Just a few months after dazzling Thor: Ragnarok audiences as one of the more audacious and ludicrous superheroes around, Chris Hemsworth is playing a superhero yet again—only this time it’s a real-life one, and the story is, amazingly, just as unbelievable. As Green Beret Captain Mitch Nelson in 12 Strong, Hemsworth plays the leader of a twelve-man squad who were given a mission even more impossible than defeating the evil Hela. Less than a month after 9/11, Nelson and shipped halfway around the world to prep for a hopeless battle against the Taliban in Afghanistan.
Woefully outnumbered and consigned to riding horses against enemy tanks and rocket launchers, Operational Detachment Alpha 595 shouldn’t have lasted the week, but instead theirs became one of the most inspirational stories in the fight against the Taliban. Based on the book by Doug Stanton, 12 Strong focuses on Nelson, who is introduced as a family man getting ready to take his daughter to school on the morning of September 11. Within an hour he’s at the Army base trying to convince his superior to let him take a team into action.
Once in Afghanistan, Nelson’s team is picked to be the first into battle. Their primary mission is to get close enough to Taliban camps to provide exact coordinates for bomber strikes, but secondarily Nelson has to play diplomat with Afghan General Abdul Rashid Dostum, who is skeptical not only of the Americans but also of his fellow generals in the Northern Alliance. If things weren’t prickly enough, the mission begins with Nelson supported by only half his team; there are only so many horses to go around.
As the climactic battle in the Taliban stronghold of Mazar-i Shariff approaches, Nelson learns that the Army is deploying a back-up squad to fight alongside one of Dostum’s Alliance rivals. When Dostum finds out, he bails on his own mission, taking his soldiers with him and leaving Nelson’s team alone to take on an entire Taliban army.
Cue the charge of the Light Brigade.
Director Nicolai Fuglsig, making his American feature film debut, does an admirable job choreographing the battle scenes, though they pale in comparison to the in-your-face, gritty action of films like Ridley Scott’s outstanding 2001 Black Hawk Down. The whole film, in fact, feels fairly sanitized, as if everyone behind the scenes is playing it safe, including screenwriters Ted Tally (who hasn’t been heard from since 2002’s Red Dragon) and Peter Craig. The script is weighed-down with eyeroll-worthy clichés such as the ol’ military movie trope of being told to fight with your heart and not your head. And every character, including Nelson, is shortchanged any exposition or personality, making it virtually impossible to see each of them as anything other than a random camo-clad soldier.
Hemsworth and company, including the always-great Michael Peña and Michael Shannon, do fine work in their underwritten roles, and there’s no denying that the overarching story is a powerful and moving one. As a war flick, 12 Strong does a okay job, but with a little more nuance and attention to detail it could have been something truly worthy of the men and their incredible mission.