There’s a trend in movies this awards season, apart from the welcome abundance of awards-contenders with an African-American — or simply African — theme (“Lee Daniels’ The Butler,” “Fruitvale Station,” “12 Years a Slave,” “42” and “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom”).
It first popped up this past fall, with back-to-back releases of the dramatic thrillers “Gravity” and “All Is Lost,” each of which centers on heroes — stranded, in one case, in space, and in the other in the middle of the ocean — who are visited by one increasingly grim disaster after another, until it seems that things can get no worse.
Add “Lone Survivor” to that list.
Based on the memoir of Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell, who is played by producer Mark Wahlberg, the film tells the story of Operation Red Wings, a disastrous 2005 mission to kill a prominent Taliban fighter, Ahmad Shah (Yousuf Azami). As the title gives away, the four-man team of commandos, ambushed and stranded without communications on a remote mountain in Afghanistan, is slowly, agonizingly whittled away, one by one, until . . . well, let’s leave some things to the imagination.
Luttrell’s comrades-in-arms are played by Ben Foster, Emile Hirsch and Taylor Kitsch, each of whom is barely recognizable behind the scruffy beards, grime and blood that cover their faces. Inexplicably, they wear no helmets.
Is it hard to watch? My gosh, yes, and not quite in the way that “Gravity” and “Lost” managed to make their parades of catastrophes simultaneously awful and compelling. Unlike those films, “Lone Survivor” is a loud and grinding affair, seemingly as intent on wearing down its audience as the Taliban is on the film’s heroes. At times, the violence is so unrelenting and fierce that it’s hard to believe that there’s anyone left alive, let alone with any bullets left to fire.
What’s missing here is something, or rather, someone, to care about. Written and directed by Peter Berg (“Battleship”), the film presumes our emotional investment in Luttrell and his fellow soldiers’ mission, simply by virtue of — well, it’s never quite clear what. The questions of who exactly Shah is, other than one of many murderous thugs, and why we should care so deeply about his fate, is never really explained in a way that grabs the imagination.
He’s no Osama bin Laden, in other words, and this is no “Zero Dark Thirty.” Even worse, Berg gives us little reason to feel that we know the men who are hunting him, beyond a few lame lines of dialogue about someone’s upcoming wedding. They’re movie stars in camo, pretending to be massacred for the camera.
That anonymity worked in “Zero Dark Thirty.” There, it was about the mission’s high stakes, not the personalties of the SEALs who carried it out. Here, we need something — Compassion? Commiseration? Connection? — to leaven the monotony of the mayhem. The fact that things start to go south after the team is discovered by a young Afghan goatherder, leading to an argument about whether to kill him, doesn’t do much to generate sympathy for these heroes. Even though the decision is ultimately made to let the kid go — a decision that Luttrell may have lived to regret — the fact that more than one of his pals seemed perfectly happy to shoot the child leaves a powerful, and lingeringly bad, aftertaste.
Of course, the film is supposed to be a tale of heroism. And in the end, it is. Only the film’s real hero isn’t Luttrell, who survives unimaginable violence, including a gruesome leg injury that requires pushing a bone back into place. I can’t say more without spoiling things, but “Lone Survivor’s” most fascinating character doesn’t even appear until the film’s final minutes, and is dealt with mostly in a series of whatever-happened-to titles that run on screen just before the closing credits.
Now there’s a guy I would have gladly watched a whole movie about.
R. At area theaters. Contains intense violence and obscenity. 121 minutes.