’12 Strong’ is a ferocious tribute to the Horse Soldiers

When terrorists struck a blow deep in the heart of The United States on Sept. 11, 2001, there were two questions that lingered: how could this happen, and would it happen again? 12 Strong tackles the latter with pure ferocity. Get ready to be moved and electrified by the story of the Horse Soldiers!

If 12 Strong is any indication,  Daniel director Nicolai Fuglsig is going to make a dent in Hollywood. His first feature film is a stunning tribute to the dozen soldiers who threw the first punch back at the Taliban after 9/11. Equal parts enthralling and powerful, 12 Strong is movie that aims for the heart and wins.

A day after the World Trade Center was struck, Mitch Nelson (Chris Hemsworth, with star power to burn) and his team wanted to be the first group to fight back. When General Powers (Rob Riggle, who served under the real Powers before he was an actor) and Colonel Mulholland (a stone cold William Fichtner) give Nelson the job, they set off for the harshest terrain of Afghanistan. Once there, they hook up with the Northern Alliance, led by General Dostum (Navid Negahban), a roughneck group of soldiers who want to take down “Osama’s muscle” as much as anyone.

The only hangup is that in order to travel anywhere in that country while staying under the radar, one had two choices: ride a horse, or walk. The soldiers climb on horses and join Dostum’s group in taking down the Taliban. It’s far from a fair fight, due to the terrorist cell containing about 50,000 bodies, but Nelson’s team had missiles in the air to control the action. In the end, is it enough? Can a group of men on horses fight guys with tanks? Watch and find out.

12 Strong keeps you on the edge of your seat, and it works because every single frame and drop of this film is authentic and extremely well-staged. This is one of those incredible true stories that reveals an entirely new side to a conflict and informs the viewer. There are subtle hints at the hardship faced by those who live in the wake of the Taliban, and a decent conversation about the foreign policy dynamics that play a huge part in two countries colliding.

The general thought process is that if these 12 soldiers didn’t take the fight immediately back to the heart of the terrorist cell, more 9/11’s would have happened, and quick. That is why there is a statue at The World Trade Center Memorial of a soldier on horseback.

The supporting cast is first rate. Michael Pena brings pure comic relief and pathos as a fellow soldier, and well-known bad guy Michael Shannon slips on a different shade to play the elder statesman of the Horse Soldiers. Geoff Stuhlts also acquits himself well as a member of the team, but the best work here comes from Hemsworth and Negahban.

The way that screenwriters Ted Tally and Peter Craig stage the conflict between two hardened men from opposite sides of the world is soulfully done. Nelson was a soldier who hadn’t seen a lick of combat until this battle, while Dostum had seen enough for ten lifetimes. Seeing them tiptoe around the diplomatic landmines of their upbringing is a treat, and allows the actors to stretch out their skills.

Hemsworth has the ability to combine legit movie star power with acting chops, infusing Nelson with a stoic bravado, but also tapping into the vulnerability learning to walk way before he could crawl. There are moments where Nelson doesn’t know what to do, and Hemsworth uses those moments to show his range.

Negahban is generally new to American audiences, but is very good here as a proud man slowly coming to terms with the fact that pride may be his downfall. He could have played the straight cliche Afghan soldier card and got away with it, but he went a different route, and together with Hemsworth, lifts the film to a higher place.

The action scenes are the true secret sauce of this film. Nicolai and director of photography Rasmus Vadebaek swoops the camera down low over the horse soldiers as they ride into battle, giving the audience a front row seat to the bloody battles. Instead of staying wide, Vadebaek places you in the action, where you almost have to check your fingernails and forehead for dirt. It’s an exhilarating touch that helps the action stand out.

In October of 2001, 12 men traveled over to enemy territory to carry out an impossible mission. Sometimes, Hollywood can mess these things up, pushing too hard or laying on a heavy amount of melodrama. Thankfully, Fuglsig sticks to the gritty aspects of the action and doesn’t forget about the quiet moments in between two countries fighting a deadly war. He makes you jump yet also allows you to feel.

Thanks to an all-in cast and a filmmaking crew that cares more about the story than vanity, 12 Strong is a powerful and entertaining experience. You’ll leave proud to live in a country that can get knocked down like anybody else, but definitely knows how to get up.

Chest-pumping bravado screaming proudly, 12 Strong sets 2018 on fire.

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