The war horsemen ride to Afghanistan’s rescue in cliché collection ’12 Strong’
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Call them the Squeaky Clean Dozen.
The action-packed but overlong and cliché-riddled “12 Strong” gives the big-screen treatment to the incredibly brave Special Forces team that was dropped into Afghanistan in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks and joined up with the Northern Alliance to take out some key Taliban and al-Qaida strongholds.
They literally rode into battle on horseback. The enemy had tanks. They were outnumbered 5,000-1.
And yet — I guess this is a spoiler alert — they prevailed in dramatic fashion. But because of the covert nature of the operation, there were no parades or ceremonies for the soldiers when they returned home.
Thankfully, as the years have passed, their story has been told. There’s even a glorious, 18-foot bronze statue of a Green Beret soldier on horseback in Liberty Park, at the site of the attack on the Twin Towers.
Now comes the movie, directed with steady competence by Nicolai Fuglsig (working from a screenplay by a team of writers that includes Ted Tally of “Silence of the Lambs” fame), starring Chris Hemsworth as the team leader, Capt. Mitch Nelson. (Who better to mount a horse and lead a small but determined band of underdogs into battle than Thor himself, right?)
The fine cast of supporting players includes Michael Shannon, William Fichtner, Michael Pena, Rob Riggle and Trevante Rhodes. In time-honored war movie fashion, every character gets a least one showcase scene, whether it’s a backstory where the loving wife tells her man she knew what she signed up for, and he better come home safe once the job is done, or a moment of quiet drama between battles, where we learn what motivated someone to join the Army. That sort of thing.
If only the overly familiar elements stopped there.
• Hemsworth’s Mitch is a rugged, well-respected soldier and leader of men, but he has recently taken a desk job so he can come home every night to his wife (Elsa Pataky) and their adorable little daughter, Maddy (Marie Wagenman). Of course Mitch refuses to stay on the sidelines after 9/11, even though his unit has been disbanded.
• Shannon’s Chief Warrant Officer Hal Spencer has already put in for retirement — but he rips up the paperwork in front of his superior officer so he can join Mitch’s team.
• Pena’s Sam Diller is a hothead and former history teacher who beat up a guy who was harassing his wife, and joined the military to avoid jail time. Fichtner’s Col. Mullholland and Riggle’s Col. Bowers exist mainly to shake their heads at Mitch’s brazen ways. Rhodes’ Ben Milo bonds with a young Afghan named Najeeb (Arshia Mandavi) who sticks to him like a shadow.
(The moment we meet Najeeb, if you were sitting next to me I would have bet you five bucks we were going to get a scene where Ben introduces the kid to some kind of American treat. Sure enough, it happens. And then it happens a second time.)
Perhaps the most interesting performance in the film comes from Navid Negahban as the Afghan Gen. Dostum (who is now the vice-president of Afghanistan). Dostum is the leader of company of a few hundred soldiers — most of them farmers with little training — and he despises the Taliban, but he is cagey about sharing strategy with the Americans. And at the age of 55 and having suffered through one horrific battle after another, Dostum has no illusions about one great victory somehow putting an end to thousands of years of bloodshed in his home country.
Unfortunately, the Dostum character often speaks in old-time war film bromides. When he meets the Americans, he goes around the room, identifying the ones with “killer eyes.” (Mitch doesn’t make the cut.) He explains to Mitch that a soldier leads with his head, but a true warrior listens to his heart. And just when we think the general might sell out the Americans, he tells Mitch the story of his family, or he congratulates Mitch on now having “killer eyes,” or he points to his heart to indicate Mitch is no longer just a soldier — he’s a warrior.
With New Mexico standing in for Afghanistan, “12 Strong” has solid production values, and there are some impressive moments when the good guys on horseback face off against hundreds of well-armed enemy fighters. (Of course, there WAS considerable air support — but the bombers wouldn’t have been able to hit their targets without Mitch and his team getting knee-deep in the battle in order to give the exact coordinates.)
But with a running time of two hours and 10 minutes, “12 Strong” has at least 20 minutes of scenes that are either unnecessary or repetitive. Mitch keeps reminding his guys (and us) all is lost if this thing or that thing doesn’t happen. We know. We’ve been there with you every step of the way.
“12 Strong” winds up being an almost-good film about some great American soldiers.
Warner Bros. presents a film directed by Nicolai Fuglsig and written by Ted Tally and Peter Craig, based on the book “Horse Soldiers” by Doug Stanton. Rated R (for war violence and language throughout). Running time: 130 minutes. Opens Friday at local theaters.