During the '80s, '90s and early aughts, super producer Jerry Bruckheimer (along with his late partner Don Simpson) specialized in a particular brand of action cinema that combined the flair of up-and-coming refugees from the commercial and music video world (Ridley & Tony Scott, Michael Bay) with military fetishism. Top Gun ('86) was the starting point, acting as arguably the greatest Navy recruitment tool the cinema's ever seen. Crimson Tide ('95) took these fascinations underwater, turning a battle for command over a nuclear sub into the best earthbound episode of Star Trek never made. The Rock ('96), Con Air ('97), Armageddon ('98), and Enemy of the State ('98) amalgamated these directors' love of big guns and sweaty biceps with different forms of pulp storytelling, be it siege pictures, jail break movies, outer space adventures, or paranoid techno thrillers. Pearl Harbor ('01) shot them into the past. Black Hawk Down ('01) made a distinct comment about the state of modern warfare, complete with a leering lens applied to the hardware of world policing.
The trend died as Bruckheimer transitioned almost exclusively into television and churning out a seemingly endless series based on a goddamn theme park attraction. However, the auteurs who used his bloody sandbox as their own training camp for tent pole filmmaking went on to become some of our most infamously popular mainstream craftsmen. Now, Bruckheimer has ostensibly returned to his old stomping grounds with 12 Strong - a true story revolving around the initial squad of soldiers who were sent into Afghanistan following the September 11th attacks on the World Trade Center. All of the trademarks of Bruckheimer's past forays into the realm of jingoistic action pictures remain except for one: a distinct vision behind the camera. Where Bay and the Scotts' styles were immediately recognizable - all quick cuts and medium-wide ogling of men and might - debut feature director Nicolai Fuglsig lacks the same sort of visual thumbprint the forefathers whose faces are engraved on Bruckheimer's Mt. Rushmore owned. Instead, what we're left with is a Marvel-esque producer-driven final product, feeling as if it were shot around '02 by a Black Hawk 2nd AD and then placed on the proverbial shelf for sixteen years.
The set up is so bare bones and elementary that 12 Strong resembles a truncated cut of a longer, possibly better, motion picture. Captain Mitch Nelson (Chris Hemsworth - with an accent bordering on Blackhat ['15]) and his team have just returned from training, almost entirely due to Nelson's need for a desk job, so that he can spend more time at home with his wife (Elsa Pataky) and young daughter (Marie Wagenman). Yet once 9/11 occurs, stopping the world in its tracks, he requests to be the first to ship out from Lt. Colonel Bowers (Rob Riggle - no, I'm not kidding). Initially informed that his promotion is non-reversible - really only for the sake of a first act dramatic obstacle and to create conflict with Diller (Michael Peña), who's salty Nelson's domestic priorities are keeping them from battle - the team are quickly assembled once his right hand man Hal Spencer (Michael Shannon) has a quick convincing chat with their superiors. Despite Nelson's lack of actual combat experience, they're on a plane to the Middle East, ready to take down Al Qaeda.
We don't really get to know these guys outside of your usual War Movie 101 expository homelife scenes. Diller's wife (Lauren Myers) won't give it up in order to motivate her man to get back safe. Spencer's is cold, forcing him to tell their son he won't be staying home again. Nelson's tells him to keep his mind on the mission at hand. Essentially, they're introduced as the American Ideal - soldiers who're sacrificing everything to take down a foreign enemy in a land far away. The rest of the crew - including Ben Milo (Trevante Rhodes) and Sean Coffers (Geoff Stults) - aren't even gifted such stereotypical character building, possibly out of runtime necessity. Because when you center a movie around twelve main characters, it requires coming up with a creative way to make them all human (and 12 Strong is far from inventive).
These rather faceless men make up Task Force Dagger. Vastly outnumbered by an enemy who welcome death as an escape from life, Nelson and his squad do have superior intel and B-52 bombers at their disposal. Only, in order to utilize this high-tech weaponry effectively and help command control of the strategically positioned city of Mazar-i-Sharif, they have to team with Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum (Navid Negahban), a key leader in Afghanistan’s anti-Taliban Northern Alliance. To make matters worse, they cannot use modern vehicles in order to complete this trek, instead relying on six horses for twelve men in order to complete the job. It's essentially a fool's errand, rendered nigh impossible by major in-fighting amongst their allies. All the while, Nelson is tested every step of the way; his greeness possibly detected by Dostum.
This lack of humane specificity would be fine if we were being told the story of a platoon who represent something greater as a collective (a la Dunkirk ['17]), but Ted Tally and Peter Craig's script - which uses Dan Stanton's non-fiction account Horse Soldiers as a source - is a character piece, where we're supposed to really feel for these men through their wartime bonding. Problem is, it's hard to establish any sort of connection (between them or us) when we know so little about them. Furthermore, the lack of characterization emphasizes what a waste of a great ensemble 12 Strong truly is. Sure, Peña gets to crack a few jokes, and Shannon's aging Special Forces vet throws his back out at one point, calling air strikes while fully horizontal with the desert. But the rest are barely given full sentences to speak, as chaos erupts around them via machine gun battles in the sandy hills.
To be fair, when 12 Strong turns into a full fledged action film - which it frequently does, helping keep the bloated 130-minute runtime moving along well enough - Fuglsig captures the violence with a steady frame. Cinematographer Rasmus Videbæk (The Dark Tower ['17]) paints the desert with rather gorgeous, sunny tableaus, before snapping shots of men with guns standing on the horizon during the twilight hours. There are really no technical marks to make against Fuglsig's film, as it's strung together with professionally composed coverage, and the adequate amount of hero shots, all low-tilt and admiring these soldiers manning their stations at the primitive base, while the others try and take Mazar-i-Sharif. During the skirmishes, stunt men leap from galloping beasts and dive away from fireballs. The Bruckheimer brand is back, but has it always been this blandly competent?
Perhaps strangest of all are 12 Strong's politics; handling this first battle in the War On Terror as if the audience has forgotten the numerous lies and years of bloodshed that followed this inevitable victory (that's not a spoiler, mind you, as the "real soliders" are literally doing press for the movie on Ellen). The Taliban are protrayed as black-clad savages, executing women who teach others above eight years old how to read and write. Dostum is a mourning warrior, on a quest to avenge the deaths of his family at the hands of the terrorists' merciless leader (Fahim Fazli). In short, 12 Strong plays like it's trying to sell us on the nobility of a morally dubious conflict we've already experienced, knowing that these men were all essentially deployed in the name of nonsense. America is no longer grieving and venegeful, but clear-eyed and distrustful following a lack of WMDs, and scores dead after invading Afghanistan and Iraq. The movie's righteous posturing is frankly baffling.
So, where does that leave 12 Strong? In a peculiar place, really. It's a movie made by a first time filmmaker, who is obviously trying to operate within a producer's brand, telling at story that's antiquated at best, ill-advised at worst. The true casualty here may be Fuglsig, who proves that he can't make any sort of impression outside of quietly executing a straightforward script while replicating a house style that's arguably been dead for well over a decade. This impressive cast has already gone on to do greater things, as 12 Strong is simply another line on their CVs, destined to be forgotten in the bargain bins of WalMarts across the United States. For Fuglsig, it's a career non-starter - barely remarkable, yet remarkably bare.