'12 Strong' Is An Unremarkable Tale Of Heroism [Review]

There are movies — good and bad — that inspire you as a writer. They’ll overwhelm you with the volumes of text that ensue from your fingertips, all conjured by the celluloid (or, more often than not these days, digital file) recently projected in front of you. “12 Strong: The Declassified True Story of the Horse Soldiers is not one of those movies. In fact, its hyper-masculine, explosion-filled, glowingly patriotic storytelling is so formulaic, rote and dreadfully dull, that it leaves a film critic struggling to find something to write about. Is it excruciatingly bad? Not necessarily. Is it even remotely good? Not particularly. Does it deserve praise? No. Does it deserve my unending ire? Not really. It’s just boring, familiar, and just plain unremarkable.

’12 Strong’ is, to its credit, exactly what it sells itself to be. Based on the book “Horse Soldiers” by Doug Stanton (a much better, more memorable title, in this writer’s humble opinion) about real-life events that were long classified (as that subtitle dutifully notes), ’12 Strong’ takes us back to 2001 America, shortly before and after the Twin Towers were destroyed on September 11th. Among the many Americans utterly devastated by the terrorist attacks is Mitch Nelson (Chris Hemsworth), a family man who is driven with firm conviction into combat by the horrors he witnessed on the television. It’s not long after that when Captain Nelson is tasked with seizing control of the Taliban-controlled town of Mazar-i-Sharif, with the help of the Northern Alliance of Afghan fighters, led by General Abdul Rashid Dostum (Navid Negahban), and he’s obviously not going to win this fight alone. He’s joined by eleven other dedicated Special Forces operatives, and those mighty men include Chief Warrant Officer Hal Spencer (Michael Shannon), Sgt. First Class Sam Diller (Michael Peña), Sgt. First Class Ben Milo (“Moonlight” standout Trevante Rhodes) and Sgt. First Class Bill Bennett (Kenny Sheard). Together, they’ll band to restore the good faith in Americans everywhere, and they’re going to blow up a lot of stuff too.

This is a Jerry Bruckheimer production, there’s no question about that. ’12 Strong’ carries a wide number of cinematic traits found in his other films, both good and bad, and it won’t be hard to draw lines between this new movie and others with the Bruckheimer brand, like “Black Hawk Down” and “Pearl Harbor” (both of which, it’s worth noting, came out in 2001). The film attempts to stand with conservative pride and bleeding patriotic passion, but the enterprise feels empty and disposable as if it comes from an assembly line of “rah-rah patriotism” cliches. The script reads clunky in its dialogue and workmanlike in its structure, and it’s surprising and disappointing that it’s credited to a pair of well-established writers  Ted Tally (“The Silence of the Lambs“) and Peter Craig (“The Town“). Most of the characters lack depth, largely defined almost by their strong ethics, their love for the red, white and blue, and their commitment to their adoring wives who watch with concern as the events unfold on TV. And while the intentions of the filmmakers are in the right place, the way they shape the film feels cheap in its emotions beats and shallow in its nostalgic, watery-eyed read of the situation.

The performances are, like the men in their mission, dedicated, even though Hemsworth’s wonky American accent predictably leaves a lot to be desired. The action beats, while perhaps a little too infrequent, are mostly well-done, and have an authentic amount of grit and grime. Director Nicolai Fuglsig doesn’t bring the same forceful dizziness and hyper editing that have come from past Bruckheimer filmmakers, like Ridley Scott, Michael Bay and the late Tony Scott. His camerawork is smoother and more focused, but even with that sure hand in the filmmaking, it’s hard to really care about ’12 Strong’. Because there’s little here that hasn’t already been seen before in better and, yes, stronger films. The real-life heroes who bravely risked their lives deserve something better than the forgettable mediocrity that is ’12 Strong’, and truth be told, audiences deserve more too.

Well, I must say, these were more words than I thought I could write up for ’12 Strong’. Sometimes, it’s the little victories that count. Even so, ’12 Strong’ is a completely lackluster spectacle that holds little valor. [C-]