[Screen It]

(2018) (Chris Hemsworth, Michael Shannon) (R)

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Action/War Drama: A dozen Green Berets are assigned to be the first U.S. forces to retaliate against the Taliban in Afghanistan following the terrorist attacks of 9/11.
It's the fall of 2001 and al-Qaeda terrorists have just attacked America in several locations. In response, Colonel Mulholland (WILLIAM FICHTNER) is responsible for selecting a small team of Green Berets and sending them into northern Afghanistan where they're to help one of the local anti-Taliban leaders, Uzbek warlord General Abdul Rashid Dostum (NAVID NEGAHBAN), and his lightly armed cavalry battle the more heavily armed enemy.

Despite Captain Mitch Nelson (CHRIS HEMSWORTH) having no real combat experience (but having trained military teams in country) and having recently returned to take on a desk job, Mulholland selects him due to being the only candidate who sees the situation as it really is and who offers them a chance of hope. Mitch then assembles his 12-man team that includes, among others, his right-hand man, Chief Warrant Officer Hal Spencer (MICHAEL SHANNON); Sgt First Class Sam Diller (MICHAEL PENA) who's still mad that Mitch had planned on leaving them for desk duty; and Sergeant First Class Ben Milo (TREVANTE RHODES) who soon finds himself shadowed at all times by a young Afghan boy.

With Dostum knowing the lay of the land as well as the long, battle-worn history of his country, Mitch and his team's job is to accompany the Afghan general in calling in U.S. military air strikes against the Taliban, all of which means they have to be fairly close to the enemy to get those needed strike coordinates. With the days passing by, Mitch and his team do just that, hoping to get to a pivotal Taliban stronghold city before other, rival Afghan leaders can do the same, all to prevent a civil war from breaking out and thus potentially hampering this new war on terrorism.

OUR TAKE: 6 out of 10
If you were to pitch the movie idea of a small number of Green Berets riding in on horseback to battle a much larger army equipped with tanks, rocket launchers and so on, you might be laughed out of the room for what might sound like some misguided time travel or fantasy flick. Then again, "Cowboys & Aliens" managed to make it from the page to the screen, so who knows how decisions get made.

Hopefully, those who pitched "12 Strong" made sure to point out that their tale was based on a true story and yes, that they were sober while stating that unique scenario. Perhaps all they needed to do was read a passage from a real-life October 2011 communiqué that was first sent to a soldier's commanding officer and eventually made it to Sec. of Defense Donald Rumsfeld who read parts of it at a press conference:

"I am advising a man on how to best employ light infantry and horse cavalry in the attack against Taliban T-55s, mortars, artillery, personnel carriers, and machine guns - a tactic which I think became outdated with the invention of the Gatling gun."

That was written by Captain Mitch Nelson who was tasked with leading the first American military response against the Taliban following the terrorist attacks of 9/11. But with an urgent need to take action and not wanting the weeks or months it would take to deploy a huge amount of military personnel, Nelson and his small team were sent to Northern Afghanistan to help a local warlord who had been battling the Taliban for years. And yes, their main means of getting around was on horseback.

That remarkable true-life story, initially classified from public knowledge, now arrives in this war flick directed by Nicolai Fuglsig from a screenplay by Ted Tally and Peter Craig (who've adapted Doug Stanton's book, "Horse Soldiers"). It's definitely of the fact is stranger than fiction variety, but despite the seemingly unbelievable aspects of the real-life story, this fictionalized version isn't likely to go down as one of the best or even better war flicks ever made. But it works well enough to earn a recommendation.

And much of that is thanks to the presence and performance by Chris Hemsworth in the lead. I have no idea if the hulking (or should that be "Thorish") actor physically resembles the real-life soldier, but he's completely believable in the part all around, physically, emotionally and intellectually.

The always reliable Michaels -- they of the surname Shannon and Pena -- are also good in their supporting parts, while Trevante Rhodes gets a few moments of humanity in the war zone due to his character's interactions with a young Afghan boy who's constantly shadowing him.

Most of the rest of the dozen soldiers, however, get little to no character depth and aren't much more than placeholders. That's definitely true on the Afghan side where only Navid Negahban gets a meaty character playing the Uzbek warlord who initially doesn't think much of Mitch's non-battle tested persona, but eventually comes around to respecting him and his mettle.

The battle scenes are handled well from a technical perspective, and while they might not be much different than what we've seen in other war flicks (aside from the horseback element), they're still gripping enough to hold one's attention.

That said, my only big complaint is that I usually found myself feeling like an observer watching from a distance rather than the "you are there" experience that Steven Spielberg created in "Saving Private Ryan." As a result, I didn't feel as emotionally engaged -- knot in the stomach, lump in the throat, racing heartbeat, and tears in the eyes -- as I would have liked.

Yes, I realize Fuglsig probably wasn't trying to ape that masterpiece, but that's the difference between being a decent war flick and a great one. And a remarkable, true-life tale like this one (and all others, for that matter), deserves the masterpiece approach. Good but not great, "12 Strong" rates as a 6 out of 10.

Reviewed January 11, 2018 / Posted January 19, 2018

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