‘12 Strong’ Tells Previously Classified Story With Explosive Action, but Leaves Its Characters Behind
“12 Strong” is the very definition of one dimensional. A loud, raging opus of combat, it never bothers to form real characters or flesh out a solid story. Its sole focus is to deliver endless scenes of epic fighting on horseback, with bad guys dropping like flies and macho characters delivering heavy one-liners. This is not to say it isn’t well mounted. The best thing about this movie is its slick production. The terrain feels real, the action scenes are loud, bloody and gritty, and if all you seek is pure adrenaline, then this movie might deliver. Its intentions are so single-minded that the plot could be staged anywhere, even in the old west. Anyone looking for a serious film about the war in Afghanistan should seek elsewhere.
After a small prologue showing news footage of the 1993 World Trade Center bombings, Osama Bin Laden and early Al Qaeda attacks abroad, the movie cuts right to September 11, 2001 when the final attack on the WTC takes place. The world is left stunned and a team of U.S. Special Forces led by Captain Mitch Nelson (Chris Hemsworth) are eager to hit back and get even. Nelson and his team, which includes Chief Warrant Officer Hal Spencer (Michael Shannon), Sgt. First Class Sam Diller (Michael Peña) and Sgt. First Class Ben Milo (Trevante Rhodes), are sent into Afghanistan on a secret mission to aid a general in the shaky anti-Taliban coalition known as the Northern Alliance , Abdul Rashid Dostum (Navid Negahban) against a villain with such little screen time, the actor is not mentioned in any press materials. The Northern Alliance forces are a scattered, ragtag bunch who still ride into battle on horseback, which means Nelson and his men must adapt to a different terrain when it comes to ordering airstrikes. Now the alliance of US and Afghan fighters must battle their way towards a key town controlled by Taliban and Al Qaeda forces. Overshadowing the adventure is the constant reminder that for centuries Afghanistan has been “the graveyard of empires.”
There’s not much to the general plot of “12 Strong” except that every development leads to major explosions and firefights. It’s the latest in a recent line of buffed military movies like “Lone Survivor” and “American Sniper” which spin our recent Middle East wars into romantic, John Wayne-like anthems, but at least those movies had better stories and themes. “12 Strong,” produced by action guru Jerry Bruckheimer, is simply all action all the time. Director Nicolai Fuglsig is so caught up in the frenzy of it all that he never stops to develop and define the villains. In the first act of the movie the story is presented as Special Forces troops helping the Northern Alliance fight the Taliban, but by the end of the film the climactic battle is described as a victory against Al Qaeda. Which is it? Every audience member shouldn’t be expected to be a political science major, but the film never explains the politics of the story’s context. Everything is simply framed as 9/11 was carried out by some people based in Afghanistan and now it’s time to go blow something up.
Bruckheimer’s most notable war film, 2001’s “Black Hawk Down” by Ridley Scott, at least provided some lengthy details in the beginning on the history behind the ensuing bloodbath on screen. In “12 Strong” we only get one full scene with the Taliban commander who represents all the vileness of the enemy. It’s a scene where he executes an Afghan woman for teaching her daughter to read. That’s all you get for character development. You can argue there’s not much more a movie should say about the Taliban, but this is a war that is still going on (a fact the movie cleverly side steps during the gung-ho end credits), and it feels dated 17 years after the fact to oversimplify these historical events. Even the heroes are reduced to a few scenes where they gaze at the hills, look over a map, and move on to get into another savage battle scene. It’s a pity because the story itself is fascinating, like a western in the Afghan badlands, but if “The Magnificent Seven” can take the time to gives its characters actual scenes then a film on a significant, ongoing war should do the same. The Afghans, good guys and bad, are reduced to shallow stereotypes. We get the mute Afghan kid who follows Milo around and is bedazzled by a lollipop. Interactions with the other side are reduced to exchanges in the style of “you son of dog, prove you are Taliban” with the reply of “f— you America!”
I was somewhat astounded to discover that the screenplay was co-written by Ted Tally, who won an Oscar for writing “The Silence of the Lambs.” The dialogue here is a collection of quotes borrowed from countless other recent war movies (“I married a soldier, I know what I signed up for”) or simply orders being shouted over shrieking ammo. The other credited writer, Peter Craig, wrote the last two “Hunger Games” movies and we sense his touch overshadowing Tally’s in the cat and mouse nature tone of the story. It would be interesting to read the original Doug Stanton book the movie is based on and see if it’s just as manic.
I will be honest and say that if you’re into just pure, maddening action, then this movie delivers in spades. Fuglsig shoots combat with the photogenic style and breakneck energy Bruckheimer productions have been known for since “Top Gun.” The music by Lorne Balf is a pounding, synth wall of sound of the Hans Zimmer school. But that’s all you get. “12 Strong” will entertain and exhaust you, but after the ride is over you’re left wondering about the fine print.
“12 Strong” opens Jan. 19 in theaters nationwide.