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Extraordinary heroism deserves a less ordinary movie than '12 Strong'

This image released by Warner Bros. Entertainment shows Chris Hemsworth, center, in a scene from "12 Strong." (Warner Bros.)
Published Jan. 19, 2018

After 16 years of combat and counting, the war in Afghanistan gets a happy movie ending in 12 Strong, a thick slice of patriot porn.

Based on a true story, 12 Strong rightfully celebrates the first U.S. Special Forces unit battling Taliban forces sheltering al-Qaida shortly after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. They're known as the Horse Soldiers, with a statue in their honor at Ground Zero. One unit member, Mark Nutsch, lives in Tampa.

It took only 23 days for these Green Berets on horseback to deliver a victory the end notes declare "al-Qaida's worst defeat ever." Maybe an exaggeration, but that's how gung-ho movies like 12 Strong roll.

All of our heroes come home, even one with a "sucking chest wound" that brings Hollywood looks of grave concern. Families reunite for Christmas. Real life hasn't likewise faded to contented black.

Back in 1968, John Wayne did the same thing with another quagmire in The Green Berets, ending with hawkish optimism about Vietnam. 12 Strong isn't as alternate-factual or racist as the Duke's movie, but it similarly finds the sweet spot between patriotism and blood lust, demanding both. Complaining about anything in 12 Strong is like kneeling for the National Anthem.

These Green Berets are led by Capt. Mitch Nelson (Chris Hemsworth), whose recent transfer to a desk job is reversed after 9/11. Mitch rounds up his unit of foxhole cliches including the soldier he trusts most (Michael Shannon), a joker (Michael Pena), a kind hulk (Trevante Rhodes) and assorted face men. Their wisecrack camaraderie makes the overlong setup tolerable.

12 Strong is all fictional cliches until Task Force Dagger hits Afghanistan, when director Nicolai Fuglsig introduces two factors setting his movie apart. One is Afghanistan's fractured political landscape, three tribes in a loose-knit Northern Alliance fighting the Taliban. Mitch's mission is establishing a bond with Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum, played with wry fatalism by Navid Negahban, to coordinate smart-bomb strikes. Their styles collide, yet Dostum is clearly smarter than Mitch's bombs. He's a noble balance to the Taliban atrocities dropped in as hate bait.

12 Strong's other distinction is horses, the mode of travel these Green Berets adopted to navigate the rugged Afghan terrain. Fuglsig doesn't take them out of the creative corral enough. They're played for rookie-rider jokes and a gallant gallop then not much until a climactic charge. Jousting with automatic weapons is something we don't see often. Most of 12 Strong, we have. Extraordinary heroism deserves a less ordinary movie.

Contact Steve Persall at spersall@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall.

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