“Five weeks ago, 19 men attacked our country,” rasps William Fichtner’s chrome-domed army colonel, early on in this Jerry Bruckheimer-produced war drama. “The 12 of you will be the first ones to fight back.” It’s a line that acts as a neat summary of, not just 12 Strong’s plot, but the raw desire for vengeance that propels much of its pulsating action.
But it’s also a moment that — in its clanking directness — gives you a decent primer about what to expect across this film’s 130-minute running time. Although robustly delivered and interestingly cast, this is a pretty straightforward tale of patriotic heroism in a world peopled by grizzled men who speak exclusively in bombastic poster taglines.
That said, it’s easy enough to see what attracted producer Jerry Bruckheimer, Danish first-time director Nicolai Fuglsig and some of its talented cast to the core story. Based on Doug Stanton’s non-fiction book about the real-life classified mission of the so-called "horse soldiers", 12 Strong quickly introduces us to Mitch Nelson (Chris Hemsworth, getting maximum value from his Thor physique): a talented but desk-bound Special Forces captain who, after the fall of the World Trade Center, lobbies to be sent to Afghanistan.
His job will be to lead the customary ragtag team — a dirty desert dozen including Michael Shannon’s loyal lieutenant and Michael Peña’s wisecracking former teacher — on a daring quest to capture a pivotal Taliban stronghold. It’s here that (after early scenes featuring tearful, underwritten wives) the film really gets going. The quiet details of life “in country” (wedding rings sadly put in ziplock bags, macho jokes around makeshift gym equipment) are vividly drawn and Nelson’s tense, uneasy alliance with an inscrutable Afghan army general (Navid Negahban) is deftly played.
What’s more, Fuglsig leans into the fact that — at the instruction of their local allies — these modern military troops make their way on horseback. There are Sergio Leone-ish gun battles and artful shots of riderless horses galloping past scorched tanks; visual juxtapositions that make a powerful (if ultimately belaboured) point about the perpetual, timeless nature of the Afghan conflict.
Peña keeps things ticking along with expertly delivered dark gags (“That’s all?” he says, after being informed of the $100,000 bounty on their heads) and Hemsworth — even as he effortfully dials down his goofball tendencies — is a capable, commanding presence. But any occasional hints at a film more interested in Nelson’s inner trauma — a kind of ‘12 Horsemen Of The Apocalypse Now’ — are ultimately sidelined in favour of a tub-thumping, bipartisan celebration of square-jawed all-Americans vanquishing helpfully unambiguous villains.