War film cliches, now in French
By Michael O’Sullivan
Friday, October 12, 2012
There’s nothing terribly surprising about “Special Forces,” a moderately gripping action flick about a group of commandos on a mission to rescue a pretty blonde who has been abducted by the Taliban. Nothing, that is, except that it’s French.
It’s actually kind of refreshing to watch a bunch of big, strapping French dudes in camo and body armor clambering over rocks on the Hindu Kush and shooting people (instead of, say, smoking cigarettes, drinking espresso and talking about relationships). The question is: Is that enough to get you through the cliches? If you turned the sound off and removed the subtitles, you might actually think you were watching an old Hollywood shoot-’em-up.
The gorgeous cinematography, however, could throw you off. In his feature film debut, director Stephane Rybojad -- a maker of television documentaries about the French armed forces -- has an eye for capturing the beauty of an often inhospitable landscape.
As Kovax, the leader of the commandos, Djimon Hounsou comes across like a francophone Samuel L. Jackson: bald, tough, laconic and with an outsize screen presence. He’s one of the film’s genuine pleasures, and unlike the novelty of the movie’s Frenchness, his appeal doesn’t flag. His cohorts (played by Benoit Magimel, Denis Menochet, Raphael Personnaz, Alain Figlarz and Alain Alivon) are less distinctive, at least to American audiences, but they get the job done.
That job is to parachute into hostile Pakistani tribal areas along the border with Afghanistan, where fiendish Taliban commander Zaief (the Israeli-born Raz Degan) has kidnapped Elsa (Diane Kruger), a French journalist who has been reporting on Zaief’s abuse of women. When the commandos’ radio is shot up during Elsa’s rescue, they’re left miles from the designated extraction point with no way to contact their base in Afghanistan. The only way out is to hike over the mountains with a small army of Taliban fighters in hot pursuit.
Nothing complicated there, other than the obvious. Rybojad, along with co-writer Michael Cooper, keeps the story simple, sticking to a predictable cat-and-mouse scenario punctuated by the frequent exchange of bullets. From one side, the Taliban fighters’ antique rifles go pop-pop-pop; from the other, the French soldiers’ fat automatic weapons answer with a thunderous boom-boom-boom. As Kovax and company stand astride the boulders, shooting, they make an almost godlike tableau. It’s more than a little ridiculous, but also primally satisfying, in a Bruce Willis-y, “yippee-ki-yay-you-know-what” kind of way.
Just don’t expect anything more. “Special Forces” has room for a little humor -- and even a little romance, between Elsa and one of Kovax’s men -- but there’s precious little patience for anything else. Politics, morality, anything with gray areas gets short shrift. It’s not by accident that one of the commandos refers to the seemingly numberless Taliban fighters as “Mexicans.” This movie is a Western, minus the cowboy hats.
Toward the end, as the success of the commandos’ increasingly imperiled mission hangs by a thread, Kovax tells Elsa, “You have to make it, or all of this means nothing.” That may as well be the filmmaker talking. Like the commandos, “Special Forces” also has an urgent agenda -- to celebrate the nobility and honor of military self-sacrifice in the line of duty -- complexity and nuance be damned.
Mission: More or less accomplished.
Contains violence and obscenity. In French, English and Pashto with English subtitles.