Since "American Sniper," Hollywood has been searching for another breakthrough war story, with decidedly mixed results. "12 Strong," a harrowing fact-based tale of heroism set in the immediate wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, would appear to have the right armament, but this by-the-numbers movie ultimately falls short of completing that mission.
Produced by Jerry Bruckheimer, and directed by Nicolai Fuglsig, a Danish director and photojournalist making his feature debut, the story opens with a video montage leading up to Sept. 11, racing through the key characters' goodbyes to their families in roughly 10 minutes.
After that, Capt. Mitch Nelson ("Thor's" Chris Hemsworth) and his Special Forces team, codenamed Task Force Dagger, are quickly dropped in northern Afghanistan. There, the foul-mouthed dozen link up with a local general, Abdul Rashid Dostum (Navid Negahban), in an orchestrated assault on the Taliban and Al Qaeda.
Vastly outnumbered, Nelson -- heading up what's described as the military's "most venomous snake" -- must rely on helping target U.S. air power to level the playing field. Just to ratchet up the tension, he tells his commander (William Fichtner) that he intends to complete the perilous assignment in a mere three weeks, before the weather can thwart their plan.
What follows, in the script adapted from Doug Stanton's book by Ted Tally and Peter Craig, is essentially a tick-tock of that stretch, with a series of bloody battles in a march toward the strategically vital town of Mazar-i-Sharif.
Although Michael Shannon, Michael Pena and Trevante Rhodes (fresh off "Moonlight") are part of Nelson's unit, the fundamental relationship is between the captain and Dostum, whose initial wariness of his American ally is only one of the several beats in the film that, true story or not, feel like war-movie clich-s. The same largely applies to the bravado of these elite soldiers, who literally sing "Ballad of the Green Berets" as the fly into the unknown.
As for the Taliban, the film depicts just enough of their evil to underscore the righteousness of the fight, while the general -- who leads his men on horseback -- regales Nelson with sober lessons about the region's history to foreshadow the troubles that will follow even a triumphant campaign.
Hemsworth brings a dose of humanity to the central role, successfully shedding the shackles of his mythical comic-book exploits. But the characterizations remain sketchy and the drama relatively flat, despite an abundance of battle sequences and a musical score that seemingly swells to a crescendo at the slightest provocation.
Part of the movie's pitch is that this mission was previously classified, meaning the heroism of Nelson and his men went unreported for years. It is, from that perspective, a stirring reminder of the united sense of purpose and can-do spirit that emerged in the wake of Sept. 11.
Still, "12 Strong's" most memorable moment comes in the crawl that runs at the end detailing what transpired. Until then, the filmmakers mostly manage to turn a daring military operation into a studiously risk-free movie.
"12 Strong" opens Jan. 19 in the U.S. It's rated R.
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