Good military thrillers are hard-to-find, and that’s probably because the field of cinema has long cultivated lesser soldier pictures masquerading as something bigger or grander than what they truly are. For example, a reviewer for the Hollywood Reporter draws a light comparison to the Rambo films (“a body count that rivals any of the Rambo films”), and, to be honest, I think that does a disservice to SPECIAL FORCES as well as it does Rambo. Rambo is clearly a fictional creation; sure, he’s entertaining and a crowd-pleaser, but the men who make up true-life Special Forces teams have very little in common with and how Rambo goes about his job. Rambo is bigger-than-life. He’s over-the-top. Real soldiers lie low much of the time, and they only rush into combat when either ordered or find it absolutely necessary.
It’s a fine-line distinction, but it’s one that should be made when discussing competent military thrillers like SPECIAL FORCES.
(NOTE: The following review may contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and character. If you’re the kind of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to the last two paragraphs for my final assessment. If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
Elsa Casanova (played by the lovely Diane Kruger) is a war correspondent caught behind enemy lines in Afghanistan when she’s taken hostage over some very unflattering pieces involving a local Taliban chieftain. Her captors take her deep into their Pakistan-stronghold, and the French call in a squad of Special Forces led by Kovax (Djimon Hounsou) to rescue her. A botched helicopter extraction leaves her and the soldiers with only one grim option: to brave this wild frontier on foot, trek across the mountains, and hope for friendly aide in Afghanistan!
To its credit, SPECIAL FORCES is a smartly made military thriller. There’s a political undercurrent, as well, that for the most part supports the primary plot of good soldiers doing a dirty job, but the politics of the film put so much of the story in jeopardy. For example, the Taliban chieftain would appear to be exactly what the Taliban would want from a leader (he’s ruthless, forcing Elsa to watch helplessly while they strangle a man to death in front of her), but we quickly learn that the man lacks the respect of the local Taliban elders. There’s an interesting parallel running through the motion picture about how the press apparently doesn’t respect the French government or its military, but, in the end, we pretty much find out that it’s all been done for the sake of ‘character development.’ Unfortunately, there’s no way to make sense of what director Stephane Rybojad was trying to saw about the world and these people, but I’ve no doubt Stephane thought it was all pretty high-brow.
Those quibbles aside, a large portion of the rest of SPECIAL FORCES is extremely well shot, expertly choreographed, and quite thrilling. The rescue goes mostly textbook, but the extraction leaves these folks stranded behind enemy lines and needing to salvage a botched operation. As soldiers would, they comprise their own ‘game plan,’ which leads to some solid action for fans of this genre. The last quarter (or so) of the film veers into some pretty dire circumstances for all involved, and, while I’d no doubt this is the story Rybojad wanted to tell, it’s all pretty downright depressing for my tastes. Kudos for opting for realism, but, if it’s realism you want, then I’d seriously question the logic of the skinny blonde waif with no body fat lasting as long as she did.
SPECIAL FORCES is produced by Easy Company, Studio Canal, Canal+, TPS Star, Banque Postale Image 4, A Plus Image 2, and Sofica Manon. DVD distribution is being handled through Entertainment One (E One). For those who might be wondering, this is ‘technically’ listed as a French-language film which is a bit of a misnomer: yes, there’s a wealth of French spoken in there, but there’s an awful lot of English, as well. There is an English-dubbing track (2.0 only) available, if you don’t want any French; I watched it in French with sub-titles, and I was surprised how much English there was. As for the technical specifications, it looks and sounds magnificent – very clear and crisp images, excellent sound mix, and there’s some wonderful John-Ford-esque vistas throughout the film. As for the special features, there’s a handful of deleted scenes (nothing grand) and a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it three minutes feature on a real-life Special Forces soldier who participated briefly as a character in the film. (My press materials indicates that the Blu-ray release includes an additional ‘making of’ featurette.)
RECOMMENDED. Look, I love my patriotism just as much as the next patriot, but SPECIAL FORCES ain’t no recruiting video for the French that’s for sure. Also, it ain’t any work any miracles for Pakistan’s tourism business. It’s a well-made, well-constructed military/political thriller for about 80% of the time, which ain’t bad. However, its politics are all over the map (Are the Taliban bad guys? Are they good guys? Are they just misunderstood? Or is it the press who are our bad guys?), and the lack of a coherent message (not the story, which is all well and good) slows the picture down a bit. It’s full of good performances and some very curious editing (way too many meaningless dissolves), but the script could’ve used a rescue mission itself in the last 30 minutes.
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at Entertainment One (E One) provided me with a DVD screener copy of SPECIAL FORCES for the expressed purposes of completing this review.