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Movie review: Explosive '12 Strong' puts Hollywood sheen on early U.S. war effort in Afghanistan

POSTED January 19, 2018 9:31 a.m.
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"12 STRONG" — 3 stars — Chris Hemsworth, Michael Shannon, Michael Pena, Trevante Rhodes, William Fichtner; R (war violence and language throughout); in general release

Once it gets past a few early stumbles, Nicolai Fuglsig’s “12 Strong” shapes up to be a dramatic and exciting war film. Based on the book “Horse Soldiers” by Doug Stanton, “12 Strong” tells the story of the first American troops to fight in Afghanistan after 9/11.

The team’s leader is Capt. Mitch Nelson (a character based on a real-life Green Beret named Mark Nutsch, played by Chris Hemsworth), who will be seeing his first official action. After some convincing, Nelson manages to secure his appointment.

The objective is simple in concept, if difficult in execution. Nelson and his team will land in Uzbekistan and work their way toward Mazar, a known Taliban stronghold. With the assistance of American air support, Nelson will help to clear Afghanistan of Taliban rule, which fostered the efforts of the al-Qaida operatives behind the 9/11 attack.

To pull off their assignment, Nelson and his team — which includes Chief Warrant Officer Hal Spencer (Michael Shannon) and Sgt. 1st Class Sam Diller (Michael Pena)— will have to win the trust of Gen. Dostum (Navid Negahban), the head of one of several warring Afghan factions that happen to be united in opposing the Taliban. Dostum is a hardened war veteran and a prideful man who is reluctant to trust the young and inexperienced Nelson.

Early on, “12 Strong” is given a little too much Hollywood bravado and clunky expositional writing, but once Nelson and his team set off on their mission, the film begins to hit a stride. The primary narrative follows the group — which often must travel on horseback — through a sequence of attacks on different outposts on the way to Mazar, dealing with both the Taliban and their conflicts with Dostum along the way.

The film’s hook is the idea of a handful of American soldiers single-handedly running the war in Afghanistan — on horseback, no less — and that feeling magnifies the emotional investment of the film. Of course, once American air support kicks in, you realize the team does have a few advantages.

“12 Strong” is produced by Jerry Bruckheimer (“Armageddon,” the Pirates of the Caribbean films), which gives the film more of a chest-thumping Hollywood style than some of the gritty, handheld style options out there. The style isn’t quite to Michael Bay-levels — though, admittedly, Bay was pretty restrained in 2016’s “13 Hours”— but potential audiences may appreciate knowing just where to peg this one on the spectrum. (For an updated perspective on Afghanistan, audiences might consider the recent documentary series “The Fighting Season.”)

A lot of that style goes out the window once the bombs start falling, though. The second half of “12 Strong” — and its third act in particular — is packed with loads of intense action and pyrotechnics. The director clearly isn’t holding anything back, and wants audiences to get their money’s worth.

On that note, all the pyrotechnics translate into quite a bit of bloody mayhem, which straddles the line between PG-13 and R-level violence (the film’s rating comes from its frequent profanity more than anything else).

“12 Strong” may not rank with the most memorable war films of all time, but it works hard to entertain, and features just enough substance to merit some thought on its subject.

"12 Strong" is rated R for war violence and language throughout; 130 minutes.

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