For a re­view of “12 Strong,”

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If you’re do­ing your job right in the U. S. Spe­cial Forces, it likely means no one will ever know. It’s a tough, elite and highly clas­si­fied po­si­tion, where acts of in­cred­i­ble hero­ism never get the ticker tape pa­rade, and that’s kind of the point. These sol­diers are sup­posed to slip into and out of se­cret mis­sions without mak­ing the evening news. “12 Strong” tells just one of those ex­tra­or­di­nary sto­ries, fought in the moun­tains of Afghanistan in the win­ter of 2001.

The film is based on Doug Stan­ton’s book “Horse Sol­diers,” which de­scribes one of the ways a spe­cial forces team adapted to the rugged land­scape of Afghanistan— on horse­back, like the Afghani war­riors with whom they em­bed­ded — while bat­tling the Tal­iban in the shad­owof 9/ 11.

Di­rected by Dan­ish pho­to­jour­nal­ist Ni­co­lai Fugl sig, with a brisk, ef­fi­cient script by “Si­lence of the Lambs” screen­writer Ted Tally and “The Town” screen­writer Peter Craig, “12 Strong” un­folds as a pro­ce­dural, tak­ing pro­to­col and bu­reau­cracy swiftly in stride. The men sim­ply ex­e­cute the mis­sion. They don’t ask too many ques­tions, and they train their minds on per­sonal vendet­tas and the rea­sons they have to go home.

Chris Hemsworth stars as Mitch Nel­son, a high­ly­trained new captain who’s never seen war. He im­presses the higher- ups enough to send his team, Task Force Dag­ger, to em­bed with the Afghani Gen­eral Dos­tum ( Navid Ne­gah­ban), who’s been fight­ing the Tal­iban as part of the North­ern Al­liance. The task is to call in airstrikes on the Tal­iban, while fight­ing through an un­for­giv­ing ter­ri­tory. Nel­son prom­ises he can do it in three weeks with 12 men, which would re­quire an enor­mous amount of trust, good­will and gen­eros­ity on the part of Dos­tum.

The two make an in­ter­est­ing and even­tu­ally in­sep­a­ra­ble pair. Dos­tum, who started fight­ing the Rus­sians at age 16, is the ag­ing lion, who de­clares the young up­start Nel­son doesn’t have “killer’s eyes.” The fun­da­men­tal dif­fer­ence be­tween the two men? Nel­son’s men are fight­ing for what they have on earth, fear­ful of death, while Dos­tum’s peo­ple fight for their re­wards in heaven, will­ing to em­brace death, be­cause their sit­u­a­tion on earth is pretty hellish as is.

Fugl sig brings an eye for sys­tems and detail to the film, but this is a Jerry Bruck­heimer pro­duc­tion af­ter all, and he never skimps on the bom­bas­tic py­rotech­nics. The blis­ter­ing fire­fights are in­creas­ingly brutal to the point of numb­ness. “12 Strong,” which is some­times a pro­found philo­soph­i­cal and ex­is­ten­tial ex­am­i­na­tion of what it means to fight for some­thing, is also a fe­ro­ciously ac­tion- packed war film. The de­tails of the who, where and what of­ten get lost and mud­dled in the thun­der­ing ex­plo­sions.

While it fo­cuses on the per­sonal rea­sons to go to war, it doesn’t truly in­ter­ro­gate the larger ones. We’re given mo­ti­va­tion to hate the Tal­iban with that tired screen­writ­ing trope, a per­func­tory scene of vi­o­lence against women, which is to jus­tify the airstrikes the Amer­i­cans call in again and again. The only sly po­lit­i­cal com­men­tary are a few cracks about how short they ex­pect the war to be, and a few warn­ings about na­tions who have come be­fore.

It never delves deep enough to ex­am­ine the larger in­volve­ment of the U. S. and those ram­i­fi­ca­tions, but “12 Strong” man­ages to in­fuse heart and char­ac­ter into this adren­a­line- fu­eled war film, ex­plor­ing how and why men fight.

“12 Strong,” a Warner Bros. En­ter­tain­ment re­lease, is rated R for war vi­o­lence and lan­guage through­out. Run­ning time: 130 min­utes. ½

“The Polka King”

Play­ing con artists seems to bring out the best in Jack Black.

As a schem­ing mu­sic teacher in “School of Rock” and an in­creas­ingly des­per­ate ma­nip­u­la­tor in “Bernie,” he didn’t just give his two most dis­tinc­tive screen per­for­mances: Stam­mer­ing and im­pro­vis­ing and hus­tling his way from one merry false­hood to the next, he turned de­cep­tion into a kind of ir­re­sistible mad­cap art. An­other ac­tor might have tried too hard to win us over, but Black never seems to be strain­ing for the au­di­ence’s ap­proval. We’re al­ready in his pocket fromthe get- go.

There’s some of that fa­mil­iar Jack Black ebul­lience in “The Polka King,” his lat­est rol­lick­ing fa­ble about a lov­able fraud pur­su­ing his own warped vi­sion of the Amer­i­can Dream. This one was di­rected by Maya Forbes, who made a win­ning fea­ture de­but with the semi- au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal “In­fin­itely Po­lar Bear” ( 2014).

For her fol­low- up, Forbes has turned to a true story of a less per­sonal, more out­ra­geous sort, trac­ing the mod­est rise and steep fall of Jan Lewan ( Black), a Pol­ish emi­gre and polka band leader who charmed many with his mu­sic but didn’t make his for­tune un­til he started scam­ming his un­sus­pect­ing fans.

“This re­ally hap­pened,” we’re told at the top, a guar­an­tor of au­then­tic­ity that may bring “Amer­i­can Hus­tle” and other ex­er­cises in cin­e­matic truthi­ness to mind. When we first meet him in 1990, Jan ( Black), who an­swers to both “Jan” and “Yan,” is an ir­re­press­ible per­former and an end­lessly good- na­tured father, hus­band and busi­ness­man who lives in Ha­zle­ton, Penn., with his loving wife, Marla ( Jenny Slate), and their son, David ( later played as a teenager by Robert Capron).

Marla, a for­mer teenage beauty queen, tries to sup­port her hus­band de­spite the with­er­ing crit­i­cisms from her mother, Barb ( a sen­sa­tional Jacki Weaver), who never stops grous­ing about Jan’s in­abil­ity to make a de­cent liv­ing. His band’s reg­u­lar gigs, while lively and col­or­ful ( Vanessa Bayer as a danc­ing bear!), earn next to noth­ing, and nei­ther his gift shop full of hideous polka themed tchotchkes nor his reg­u­lar pizza de­liv­ery runs have done much to bol­ster the Lewan fam­ily sav­ings.

Only Barb seems sus­pi­cious when Jan be­gins col­lect­ing “in­vest­ments” from his loyal fans, pock­et­ing sev­eral thou­sands of dol­lars at a time and promis­ing an 12 per­cent in­ter­est ( which he pulls, nat­u­rally, from the funds of fu­ture in­vestors). When the govern­ment in­forms him he’s run­ning a Ponzi scheme and or­ders him to re­turn the money, Jan is al­ready in far too deep to turn back, es­pe­cially when his fans want to up their in­vest­ments.

Ad­mit­tedly, that cash flow en­sures at least a few stun­ning re­wards, for the au­di­ence aswell as those pony­ing up. Jan’s most gen­er­ous pa­trons get to en­joy his “Pre­mium Pope Pack­age,” a trip to Rome for a pri­vate au­di­ence with the pope. It’s an episode that plays out so strangely and with so lit­tle ex­pla­na­tion, you sus­pect it has to be true. For a while Jan is riding high— his band even scores a Grammy nom­i­na­tion — but his luck is doomed to run out even­tu­ally, and in this fleet 95- minute fea­ture the clock starts tick­ing early.

Adapted by Forbes and Wal­lace Wolo­darsky from the 2009 doc­u­men­tary “The Man Who Would Be Polka King,” “The Polka King” doesn’t have the daz­zling am­bi­tion or en­ergy of a great grifter clas­sic. In­stead she seems in­tent on nail­ing the de­tails, on re­al­iz­ing Jan’s mi­lieu in all its tacky splen­dor, and trust­ing that our at­ten­tion will fol­low. As in “In­fin­itely Po­lar Bear,” Forbes has a gift for let­ting her pro­duc­tion de­sign tell the story.

That eye for detail ex­tends to the per­for­mances, which ring true across a wide ar­ray of out­sized ac­cents and bois­ter­ous act­ing styles. Ja­son Schwartz­man does a mem­o­rably Eey­ore act as a polka clar­inetist named “Mickey Piz­zazz,” as he rechris­tens him­self when Jan starts mak­ing it big. And Slate, of “Land­line” and “Ob­vi­ous Child” fame, has some of the pic­ture’s most sur­pris­ing mo­ments as Jan’s long- suf­fer­ing polka queen Marla, who loves her hus­band but even­tu­ally grows weary of ne­glect­ing her own needs and de­sires.

Black’s out­sized en­ergy all but en­sures a smile on your face, even through the twisty, some­what grisly de­tails of Jan’s down­fall. But in Marla you see the truth of this story, if only for a mo­ment, for the tragedy it was.


Jack Black stars in the Net­flix film “The Polka King.”

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