Film Review: Special Forces

Imagine <i>Saving Private Ryan</i> relocated to Afghanistan and Pakistan and you have the gist of first-time feature filmmaker St&#233;phane Rybojad's actioner about the rescue of a French journalist marked for death by the Taliban.

Kabul, Afghanistan: Elsa Casanova (Diane Kruger) incurs the wrath of powerful, Cambridge-educated Taliban warlord Zaief (Raz Degan) by interviewing his wife, Maina (Morjana Alaoui), who was sold to Zaief's family at the age of 12 to pay off a debt of honor. He retaliates by ordering the kidnapping of Elsa and her local associate, Amin Takharoud (Mehdi Nebbou), who are spirited across the border to Pakistan's notoriously lawless tribal region and imprisoned in the basement of an isolated house.

What Zaief fails to anticipate is just how pissed off the French government is going to be when they find out: Pissed off enough to send a six-man special-forces team commanded by Kovax (Djimon Hounsou), a veteran of rushing in where angels fear to tread and actually coming back out, to get Elsa back. Kovax and his team—an archetypal mix of eager youngsters and grizzled cynics—locate and free Elsa and Amin in no time flat; that's the easy part of the mission. The hard part is reaching the rendezvous point from which they're supposed to be helicoptered out of the country, and the really hard part is switching to plan B when they fail to make it there in time, mostly because there is no plan B.

Though as predictable and formulaic as any American genre picture—if you can't spot the characters who don't have a snowball's chance in hell of surviving, you don't get out to the movies much—Special Forces does have its pleasures, especially if you have a thing for military aircraft: The film's sundry planes and helicopters are shot so lovingly, it verges on the creepy. The largely French cast, which includes such familiar faces as Tcheky Karyo, Benoît Magimel, Raphaël Personnaz, Denis Ménochet and Didier Flamand, is exemplary, and Diane Kruger looks stunning under duress, which is diverting if not entirely convincing. But the film's U.S. commercial prospects are dim, given the widespread American aversion to subtitles, and its formulaic charms are unlikely to impress the art-house crowd.