12 Strong is a very violent, loud and American war movie set straight after the events of September 11, 2001, with Chris Hemsworth in its very blokey lead role.
It’s all drawn from a factual book by Doug Stanton (Horse Soldiers: The Extraordinary Story Of A Band Of US Soldiers Who Rode To Victory In Afghanistan) and features no less than the explosion-friendly Jerry Bruckheimer as one of many producers, so you know what to expect here.
The sort of movie designed to provoke shouts of outrage from American patriots if you badmouth it, this begins well, offers a pretty good supporting cast and has oodles of stuff blowing up, if that’s your sort of thing. It’s also pretty damn tedious, especially into the second half of the epic and swollen 130 minute running time.
Hemsworth’s Mitch Nelson, a US Army Captain with Operational Detachment Alpha (ODA) 595, is setting up his new home with wife Jean (Elsa Pataky, Hemsworth’s offscreen missus) and daughter Maddy (Marie Wagenman) when the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center prompt him to return to active duty instead of the cushy staff gig he had recently been assigned. These early scenes are moderately suspenseful and uncomfortable (no matter where you were in the world that day), and the interplay between Nelson and LtCol Bowers (Rob Riggle, an actual former Marine) is well-handled, but the lumpy clichés start coming soon after.
Nelson wants to reform ODA 595 and they’re all willing, and there’s much male bonding between him and the guys, including Sergeant First Class Sam Diller (Michael Peña), Sergeant First Class Ben Milo (Trevante Rhodes from the last third of Moonlight) and Chief Warrant Officer 5 Hal Spencer (the always grim and rubbery Michael Shannon, who almost makes all that a-man’s-gotta-do-what-a-man’s-gotta-do nonsense work). They farewell their families, get briefed (and enjoy some character padding) in Uzbekistan and then wind up in Afghanistan on a classified mission to take out as many members of the Taliban as possible.
With help from Northern Alliance leader Abdul Rashid Dostum (Navid Negahban), the dusty dozen set about the repetitive business of calling in air strikes on a series of Taliban camps (“one by one, stronghold by stronghold”) and then taking out the survivors in a hail of bullets. Even though they’re forced to travel on horses, they still, of course, get the job done, despite a series of strained groin muscles.
The ruthless Taliban types are headed by one particular nasty named Mullah Razzan (Numan Acar), and he’s introduced shooting a teacher dead while her vaguely educated young girl students stand by and weep. He should be a formidable foe but, bizarrely, he somewhat looks, at certain angles, like English actor Tom Baker.
Oddly wanting to be a Western at times (only with tanks, machine guns and lots of bloody and burning corpses), this one’s very much a movie for the US audience. It’s full of iffy racial profiling, simplistic politics, soapbox speeches and distortions of the truth (note that ODA 595 were the first unit deployed after 9/11, but only just, with the English, the Aussies and many others coming soon afterwards, which should cause all sorts of furious online arguments).
It also dearly wants to say, however subtly, that Hemsworth and his boys destroyed the Taliban entirely — full stop — but recent history quite plainly shows that they didn’t.
Rated MA. 12 Strong is in cinemas now.