A small elite French Special Forces unit is sent to Afghanistan to rescue a French journalist from the clutches of the Taliban and, though the crack team swiftly secures her release, the marines’ escape rendezvous is wrecked due to a broken radio transmitter, forcing them over the forbidding Hindu Kush mountains whilst pursued by a horde of Taliban fanatics.
If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then Hollywood should be very pleased to see a French filmmaker engaged in such a faithful reproduction of their search-and-rescue action films. Cineastes hoping for a more considered appraisal of French foreign military conduct in Afghanistan or for some poetic treatment of barracks life as in Claire Denis’s Beau du Travail (1999) or simply a skilfully directed combat drama such as Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker (2008) will, however, be disappointed by Rybojad’s conventional action movie, which abandons the few not insignificant ethical issues that it raises in favour of a fast-paced, seldom competently handled action film, which conforms to all the usual stereotypes and generic conventions.
Its western heroes, a unit which has been together since at least the Balkan war – the opening scene in which they are seen penetrating the hideout of an Arkan-like warlord establishes both their military expertise and moral commitment – include familiar character types: the quiet but authoritative commander, the troubled soldier who is unaware that his wife is pregnant, the clown, the romeo, the new recruit etc. Ready to move into any hotspot, they offer a tight and functional team, committed to obeying directives immediately and without complaint. An early scene seeks to demonstrate that these men have lives outside the military – albeit mainly with each other.
Rybojad’s intention, presumably, is to remind us that even commandos have wives and children and enjoy barbecues and to emphasise that they are ever ready to abandon these for the greater good. That the rescue target is Elsa Casanova, a liberal journalist (Diane Kruger), whose articles have criticised the French military is an irony that should have been developed as a much greater dilemma than is in fact the case. Doubts about France’s foreign policy may be voiced by Casanova with the intention of acknowledging the considerable domestic hostility to French military involvement in Afghanistan (and elsewhere) but this potential predicament is crudely handled. The journalist’s opinion of the military is soon revealed to be not just erroneous but irrational. How can anyone doubt men so gallant, so noble in their cause, so selfless and fearless in the face of adversity? Casanova the journalist even falls for the marines’ Casanova, despite the perilous escape across hostile terrain.
Where Rybojad’s portrayal of the men is strangely old-fashioned (even in Hollywood films such narratives have long since included at least one flawed, though often redeemable figure or offered a more nuanced portrait of the adversary), his depiction of the military hardware is both a celebration and fetishisation of technological supremacy. Arc shots revolve and dip and rise around choppers, planes and naval boats; canons gleam, automatic weapons are shown in close-up offering one of the longest recruitment promos for the French armed services and indeed for French foreign policy (non-intervention is clearly not an issue, as the soldiers’ return to protect some vulnerable villagers from the Taliban proves). While Hollywood often introduces some tension between those in the offices and those on the ground, Rybojad’s film presents a fantasy world in which politicians, generals and naval captains operate in concert in order to facilitate the safe return of their citizens – both loyal servants and sceptical critics. That they are right to do so is never in question. Confronted by an enemy as uncompromising and murderous as the Taliban makes their response a moral obligation. There is a brief acknowledgment of the Taliban hierarchy but, for the most part, Rybojad’s film presents its Taliban villains as screaming fanatics who fall in great numbers as they chase the dwindling group of French soldiers. Only their commander, Ahmed Zaief (Raz Degan), is given any real dialogue. Zaief is a wonderfully overcoded figure, a strange composite of Osama bin Laden and Captain Jack Sparrow, a brooding figure who, as with so many film villains before him, is a cultured, well-educated (seven years at Cambridge?) psychopath rather than a religious zealot.
The reception to the film in France has not, it would be fair to say, been favourable. Nor would it be fair to recommend Special Forces to readers of this website.