(On Cable TV, October 2018) Despite Hollywood’s supposedly left-leaning tendencies, it can be counted upon to deliver, year after year, a reliable stream of pro-war statements wrapped in the American flag, family values and unquestioned imperialism. The latest entry in the subgenre is 12 Strong, which heads back to the woolly post-9/11 days when the United States boldly invaded Afghanistan half a world away. Such initial force projection isn’t easy, and so the first boots on the ground belong to Special Forces, leading the charge that more conventional military troops would later follow. Afghanistan is not an easy country to invade, and much of 12 Strong portrays the adaptations of the American soldiers as the CIA sets up factions against each other. Our protagonists eventually take up horses as the only workable transportation in the country, leading to a somewhat surreal scene featuring a 21st-century cavalry charge. Surprisingly enough, 12 Strong ends with everyone making it back home against overwhelming odds, marking a rather pleasant change of pace given the number of movies focusing on recent American military disasters with few survivors. This is not a particularly deep film—there is practically not introspection here about the wisdom of invading other countries, nor about the looming quagmire that would sweep up American (and Canadian!) troops over there for almost two decades. The dramatic arcs of the film play on familiar threads: family, safety, and bonds between men under combat. Only the cavalry aspect of the film distinguishes it from so many other similar efforts. Still, the film is a decently entertaining watch under Nicolai Fuglsig’s direction. It does help that it features terrific actors: in between Chris Hemsworth, Michael Shannon, Michael Pena and William Fichner, the cast is a bit too good for the limited material, but they do give it a dramatic heft. It’s too long for its own good, and even then doesn’t quite manage to flesh out its characterization. But it does come alive in battle scenes, and documents an underappreciated facet of the Afghan invasion. At times, 12 Strong feels like a throwback to the war-is-an-adventure school of filmmaking, but that’s a nice change of pace from the overly ponderous war movies of late.
(On Cable TV, March 2017) I will reluctantly concede a certain audacity in drafting a follow-up to Independence Day twenty years after the first film. In positing a fictional universe advanced by twenty years of international co-operation and repurposed alien technology, Resurgence takes us in relatively new territory as far as alien invasion films are concerned: As much science fictional on the human side as the alien side, rebalancing the usual power dynamics of the situation. Unfortunately, this ends up being largely window-dressing for bigger action sequences: the lunar tripwire gets ripped quickly, and it doesn’t stop a spectacular disaster sequence from picking up Abu Dhabi and dropping it on London (no, really). Twenty years later, advances in special effects technology do look like alien technology to 1996 state-of-the-art, and if Resurgence definitely has something going for it, it’s the quality of its special effects. As anyone would have anticipated, however, this doesn’t necessarily mean that the rest of the film is as good. While the script does acknowledge its own absurdity (“They do go for landmarks”, says Jeff Goldblum as famous monuments are destroyed), it doesn’t quite manage to build an interesting cast of characters, nor take us on a steadily engrossing adventure. In fact, the fan-service calling back the first movie does get annoying at time, hampering the film from managing something better than another battle on the desert flats. Among the cast, Jeff Goldblum is very enjoyable as an older but just as cynical version of his character in the first film, William Fichtner is exactly what’s needed as a solid military figure, Maika Monroe almost makes us forget that she’s taking over Mae Whitman’s role. Will Smith is sorely missed, with no one quite managing to step up as a replacement. As a catastrophe movie, the large-scale destruction is what director Roland Emmerich usually does best, and so Resurgence at least delivers on those expectations. Still, it does have enough promising elements to be disappointing in the way it puts them all together. There may or may not be another sequel, but the movie works hard at ensuring that we wouldn’t care one way or the other.