12 Strong is the same song and dance that we’ve seen before with a war film. Directed by first-time director Nicolai Fuglsig, this is also the first war film that producer Jerry Bruckheimer has been involved with since 2001’s Black Hawk Down. Riding the wave as such films like 2013’s Lone Survivor and 2016’s 13 Hours (Iraqi war films that came out in January or expanded wide), 12 Strong is cliché to the capital C and plays it relatively safe. In short, it’s a formulaic film that hits on the same points previous war films go through.
Based on the true story, the film is about Task Force Dagger, a group of twelve American soldiers led by Captain Mitch Nelson (Chris Hemsworth) who are sent into Afghanistan after the 9/11 attacks. Once they get into the area, they form an uneasy alliance with General Rashid Dostum (Navid Negahban) of the Northern Alliance, and together, they take on the Taliban forces and do their best to defeat them, and as one of the soldiers states, they would be the first twelve Americans to fight back.
On the plus side, the actors do all they can with the material on hand, with the standouts being Michael Shannon and Michael Pena. They are all likeable enough, and there’s more humor in this than what I expected when I saw the trailers. It’s nice to see Hemsworth and his wife Elsa Patsky act together, even though they’re playing a married couple. Some of the scenes work as well, particularly those that involved Hemsworth and Negahban. The pacing of the film, for the most part, was fine. Finally, there were a handful of cool images that Fuglsig and his DP Rasmus Videbæk come up with, whether it’s a horse running alone through a battlefield, or the landscapes of New Mexico doubling for Afghanistan.
As for why this falters, the screenplay that’s credited to Ted Tally (The Silence of the Lambs) and Peter Craig (The Town) does it no favors. For a war film, they hit on the same beats that we see time and time again with these films. With war films, you’re supposed to feel sympathy or relate too the characters that we see on screen. In this film, I didn’t feel for any of the characters as the runtime progressed, and the film is bland enough that I didn’t even know what the characters name were, thus resorting to the actors that were up on the screen. Also, there’s no character development at all in this film, and some characters are underdeveloped. We hear it, but we don’t see it. And Tally and Craig write some cliché dialogue through the course of the film. The cinematography was nothing special, opting to go for the same grittiness that we’ve seen before with war films. As for the action scenes themselves, while they were decently edited for the most part, too many times there were quick cuts to know what’s transpiring on screen, thus making it hard to make sense of the geography of the land. The villain of the film was one-dimensional and they could have trimmed some scenes out and the film would still played the same way.
Overall, while 12 Strong is technically competent, but it’s ultimately a forgettable film. With the subject matter of the story, this could have been an interesting film. Sadly, it just plays it safe. When I came out of the screening, all I had was a shrug. It’s not a bad film per se, but it’s an unmemorable one. You don’t need to rush out and see this opening weekend. This is a film that you could have playing on the background when it makes its eventual debut on TNT. By year’s end, you will probably forget that this film came out this year, if not sooner.