Special Forces ***

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.”

3/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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The Way Back – 3*

With highly respected film-maker Peter Weir (Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World) behind a new adventure, you know you are in for a visually stunning treat, born of meticulous planning and hard graft to get it factually right. The Way Back is no exception to the Weir catalogue of cinematic triumphs, a sumptuous film adaptation based on the equally fascinating true story of a 4,500-mile trek against nature’s odds by seven escaped prisoners from Stalin’s Siberian Gulag in 1940.

Weir spares no expense in the grand scheme of things, whilst managing to convey the intricate personal stories of all his characters, played by an intriguing variety of acting talent. Jim Sturgess is Janusz, a polish national who falls foul of Stalin’s ideals, opposite Colin Farrell as the dangerous and blade-obsessed street criminal Valka. Ed Harris is American prisoner Mr. Smith, a man of few words, alongside the only female lead in the film, The Lovely Bones star Saoirse Ronan as runaway Polish orphan Irena. Harris and Ronan develop a convincingly tender father-daughter relationship, in the midst of the harshest of living conditions – both on and off set – that makes Weir’s film even more compelling, as Irena unlocks each man’s inner personality.

Indeed, the four leads deliver some exceptional performances, and some of the best of their respective careers, which is hardly surprising, given the rich subject matter and history at their disposal. In fact, this is an enlightening history lesson with lots of danger and action on its own about a period that’s often overlooked in the classroom, in favour of Nazi domination in mainland Europe at the time. Therefore, it can be argued that it’s hard to detract your feelings about the then-realities, from whether or not this is a good film.

As journeys on film go – and there haven’t been many epic ones, the likes of Lawrence of Arabia or Out of Africa in decades, unless you count Australia by Weir’s countryman Luhrmann, The Way Back is one that sounds incredulous, had it not been based on truth. This entanglement of truth and fiction shows the power of Weir’s storytelling skill, as well as his commendable casting.

Admittedly, the lead performances are strong on their own, but are helped by an excellent supporting cast of foreign actors that provide some of the lighter moments in the film; Romanian Alexandru Potocean is wise-cracking accountant, Tomasz who likens eating snake to eating a “big black poisonous chicken with no legs”. Weir nicely balances these very detailed human exchanges in the face of adversity with the wider ones, to avoid pretension and possible tedium. However, as with such a film, it does suffer from flatter moments, as you wait for the next thing thrown at the group, even with yet another breathtaking panoramic wide to feast on.

Weir fans will not be disappointed, though, and fans of the cast members will be equally impressed, too. This is solid, old-school epic film-making that is deeply affecting with its captivating human spirit, and makes for a welcome break from the incessant 3D out there.

3/5 stars

By L G-K