PLOT The story of the first U.S. soldiers sent to Afghanistan after the 9/11 attacks.
CAST Chris Hemsworth, Michael Pena, Navid Negahban
RATED R (strong violence and language)
BOTTOM LINE A solid and enjoyable war movie that nevertheless glosses over less attractive realities.
Nicolai Fuglsig’s “12 Strong,” about the dozen men who became the first U.S. Army soldiers to enter Taliban-controlled Afghanistan after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, is a fairly straightforward and enjoyable movie about an extremely complicated and demoralizing war. Its goal is to focus on a small group of heroes, and it shows little interest in the bigger picture.
Produced by Jerry Bruckheimer (“Armageddon” and many other blockbusters), “12 Strong” chooses a familiar formula and sticks with it. Our real-life protagonist, Capt. Mitch Nelson, now looks like a movie star (Chris Hemsworth, likable and inoffensive), and his Special Forces crew includes a range of familiar types, from the jovial Sam Diller (Michael Peña) to the hard-nosed Hal Spencer (a dependably fierce Michael Shannon). When the planes hit the Twin Towers, these men say goodbye to their families and hop a military transport to a far-flung country that had suddenly become synonymous with international terror.
On the ground, Nelson and his men will learn about Islamic fanaticism, suicide bombers, fractious tribes — all the tropes that would eventually become familiar to the news-reading public. Their greatest teacher is Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum (Navid Negahban), a battle-weary but unbowed warlord who becomes another trope: the native warrior who will help the Westerner find his primal self. Dostum also, however, admits he is a necessarily fickle ally and warns Nelson that Afghanistan is the “graveyard of empires.” His future political career would be tainted by accusations of killing civilians and prisoners, but the film does not mention this.
“12 Strong” has little time for such details, because it is first and foremost an action film. Debut director Fuglsig handles the battle scenes confidently, with a mix of Hollywood hokum — our heroes have amazingly good aim — and the unusual sight of American soldiers charging at tanks on horseback. (The film is based on Doug Stanton’s book “Horse Soldiers.”) If anything, that visual and symbolic aspect of the story could have been played up much further.
In the end, it’s hard to grouse about a movie that mainly wants to salute a dozen men who served their country. It’s also hard to shake the feeling, though, that there’s a lot more left to say.
FOUR MORE WITH 12 IN THE TITLE
Dozens of movies have used the number 12 in their titles, including the new war drama “12 Strong.” Here are four other “12” movies that were strong.
12 ANGRY MEN (1957) Sidney Lumet made his screen directorial debut with this taut drama that starred Henry Fonda as a lone holdout who must get his fellow jurors to change their verdict in a murder trial. The movie earned Oscar nominations for best picture, director and screenplay.
THE TWELVE CHAIRS (1970) Mel Brooks’ follow-up to “The Producers” was this offbeat comedy set in 1920s Russia involving the search for a set of 12 chairs containing hidden jewels. The movie also marked Brooks’ first collaboration with comic actor Dom DeLuise.
12 MONKEYS (1995) Terry Gilliam’s futuristic thriller starred Bruce Willis as a convict who is sent back to the year 1996 to gather information about a virus that wiped out humanity. The standout was Brad Pitt, who earned a supporting actor Oscar nomination for his portrayal of a mental patient.
12 YEARS A SLAVE (2013) Director Steve McQueen’s harrowing tale of a free black man (Chiwetel Ejiofor) sold into slavery racked up three Academy Awards, including best picture, supporting actress (Lupita Nyong’o) and adapted screenplay.
— Daniel Bubbeo