Some actors you just like and don’t know why. You’ve only seen them in movies, and yet, for some unfathomable reason, you’re convinced to the core of your being that they’re someone you’d get along with in real life. Hell, if things were different, you might even be friends.
Chris Hemsworth is one of those guys for me. He hasn’t had a particularly distinguished career outside of the Thor films, but he radiates a self-effacing, regular-dude energy that makes him seem very chill. A large part of this appeal is evident when he’s playing Thor: Here’s this movie star who resembles a Norse god, but who keeps slyly undercutting his handsomeness with a dorky sense of humor. He’s the Adonis Next Door you could have a beer with — although being roommates with the guy might be tough:
His new movie, the true-life war drama 12 Strong, seemed like just another earnest, manipulative support-the-troops shoot-‘em-up, but I had a little optimism simply because my pal Chris was in it. If anybody could bring a little lightness to something so potentially stolid, it’s Thor.
Alas, even your best friends sometimes let you down. 12 Strong is nothing more than a perfectly average war film, and its oh-so-serious tone drains Hemsworth of his charm. No doubt he chose the role to prove that he’s more than just a comic-book hero — he wants to flaunt his dramatic bona fides and do some real emoting. But the nicest thing to say about his performance is that I’m already looking forward to Avengers: Infinity War in May. The guy is at his best when he’s not trying so hard.
While we wait for Infinity War, though, let’s dig into 12 Strong a little more. Here are my three takeaways…
#1. Movies Lie: You Cannot Throw a Live Grenade Back at the People Who Threw It at You.
12 Strong takes place in Afghanistan, as Mitch (Hemsworth) and his Special Forces troops take on the Taliban in the wake of 9/11. The movie features a battlefield scene in which the bad guys throw a grenade at Mitch. Thinking quickly, he picks it up and throws it back at them — predictably, right before it explodes.
It’s a tried-and-true movie staple, but I’ve always wondered if it’s possible — i.e., if a grenade is sent your way, do you always have just enough time to hurl it back?
Doing a little research online, this appears to be a myth. More likely, it would just blow up in your hand. (“Assuming a four-second fuse length, two of which are spent in flight, you have just two seconds to notice the grenade, react, reach down, pick it up, plant your feet, lift up and throw it far enough that you’re clear of the blast radius,” explains U.S. Army infantryman Dan Rosenthal.)
All right, well then, what should you do? Rosenthal advises against another war-movie cliché: covering the grenade with your helmet. Essentially, if you’re spending those last remaining seconds trying to move closer to the grenade or placing your helmet over it, you’re (A) putting yourself even more into harm’s way; and (B) depriving yourself of an important piece of body protection. The helmet is there to protect you, not to serve as some magical grenade force field.
#2. All Bad Action Movies Would Be Better If They Were Directed by Michael Bay (Even Though They’d Still Be Bad).
One of the problems with 12 Strong, which was directed by newcomer Nicolai Fuglsig, is that it’s pretty muddled thematically. Part jingoistic drama, part cautionary tale about America’s foolhardy rush into battle after 9/11, it wants to be a politically nuanced war film. While watching this well-meaning but dull film, I kept thinking, “This is why people love Michael Bay.” Sure, his movies are atrocious, but they’re so boldly, magnificently terrible that they’re cathartic and engrossing — often in spite of themselves.
Bay did his own true-story war film a couple years ago, 13 Hours. It wasn’t good either. But unlike 12 Strong, it was never, ever boring. And that’s because Bay isn’t interested in political nuance or anything else so dignified. He just wants to shoot the hell out of every scene — he lives to feverishly squeeze every single drop of spectacle from every moment. (Of course, it helps that the guy is so shamelessly pro-military, happy to advertise the Defense Department’s latest toys in his films. As Philip Strub, the department’s director of entertainment media, said in 2009, “We might say [to Bay], ‘Hey, you’ve never shown an X, Y or a Z.’ We’ll send them information, talk about its role. Or they’ll come back to us and say, ‘We’d like to have a C-17. Or what about an aircraft carrier and some F-18s?’”)
His movies are so passionately rah-rah that there’s a purity to their awfulness. They’re made by a true believer, and his devotion to his own warped worldview can be arresting. 12 Strong could use a little true-blue terribleness. At least then it would be fun.
#3. They Already Made ‘Team America’ — We Don’t Need Movies Like This.
It’s been 14 years since Team America: World Police came out, mocking the nationalism of Hollywood action movies and the callous aggressiveness of America’s foreign policy. Basically, it parodies every “America, fuck yeah” war film that’s come since — yet none of them seem to be aware of the joke. Or, more likely, they don’t care.
12 Strong gives us nondescript Middle Eastern bad guys, including one dark-skinned villain who literally just glares at our heroes from a distance while dressed entirely in black. At the same time, the film features U.S. soldiers earnestly speaking in a foreign tongue to their Afghan cohorts, as if to show just how enlightened our troops are when they’re tromping around overseas. That juxtaposition of xenophobia and feigned cultural sensitivity is laughable. I mean, it’s as if they’re not even aware that this scene exists, rendering their film utterly irrelevant.
Derka derka, indeed.