. Michael Shannon has the most substantial part of the supporting players, and he is able to ground Spencer with the gravitas viewers have come to expect from the actor. However, much like the others on Mitch's team, there isn't a whole lot for Shannon to do because of how his role is written.
For January releases, 12 Strong is far from the worst of the bunch, but it isn't exactly great, either. Fuglsig's intentions are clearly in the right place, celebrating the incredible accomplishments of its subjects with good work from his cast. However, 12 Strong comes up short of being the rousing commemoration it wants to be and will have a familiar feel to anyone with passing knowledge of earlier films of its nature. The script favors a standard narrative instead of something that digs a little deeper, meaning viewers who aren't already interested in the material won't be missing much if they choose to skip it. But for those in the mood for a decently-made war film, 12 Strong could be worth checking out in theaters.
12 Strong is now playing in U.S. theaters. It runs 130 minutes and is rated R for war violence and language throughout.
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