You wouldn't think anyone could make a feel-good entertainment about the War in Afghanistan, still raging after nearly 17 years. But blockbuster producer Jerry Bruckheimer isn't just anyone, and so we have 12 Strong, a demolition-heavy drama about the first Special Forces team sent to Afghanistan in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. Directed by Nicolai Fuglsig, it's an earnest, unapologetically worshipful true-life tale, and one that's duly respectful to American troops, their families, and the Afghan citizens under Taliban rule. Yet when Michael Shannon, as Chief Warrant Officer Hal Spencer, told his captain that their mission “is about being smart, not superhuman,” I think the sentiment may have been more believable if that captain weren't played by Thor, and if one of their fellow troops weren't played by the best friend to Ant-Man.
This isn't meant to undermine the solid performances of Chris Hemsworth and Michael Peña, whose presences among the film's brave unit of “Horse Soldiers” feel both welcome and kind of inevitable. 12 Strong, however, isn't The Hurt Locker, and it isn't even Michael Bay's underrated Benghazi thriller 13 Hours from a couple years back. It's a Bruckheimer-produced action flick to its marrow, determinedly apolitical and designed to get audiences cheering our American warriors and detesting the Taliban through the most simplistic, albeit effective, means possible.
There's a lot of strong material here involving the soldiers' problem-solving skills amidst unfamiliar terrain, and while the combat sequences eventually feel sadly (and perhaps accurately) repetitive, they're pulled off with arresting force. But I didn't really need the scene of a Taliban leader emotionally terrorizing a trio of weeping girls, followed by a brutal gunshot to their teacher's head, to be reminded that the Taliban is awful, nor did I need the entire terrorist sect to be embodied by one scowling psychopath (Numan Acar) who basically serves as this movie's Ultron. I didn't need the script's parade of overtly on-the-nose bromides – “The only way home is winning” being the most poster-ready example – nor quite so much self-congratulation on part of the troops. (There can be no doubt it's true when Shannon's Spencer remarks of the military, “It's a hell of a thing we do” – but couldn't someone else have said it?)
And although I quite enjoyed Navid Negahban's performance as a Uzbek warlord on the side of the Americans, I'm not sure it was necessary to give him quite so many pronouncements along the lines of “You will be cowards if you leave and enemies if you stay,” nor the pandering, Schwarzenneger-esque quip he delivers right before planting a bullet in an enemy's skull. In truth, I would've traded all of the film's Bruckheimer-y incident and speechifying for just a few more minutes of Trevante Rhodes' kinship with his young Afghan tag-along, or a few more mean jokes cracked when Spencer's attempt to ride a horse results in a slipped disc. For better and worse, 12 Strong knows how to give its audience what it presumably wants. I wish, like some of its genre forebears, it had spent more time giving us what we didn't even know we wanted.
DEN OF THIEVES
At one point in her 2011 book Bossypants, Tina Fey imagines writing a romantic comedy that features “Gerard Butler or a coat rack with a leather jacket on it.” Well, the leather-jacketed Butler has returned in the heist thriller Den of Thieves, and in all honesty, I would have preferred the coat rack. I know he gets cast as a lot of tough guys, but is it too much to ask that Butler, just once, not emerge as the least pleasant person in sight? Writer/director Christian Gudegast's outing finds the star playing L.A. cop “Big Nick” Flanagan, a bad-ass loose cannon recruited to foil the latest in a series of armed robberies, and the character name is likely where Butler's research ended, given that he plays the role exactly the way you expect him to. He barks profanities. He smokes. He chomps gum. He chews with his mouth open. He slurps coffee and wine. He grimaces. He speaks in that uniquely Butler-ian attempt at an American accent. And when this growling lummox isn't berating perps with homophobic slurs or lounging around strip clubs or making a general spectacle of himself, what does Butler do? He goes shopping … for leather jackets.
The top-billed Butler should have been more than enough – especially given the movie's absurd two-hour-and-20-minute running length – to make his latest positively unendurable. Consequently, I'm less surprised than astounded that the film winds up being pretty good, at least if you can overlook the bullying annoyance at its center. Co-written by Paul Scheuring, the chief narrative involving the potential robbery of $30 million from L.A.'s Federal Reserve Bank is unusually twisty for its genre, and filled with details both clever and supremely enjoyable. (I, for one, never expected the heist plot to be so contingent on professional friendliness and the timely arrival of Chinese takeout.) Composer Cliff Martinez contributes an edgy score to accompany Joel Cox's cannily edited images, and in addition to the truly nerve-racking heist, Gudegast stages his action sequences – particularly a violent shoot-out in stopped rush-hour traffic – with energy and verve. Best of all, every performer who isn't Gerard Butler is pretty damned good, from Pablo Schreiber (who emerges as malevolent yet deeply intelligent) to O'Shea Jackson to rapper 50 Cent, who's the centerpiece of what is easily Den of Thieves' most rewarding scene. In it, he and some equally buff allies meet and gently intimidate his daughter's date right before prom, and after the terrified kid makes his escape, the goons' hearty cackles were equal to the laughs heard in my auditorium – who could've imagined that this testosterone-fest would find room for an encounter this funny and, in its way, offhandedly sweet? For a few brief minutes, you find yourself wholly rooting for the bank robbers, which is more empathy than you'll ever feel for the bearded blowhard hired to put them away.
CALL ME BY YOUR NAME
Collectively, I'd like to think that audiences are past the point of being shocked and outraged by the sight of same-sex characters embracing and kissing in movies. To be sure, my audience for the first Saturday-afternoon screening of Call Me by Your Name at Iowa City's FilmScene was past this point – why else would they be there? Ever since its debut at last January's Sundance Film Festival, director Luca Guadagnino's lush, affecting drama about the summertime romance between 17-year-old Elio (Timothée Chalamet) and 24-year-old Oliver (Armie Hammer) has been praised for its sensitive handling of the leads' initially tentative relationship, and my crowd – a nearly sold-out one – appeared just as beguiled by this Oscar hopeful as its many enraptured critics. But even though frontal male nudity is absent and the sex is merely implied or takes place out of camera range, hoo-boy was this thing shocking, because when have we ever seen same-sex screen partners go at each other this ravenously before? (And no: Porn does not count.)
Based on the André Aciman novel and set, as an opening title card informs us, “somewhere in northern Italy” in the summer of 1983, most of the film finds Elio and graduate student Oliver – the latter a house guest of, and research assistant to, Elio's father (Michael Stuhlbarg) – dancing around their mutual attraction through sideways glances, innocuous conversation, long bike rides, and brief affairs with local girls. But Guadagnino adds teasing hints of eroticism to all of their chaste encounters and sun-drenched surroundings, and by the time Elio's and Oliver's mutual passion is declared and released, forget about chaste – these two are hungry. True romantic and sexual heat between screen co-stars has become so rare that witnessing it again feels both exciting and oddly liberating, and Chalamet and Hammer, in a pair of remarkably confident and bighearted performances, make you feel their characters' aching need with divine clarity and irrepressible joy. (Being a romantic drama as opposed to a romantic comedy, however, that joy inevitably can't last.) Call Me by Your Name is a film of many memorable pleasures: composer Sufjan Stevens' cascading score and haunting love songs; Stuhlbarg's tender, incisive delivery of James Ivory's beautifully written climactic monologue; Chalamet's unexpectedly nimble piano talents, or at least piano fakery; the family conversations that breezily blend English, Italian, and French; Armie freakin' Hammer. (The opening credits are delivered next to images of sculptures depicting perfect male torsos, and watching Hammer in his open shirt and cargo shorts, you think, yeah, he could be one of those guys.) But nothing about this gorgeous, graceful adaptation may be more satisfying than its leads' unquestionable rapport; when their too-short summer ends, you might find yourself as wordlessly devastated as Elio and Oliver themselves.
FOREVER MY GIRL
In the romantic drama Forever My Girl, a three-minute country song grotesquely extended to an hour and 45 minutes, a charming young gal (Jessica Rothe's Josie) is left at the altar by her high-school sweetheart Liam (Alex Roe), an up-and-coming singer/songwriter with a catchy radio hit. Eight years later, upon learning of his best friend's death, Liam – now a country-music superstar and tabloid fixture – returns to his hometown hoping to make amends with Josie and his pastor father (John Benjamin Hickey), and to meet the seven-year-old daughter he never knew he had. Explaining his decision to abandon Josie and his pop, Liam says, “I was young and dumb.” You might think Josie, Dad, and the kid would consequently treat Liam's return with some choice profanities, but no – after some mild tough love and a satisfying punch to the gut, they instead welcome him back to the fold, teaching him to be a respectable son, father, and potential lover. To some viewers, this is likely a touching tale of redemption. To the rest of us, it's an offensive piece of crap.
Performance-wise, Forever My Girl isn't bad. Rothe (excellent in the fall surprise Happy Death Day) is a consistently appealing presence, Hickey manages to turn his corn into a half-nourishing meal, and British actor Roe is mildly convincing as a country star, if not necessarily as a recognizable human being. But in order for the movie to work for you, you'll have to ignore about a dozen lingering questions: “Why is there no talk of lawsuits against Liam given those amphitheater cancellations?” “Why doesn't Liam know how the Internet works?” “Why is no one mentioning that Liam's problem isn't that he was young and dumb, but that he's an unstable alcoholic?” (My favorite of the movie's cheats comes when Dad is bandaging his son and telling him, “I can't believe you smashed your hand through that bar mirror” – an act of drunken self-hatred we're not allowed to witness.) You'll have to accept some truly jaw-dropping contrivances, such as the fact that not one citizen of Liam's town decided to alert the media to the nascent star's prenuptial cold feet. (“We're a big family” says Josie of the local loyalty, but no family is that loyal.) And, unfortunately, you'll have to agree that the movie's ending is indeed a happy one, with the seemingly level-headed Josie enraptured by all the trappings of success that her circumstances should make her loathe, and Liam using his unbearably precocious, guitar-prodigy child as a prop for sold-out concerts. At the end of Forever My Girl, I felt that these family members totally deserved each other.