Remember last year’s The Way Back, starring Colin Farrell, Jim Sturgess, Ed Harris and rising Hanna star Saoirse Ronan, where Siberian gulag escapees seem to walk half the planet to reach a safe destination, and defy all of nature’s odds? Well, writer-director Stéphane Rybojad’s new French action drama Special Forces feels much the same, only swapping Siberia for the unforgiving terrain of Pakistan and Afghanistan, with the Taliban in hot pursuit. If ever there was a recruitment advert for the military might of France, it’s this.
Diane Kruger (Inglourious Basterds) plays Elsa, a determined journalist after the inside scoop in Afghanistan, who is kidnapped by the Taliban and on course to die at their hands. In fly the French ‘special forces’, an elite bunch of six commandos, armed to the teeth and with a no-holds-barred ticket to rescue her. After successfully doing so, they miss their rendezvous point and have to form their own plan of escape and survival to bring her to safety.
Much of Rybojad’s film plays out like a gun-ho video combat game that turns into a nature adventure programme. But with its infectious French swagger – heightened by the unflustered determination of Commander Guezennec, played by international cinema heavyweight Tchéky Karyo, and the bravado of our six hero rescuers on the way to their mission who “love their job”, it’s highly entertaining and even humorous at times (considering the subject matter). Rybojad’s glorification of mighty firepower is mostly set against an over-the-top, pumping techno tracks with slow-mo action and death-defying moves, all designed to place us firmly on the side of the elite killing team.
With all-masculine names like Kovax (Blood Diamond’s Djimon Hounsou), Tic-Tac (Benoît Magimel), Lucas (Denis Menochet), Elias (Raphaël Personnaz), Victor (Alain Figlarz) and Marius (Alain Alivon), we’re given salt-of-the-earth, testosterone-fuelled and committed men who start out as one camouflaged force, but who develop personalities along the way as the story alters from war film to survival mission among the stunning but cruel terrain. The great performances from Kruger and the boys give the desired impression of unfaltering unity as the stakes get higher (making you earn for a blast of Bonnie Tyler’s “Holding Out For A Hero” at times), resulting in the grand end scenes managing to tug a few heartstrings and get a few cheers. There are the inevitable clichéd and groan-inducing moments at humanitarian attempts, but such theatrics within a gallant French film production are carried off without much adversity.
Rybojad’s tale does suffer from the inevitable, overly lengthy moments, though, as he tries to stuff his visuals with even more breathtaking landscapes – like a Gallic Peter Weir. The pursuit scenes and subsequent defence ones begin to drag a little, and even Taliban chief Zaief, played (ironically) by striking-looking Israeli actor Raz Degan, and his men begin to look a little weary after their cross-country marathon. Degan is incredibly charismatic in the role, a mixture of intelligence and brewing danger, but who comes to a less than satisfactory conclusion, which renders the previous padded scenes fairly redundant. It is certainly at this point that you know Rybojad’s primary aim is to unify all sides by suggesting that man’s biggest enemy is nature itself.
Special Forces has an amusing, arrogant French Rambo-esque appeal to it that paints an uncompromising and lengthy black-and-white picture of the Afghanistan issue. Amongst the killing and body count is the contrary desire to end the conflict and heal the wounds. In this sense, it is a film you can get behind in its end goal. With an attractive international cast in tow, it should translate well for global audiences – and beguile the viewer at the locations’ magnificent beauty, while banging the drum for “vive la France.”