There’s been a trend over the last few years that a big war movie usually hits in January, with hits like Lone Survivor and American Sniper. 12 Strong solidly continues that trend as Chris Hemsworth leads the first team into Afghanistan following 9/11 although it doesn’t do anything to elevate itself above the rest of the genre.
Shortly after the September 2001 attacks, Captain Mitch Nelson (Hemsworth) led the ODA 595 Special Forces team into Afghanistan on the first major counterstrike against the Taliban. Their mission was to link up with a general of the Northern Alliance, General Dostum (Navid Negahban) and attempt to take the city of Mazar-e-Sharif, the main stronghold of the Taliban in Afghanistan. The Green Berets had to learn quickly how to fight on horseback, as that was the main tactic of their Afghan allies. The true story is incredibly interesting and incredible, especially the fact that the team managed to achieve in three weeks what most experts believed would take 3 years, but the movie is fairly standard as far as war movies, and especially the current crop of War on Terror movies. There’s a lot of cliches, like a young boy who shadows one of the team members for instance, and the characters are all pretty muted and run together as well. Chris Hemsworth, Michael Pena and Michael Shannon stand out really only because they are the bigger names and we know their personalities from other movies, although Shannon in particular is way more subdued than you’ve probably ever seen him, and the rest are just a bland blend of beards and tactical gear. The only character who really stands out is General Dostum, who has some fun quirks like taunting the commander of the Taliban over a radio before and during attacks but also Navid Negahban sells the serious side as well, like when you learn the first outpost the team liberates is Dostum’s hometown where his family was killed. Rob Riggle and William Fichtner are also here, the latter with a disturbingly bald head, but they also don’t really get to do anything interesting or fun either and the wives of all the Green Berets are essentially non-characters (although I guess it’s nice that Hemsworth got to work with his wife Elsa Pataky).
12 Strong delivers some exciting but not mind blowing battle sequences. The horseback aspect adds a new dynamic and there’s some great sequences where the team and the Afghan forces charge in slo-mo. There’s also some great use of overhead shots, especially as the Green Berets call in air strikes. The action overall is done extremely well but there’s nothing to take it to that next level and the lack of compelling characters also lowers the tension and stakes but, to be fair, also reading the book the movie is based on or just reading the Wikipedia about the mission would do that as well.
If you’re into war movies, especially the current crop like Lone Survivor or American Sniper, 12 Strong is a solid entry in the genre but it doesn’t really do anything to rise above just being solid. There are some great battle sequences but there are lots of cliches and bland characters that hold it back. It is more upbeat just based on the outcome of the mission in real life than those two aforementioned movies though, so that might make it more appealing to some people.