By Liam Lacey
At regular intervals during the Afghanistan war movie 12 Strong, Green Beret Captain Mitch Nelson (Chris Hemsworth) — who is fighting with Afghan fighters against the Taliban in the months following 9/11 — has a simple trick to make things exciting. He gets on his walkie-talkie and calls in an air strike.
B-52s break through the clouds, big shiny shells rain down from the skies, and explosions blossom across the ground, wreaking mayhem on Taliban fighters, their Al-Qaeda allies, and large swaths of the mountainous landscape.
In other respects, this atypically positive Afghanistan war drama about a dozen American special forces soldiers achieving payback for 9/11 against 50,000 Taliban fighters has a patriotic kitschiness reminiscent of Team America: World Police, the 2004 puppet satire created by South Park's Trey Parker and Matt Stone.
The script by Ted Tally (The Silence of the Lambs) and Peter Craig (The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Parts 1 & 2) is based on Doug Stanton's 2009 non-fiction book, Horse Soldiers, about a classified mission that saw American soldiers — along with the forces of Northern Alliance leader, General Abdul Rashid Dostum — capture the northern town of Mazar-i-Sharif from Taliban control. In the movie version, we see the soldiers battling not only against an inexhaustible supply of hooded Taliban soldiers with blazing Kalashnikovs and rocket-propelled grenades but the challenge of riding horses alongside the Afghan fighters.
The "team of heroes" trope is effectively reduced down to four soldiers — Hemsworth, Michael Shannon, Michael Peña and Moonlight's Trevante Rhodes — with Hemsworth carrying the bulk of the work as the jocular, fearless leader. Though he has no combat experience, Hemsworth’s Nelson can read maps, speak Russian, out-strategize the generals, wisecrack in the face of death, and earn the respect of Afghan warriors.
Despite the script's repeated announcements that the odds are overwhelmingly against him and his soldiers, we know he'll still get home to his wife and daughter for Christmas. Hemsworth's character's name is Mitch but he may as well be called Thor.
In a movie of one-dimensional characters, the one slightly nuanced performance is by Navid Negahban (Homeland) as the general, Dostum, a real-life figure known for his ability to switch sides to his advantage.
The general tends to speak in Yoda-like pidgin English "Why these men follow you?" while explaining ancient Afghan wisdom. Until Mitch learns to fight with his heart, he explains to the younger American, he'll only be a soldier, not a warrior.
Director Nicolai Fuglsig, known for his commercials for Corvette and X-Box, makes his feature film debut here, balancing man-on-man scenes of aphoristic slogans ("The only way home is winning") with a jaunty absurdity in the action sequences, topped by Hemsworth going full John Wayne as he rides his horse in slo-mo through the Taliban missiles and B-52 bombs.
The afterword tells us that Al-Qaeda regarded the fall of Mazar-i-Sharif as its greatest defeat, though, having seen Zero Dark Thirty, I suspect they got that wrong.
12 Strong. Directed by Nicolai Fuglsig. Written by Ted Tally and Peter Craig. Starring Chris Hemsworth, Michael Shannon, Michael Peña, Navid Negahban, and Trevante Rhodes. Opens wide January 19.