For a review of “12 Strong,”
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.”