One popular image of Americans on the global stage is that of violent military power, and it’s hardly one that we, as a culture, make much effort to disavow. However, testosterone-driven, halfheartedly-plotted glorifications like Act of Valor are not our exclusive province, as is proven by Forces spéciales — subtitled in English as Special Forces. That said, it does put the lie to the old line about “cheese-eating surrender monkeys”.
After a quick illustration of the commandos marine squad’s skills, we are dumped into the story of a French journalist, Elsa Casanova (Diane Kruger), who has been kidnapped from Kabul — along with her friend Amen (Mehdi Nebbou) — by Taliban warlord Zaief (Raz Degan) and whiskd away to a house in the wilderness of Pakistan, outside Peshawar. There are some random stabs at characterization, and the squad is send in to rescue her.
They are led by Kovax (Djimon Hounsou) and his second, Lucas (Denis Menochet). There’s the hardass, Marius (Alain Alivon); the wild man, Victor (Alain Figlarz); the fun-lover, Tic-Tac (Benoît Magimel); and the new kid, Elias (Raphaël Personnaz). That’s about all you get in terms of who they are.
The rescue is straightforward, with a minimum of drama, but Zaief mobilizes more faceless Pashtuns than they’d expected and their rendezvous with the helicopters is spoiled. Their only remaining recourse is to hike up and over the Hindu Kush into Afghanistan.
And it’s at this point that the movie transforms itself into a weak imitation of The Way Back, with the added complication of Zaief still on the squad’s tail, desperate not to lose face over the escape of his captive.
The whole movie is composed almost exclusively of clichés. Victor blares his tagline: “I love this job”; Kovax is distraught over the idea of leaving any fallen comrades behind; he and Lucas argue over what is “right” versus what is practical. Even the style is overdone, from the nauseatingly wild swinging of the camera during the heaviest action to the obligatory parachute scene to the people standing on a mountain ridge, filmed from a helicopter circling overhead. Lots of that last one. So many circling helicopter shots.
It may be true that, when on a mission, questions of right and wrong are simplified into those of survival, but things quickly get a lot hazier once you leave that context. Forces spéciales is slightly more thematically ambitious than Act of Valor — not that this is a high bar to clear — but it’s clearly out of its depth when considering topics of any substance.
The world that writer/director Stéphane Rybojad presents is black and white; good and evil. He does get minimal credit, though, for absolving the general Pakistani population of the blame; only the faceless Taliban horde are actually painted as evil. But either there are no puppies between Peshawar and the Khyber pass or Zaief has already finished kicking them all before the story begins.
The only two worthwhile messages are not contained in the movie itself, but more about what its existence tells us. First: despite the post-9/11 jingoistic talking point, the French can swing their military manhoods around with the best American soldiers. And second: French action movies can be just as hackneyed and insipid as the worst American offerings.
Worth It: no.
Bechdel Test: fail.