12 Strong: Awful Beginning. Gets Better.

12 Strong Plot Summary:

Based on the true story about the first military operation in the wake of September 11th.  Captain Nelson (Chris Hemsworth) leads a special unit of eleven other men to overtake the city of Mazar-i-Sharif, a Taliban stronghold.  Along the way, they must eliminate enemy bases, as they align with an Afghan warlord (Navid Negahban), who’s also an enemy of the Taliban.

In anticipation of this movie, I took a big nap and drank a large cup of coffee. I was preparing myself for the typical two hour boring January Bruckheimer military movie with shaky cam and nothing characters. For the first half hour, that’s exactly what I got. It’s Captain Generic with his generic family and his generic army unit who all say goodbye to their equally generic families with generic dialogue as the generic score plays. I don’t care about any of these characters.  I’m in for a long, numbing ride. Ov vey. Having said that, if you can get through the first thirty minutes, this is a surprisingly good effort.

The first act is really bad. There’s barely a script. Hemsworth plays with his daughter, and the acting is equally as bad as the dialogue he’s given. Then he looks up at the TV to see the breaking news of the 9/11 attacks. Where there should be something felt here, there’s no emotion whatsoever. Everything is so haphazardly done, you’re barely paying attention.

Hemsworth plays Captain Nelson, who recently put in for a desk job, but after the attacks, he wants in the field with his own unit. His superior (Rob Riggle) says no. Hemsworth gets super upset and even (GASP) kicks over a desk. Oh my goodness.

Eventually, him and his men get the call to go to Afghanistan. He says goodbye to his family, as does Michael Shannon and Michael Pena, the two other prominent members of the unit we get to know. It’s the most basic and recycled dialogue of all-time (“I made a promise”). Cut me a break.

Then we meet the rest of Nelson’s unit. All of them are interchangeable. Oh wait, I’m sorry. One of them wore thick glasses and made a joke. Pardon me. I’ve been very snarky and obnoxious so far, but a true lack of character really does trigger me. There comes a point though where the movie finally gets a pulse.

Part of Nelson’s mission is forming an alliance with an Afghan warlord named General Dostum. This is where there’s an actual screenplay. The bond between Nelson and Dostum is the heart of the film. Nelson believes pure military strategy will get them through everything with no casualties. Dostum shows him the harsh reality. There’s a lot of “fight with your heart, not your brain” type dialogue. It’s very Hollywood, but also very good. And just like any odd couple relationship, Nelson also rubs off on Dostum.

There’s one conversation in particular where Dostum talks about why these terrorists sacrifice themselves so easily. It’s an extremely well written moment. When there’s a tense standoff later in the film, you remember this scene and are completely nervous because of it. In a script that’s so paint by numbers and lazy, this was like a JV basketball player coming off the bench to randomly score thirty points.

While Hemsworth is rough in the beginning, this is one of his better performances. I’ve never been a big fan, but he is what he is. He’s a better Sam Worthington/Jai Courtney. He carries the film well with determination and grit. All the scenes he has with Dostum are very engaging. Negahban is equally as compelling. At one point, Nelson makes a joke about how the two are going to get an apartment together. It’s legitimately funny because you buy into the genuine relationship they’ve formed throughout the movie, as opposed to the generic family dialogue from earlier.

Michael Shannon plays Nelson’s right hand man, Hal Spencer. By Michael Shannon’s mere presence, he gives you something. Thank heavens, because there is absolutely nothing on the page. Zilch. Shannon turns a penny into a dollar. Then there’s Michael Pena. He has a couple good moments with Hemsworth, but nothing special.

The only other member you get to know from Nelson’s unit is Ben Milo, played by Trevante Rhodes.  There’s a local Afghan boy assigned to protect Milo, who gets annoyed because the kid constantly follows him around, but through a few nice moments, it becomes a strong emotional core to the film.  Other than that, the other characters are absolutely nothing.

The battles were well done. It’s no Dunkirk, but they were competently filmed. No shaky cam crap. Unlike Black Hawk Down or Battle Los Angeles, you can actually tell what’s going on and who’s who.

While this movie has a lot of garbage to overcome, I found myself surprisingly invested by the end.  There’s a Last Samurai feel to it. If they cleaned up some areas in the beginning, this could have been something special. This story deserved it. If it was put in the hands of Clint Eastwood, now we’re talking.

This is director Nicolai Fuglsig’s first major movie. It’s a capable effort, but you’ve seen this film many times before. It’s Lone Survivor. It’s 13 Hours. It’s Fury. It’s fine.

Rating: 6.5 out of 10 (Slightly Better Than “Meh”)

Daniel Cohen is the hard-boiled Film Editor for the Pop Break. Besides reviews, Daniel writes box office predictions, Gotham reviews and Oscar coverage. He can also be found on the Breakcast. If Daniel was sprayed by Scarecrow's fear toxin, it would be watching Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen on a non-stop loop.