In the days after 9/11, a team of US Special Forces soldiers, led by an inexperienced Captain (Chris Hemsworth) and a veteran Chief Warrant Officer (Michael Shannon), are dropped into Afghanistan and make contact with a local warlord (Navid Negahban) to begin an assault on the Taliban.
Like Peter Berg's Lone Survivor or Clint Eastwood's American Sniper, 12 Strong follows the same pattern in introducing a team of surprisingly well-rounded soldiers who just love their families and want to protect their families at all cost, even though that means leaving them behind to wage war in a far-off land. The film opens with a rundown of Al-Qaeda's attacks on the US, beginning with the first bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993, through to the US Embassy bombings in '98, right through to 2001 where the story lifts off. Chris Hemsworth's character has just returned from Somalia and is about to begin a relatively cushy deskjob, Michael Shannon's hard-as-nails veteran has handed in his retirement papers, and the remaining members of the team - Michael Pena, Trevante Rhodes, Thad Tuckibill and Geoff Stults - are itching to get in the fight.
Again, like Lone Survivor and American Sniper, the film doesn't complicate matters or even attempt subtlety. This is mean to be a rollicking, explosive war thriller where the lines between good and evil are as clearly drawn as a comic-book movie. That's actually an insult to comic-book movies; they're not nearly as obvious as 12 Strong is. Hemsworth and Shannon are split up for most of the film, and Shannon is held back for the most part from the film. Instead, we get Hemsworth on horseback, riding across the plains of Afghanistan and into some serious fighting, all of which is done to the sounds of Hans Zimmer acolyte, Lorne Balfe.
The characters aren't developed enough for it to be convincing enough, and the psychology and the motivations behind it all aren't explored - nor are any of the political considerations for what they're doing; beyond simple jingoistic interludes. Instead, the film makes it about the action and choreographs it in a very convincing way that makes it thrilling to watch. Director Nicolai Fuglsig, before he went into commercial work, worked as a war photographer in Kosovo and made a short documentary on his time there. That experience must have played a part in his decision to sign on for this, and while it doesn't have the kind of chaos that Paul Greengrass, there is a sense of frenetic energy in the battle sequences. The shame is that sandwiched between them is some painfully clunky dialogue and a lot of boring scenes where the relationship develops between Hemsworth's gung-ho soldier and Navid Neaghban's wearied warlord.
While it does have some compelling moments and the action is staged well, there's not enough to keep it being anything more than just OK.