Monday, January 22, 2018

12 Strong: Uncle Rico Goes to War

The War in Afghanistan, aka Operation Enduring Freedom, turns 17 this year, making it old enough to see 12 Strong, the new R-rated account of its first battle, without parental supervision. (And it's not the only Afghanistan movie this year - Infinity War comes out this May!).

Just because the actual war might be depressing and pointless doesn't mean the movies it inspires have to be. Our misadventures in Somalia produced maybe the best movie of the genre, Black Hawk Down. The doomed German attempt to assassinate Hitler created another gem in Valkyrie. Any war is going to generate examples of heroic self-sacrifice or, better yet, opportunities for slow-mo battle scenes with shrapnel flying in sync with mournful Gaelic wailing. I'm all about that strife.

Sadly, 12 Strong is not. Despite the tragic source material and the epic demands of the genre, 12 Strong has virtually no interest in the horror of war. I say that not in the preachy way - no one hates self-flagellating anti-war pics like Platoon more than me - but as a connoisseur of the cheap thrills and emotional manipulation of a good horror flick.

Bizarrely, 12 Strong fancies itself as more of a victory lap. And in a war without much in the way of victories, it really has to stretch to keep it going for a whole movie. The exhausting lengths the writers go to make us this set of little mountain skirmishes feel like a huge deal are the closest it comes to epic.

See if you can spot the problems in the (true) story. Fresh off witnessing 9/11, a team of twelve special forces guys, led by Thor as Captain America, are chomping at the bit for justice and vengeance. So they leap at the chance to be embedded as air force spotters for a random Afghani warlord in his campaign to wrest control of an obscure mountain town from a another Afghani warlord. Thanks to a lot of precision bombing, atrocious Taliban aim, and Thor's Rambo on horseback skills, that campaign is wildly successful (and boringly so). That success leads to some hearty self-congratulatory back-patting... and another two decades of inconsequential mountain fighting.

Again, there's much to be said for looking for silver linings in wartorn hellscapes, but trying to pass off a few dull guerrilla exchanges in a barren wasteland as both a deeply meaningful and satisfying response to 9/11 and a sizzle reel of American military might is the dictionary definition of cringeworthy, right next to the picture of Uncle Rico.

For you uncultured brutes, Uncle Rico is the most pathetic and pitiable of all the small-town caricatures in Napoleon Dynamite (which, despite its title, is NOT also about an ill-fated land war in Asia). He's a middle-aged, steak-eating ex-jock who still dreams of a pro football career when he's not selling junk to stay-at-home moms or bullying his nerdy nephews.

Like Uncle Rico, 12 Strong wants to go back to glory days that weren't all that glorious, and thanks to the magic of Hollywood, the time crystals actually work this time. The resulting vision of the good old days is hopelessly lost in delusions of grandeur. No matter the epic trappings, it plays a lot like Uncle Rico's audition tape - some rando in the middle of the nowhere, facing down imaginary competition, prancing, flexing and chucking like a fool.

In the words of Napoleon, this is pretty much the worst video ever made.