It’s January, so the massive box office success of both Lone Survivor and American Sniper dictates it’s time for another action war movie based on a real-life incident that occurred to U.S. armed forces (or mercenaries in the case of 13 Hours) in the Iraq War. 2018’s entry in this subgenre is 12 Strong (the trailers add the sentence The Declassified True Story of the Horse Soldiers to the title), which is all about a group of U.S. soldiers called Task Force Dagger that’s led by Captain Mitch Nelson (Chris Hemsworth). Nelson, whose only led the team in training situations, has recently taken a desk job that’ll allow him to spend more time with his wife and young kid but those plans take a turn once the World Trade Center attacks occur.
Now, Nelson, with help from his pal and Task Force Dagger member Cal Spencer (Michael Shannon, what is he doing in this??), convinces his superior officers to send him and his team out in the field as one of the first waves of soldiers sent to the Middle East in response to the 9/11 attacks. The assignment for these 12 soldiers (hey, that’s the name of the movie!) is to help coordinate drone strikes on Al-Queda occupied villages with the help of Abdul Rashid Dostum (Navid Negahban), a leader of a local resistance movement. The terrain is unfamiliar and the assignment seemingly impossible, but Mitch Nelson is determined to lead his men to victory as well as achieving a personal goal of returning home to his wife.
Compared to Lone Survivor and American Sniper, which played their stories like dramas with extended military action sequences (this is especially true of the latter movie), 12 Strong is right upfront of having more in common tonally with The Expendables than Saving Private Ryan. A number of disposable action sequences are the top priority here while little in the way of characterization emerges for any of the members of the ensemble cast. A bad guy (who I just now found out is played by an unrecognizable Said Taghmaoui) straight out of a bad Saturday morning cartoon is even around for Dostum to have an old score to settle with. Basically, it does manage to achieve the middling quality of Lone Survivor and American Sniper, just in a different way than those two projects.
A barrage of terribly written dialogue that early on establishes the low level of quality 12 Strong is aiming for, though at least all of those tin-eared lines take a backseat to interchangeable action sequences once the characters set foot in the Middle East. The filming style of 12 Strong in its combat sequences are indistinguishable from the vast majority of other American motion pictures set in the Iraq war, there’s not even the barest attempts to add unique visual flourishes when Cal Spencer and his men go off to fight, it’s all just rendered through the gaze of the laziest sort of camerawork and editing. All I could tell you about these extended periods of combat is that big things typically went boom and nothing more.
Amidst all of the poorly done action and wretched dialogue is an ensemble cast struggling to figure out what in the hell they’re supposed to do. Coming right after Thor: Ragnarok solidified how Chris Hemsworth works best as a handsome goofball (he’s so good at that), Hemsworth is back being stuck in the generic leading man mold Hollywood keeps mistakenly putting him in. Hemsworth isn’t allowed to have a dash of charisma or charm in his part and the role could have easily been played by anyone. Nobody else in the Task Force Dagger leaves all that much of an impression (even Michael Pena gets wasted) except for Michael Shannon and that’s only because it’s amusing to see how often his character is left off-screen or separated from his other teammates for the majority of the movie.
Navid Negahban gives the only really noteworthy performance here thanks to his ability to imbue real gravitas into even the most anemically written line. All the other actors here are denied the chance to utilize their talents and instead are stuck going through the motions of a predictable and lazily told story. Even the horses these men ride into battle don’t factor much into the plot, which feels like a real missed opportunity for 12 Strong to create its own sense of identity. You’d think the various soldiers would form a sort of friendship with their horses that would reveal more about themselves, but the horses end up being just props that simply stand around and say “neigh”. Coincedentally, that’s also what audiences should say to the prospect of seeing 12 Strong!