Sans magic hammer, Chris Hemsworth's career as a leading man is spotty at best. It seems he just needed horse co-stars.
The Thor star saddles up as an Army Special Forces captain in 12 Strong (★★½ out of four; rated R; in theaters nationwide Friday), a commendable war drama based on the first American military offensive in Afghanistan following 9/11.
Director Nicolai Fuglsig’s action film, based on Doug Stanton's 2009 book Horse Soldiers, isn't particularly innovative in terms of genre storytelling — gruff, scenery-chewing officers and homefront drama? Check and check. However, the movie successfully digs into the diplomacy of the time and mines the fragile emotions in those early days in the war on terror. Also in its favor: a thrilling battle with good guys on equine transport vs. an army of tanks and missile launchers.
After a couple years training with his unit of Green Berets, Capt. Mitch Nelson (played by Hemsworth) has transferred to a cushy desk job when he and his family watch in horror as two planes strike the World Trade Center. Even though he's never actually seen combat, Mitch fights to get redeployed with Chief Warrant Officer Hal Spencer (Michael Shannon) and the rest of his men, who all volunteer to head to Afghanistan as part of Task Force Dagger. The mission teams their elite squad with Afghan warlord Gen. Dostum (Navid Negahban) to take back Taliban-controlled locales, battle an enemy force of 50,000 combatants and deal a hefty blow to al-Qaeda.
The rub? The Green Berets have to ride into conflict on horseback because of the mountains, and Mitch has to befriend Dostum and smooth over feelings when a parallel mission arises involving a rival general in the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance.
Unlike his non-superhero star turns in Blackhat and the Huntsman movies, Hemsworth’s charisma and physical presence really pop here; in the insane situation of soldiers on horses facing off with an armored division, he at least looks strong enough to survive the experience. The hilly terrain offers spectacular views and an intriguing battlefield for the cast.
The distinct lack of character development in Ted Tally and Peter Craig’s adaptation doesn't help the various members of Mitch's Green Beret battalion: Most of them have more facial hair than personality. The exception is Moonlight standout Trevante Rhodes, whose sergeant develops a tight friendship with a young Afghan boy.
What 12 Strong touches on in a real way, though fleetingly in order to get on with all that horse-on-tank action, is the commitment to service following the fateful day in 2001. Mitch and his troops don’t have to think hard about fighting back, yet they’re torn between duty and the families they’re choosing to leave behind. Mitch’s spouse (played by Hemsworth’s real-life wife, Elsa Pataky) takes it mostly in knowing stride, making him promise to return home, though Spencer’s offers a savage rebuke: “I will love you when you get back.”
There’s the necessary gripping emotion, for sure, and also the huge battleground set pieces a war drama demands, though 12 Strong goes a little too over the top with its action-packed climax — obviously, real horses couldn’t be used in the more harrowing danger, and the visual effects are iffy in certain moments. Hemsworth’s machismo is all real, though, and for two war-torn hours, you’ll forget about that iconic hammer of his.