Who is Chris Hemsworth when he isn’t Thor? Not an action star, as the excellent but financially disastrous “Blackhat” can attest; not a prestige-picture anchor either, as evidenced by the “Moby Dick” quasi-adaptation “In the Heart of the Sea.” The god of thunder comes closer to answering that question by trading in his hammer for a horse in “12 Strong,” which positions its star as a rather different kind of hero: an American soldier.
Set in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 and styling itself as a portrayal of the first victory in the War on Terror — a bittersweet milestone to celebrate, given that said war hasn’t ended and we certainly haven’t won it — Nicolai Fuglsig’s film (full title: “12 Strong: The Declassified True Story of the Horse Soldiers”) injects some rah-rah patriotism into the January multiplex à la “Lone Survivor” and “13 Hours” before it.
It tells the story of Task Force Dagger, comprised of a dozen elite soldiers tasked with striking the first blow to the Taliban alongside an Afghan general (Navid Negahban) who hates his countrymen in the tenuous Northern Alliance almost as much as he hates their shared enemy; their joint mission, though not as cloak-and-dagger as the one dramatized in “Zero Dark Thirty,” nevertheless comes with a high chance of failure as they seek to reclaim the Taliban-occupied city of Mazar-i-Sharif.
Each skirmish along the way results in the deaths of numerous Afghans on both sides of the conflict, most of them nameless; our American heroes continually stand tall, the Captain Kirk to the Afghans’ redshirts. “You live in a place where life looks better than the afterlife,” Dostum (Negahban) says by way of explanation for their enemies’ relentless tactics and apparent disregard for their own lives. Hemsworth, playing a first-time commander, leads a squad that includes Michael Shannon, Michael Peña, and “Moonlight’s” Trevante Rhodes, all of whom are firmly behind their captain.
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Hemsworth has rarely been better than in the recent “Thor: Ragnarok,” which swapped out the Nordic doom and gloom with Taika Waiti’s sense of humor — a tonal shift for which the Aussie actor was very much game. “12 Strong” doesn’t allow him the same range, which brings to mind another actor rising in prominence: John Cena, who made his silver-screen debut with “The Marine,” another military drama, but has found far more success in comic roles. Ought Hemsworth to do the same?
In 2018, we’re so far past the point of “post-9/11” going from a phrase to a permanent state of affairs that it can be difficult to recall how the attacks’ immediate aftermath was, in addition to being terrifying, also a time of relative unity. The disillusionment that set in a few years after the events of “12 Strong” hadn’t yet come about here, and while it doesn’t exactly roll out the Mission Accomplished banner, the movie also seems uninterested in the fact that we still have soldiers on the ground a decade-and-a-half later.
“You will be cowards if you leave,” Dostum tells his American allies, “and you will be enemies if you stay.” Damned if you do, damned if you don’t indeed. Though it’s more than a feature-length support-our-troops bumper sticker, “12 Strong” too rarely applies this level of insight to its narrative, content to treat it as a self-contained affair even though it was anything but.
Fuglsig’s feature debut is ultimately less an action movie and more a procedural, one in which incremental gains and minimal casualties are as much as can be hoped for. Hemsworth tells his men several times that they might not all make it back alive; the movie’s marketing materials all but guarantee they will. Still, this isn’t a film you watch to find out how it ends — especially since we all know that, in most of the ways that count, this story hasn’t ended at all. “12 Strong” presents its conclusion as both a military and moral victory, albeit one whose inspirational qualities are lessened by the fact that winning the battle and winning the war are two very different things.
“12 Strong” is now playing in wide release.