Special Forces is a new action-war film about a band of French soldiers who are dropped behind enemy lines during a routine rescue mission in Pakistan. It isn’t long before everything goes wrong, but should we care?
Diane Kruger is Elsa Casanova, a well-known French journalist, who is writing reports on the ill treatment of women in Afghanistan. After one of her articles attacks fundamentalist Ahmed Zaef (Raz Degan), he orchestrates her kidnapping and announces to the world that he is going to put her to death.
This causes a storm in France and a band of Special Forces are enlisted to rescue Elsa, who Zaef has hidden in the remote tribal areas of Pakistan. This band is led by Kovax (Djimon Hounsou), a tough and determined soldier. The other two of note are Lucas (Denis Menochet, who was really rather good in Inglourious Basterds) and Tic-Tac (Benoît Magimel).
The rescue seems to go off without a problem, until the company’s radio equipment gets destroyed and they find themselves stranded in Pakistan, constantly being chased by an angry Zaef and his men. Kovax decides that the best way to safety is the long trek towards the Afghan border. The journey will see many hardships and many encounters with the enemy.
Special Forces is an action film set in the Middle East, which takes an unapologetically Western perspective on that conflict. As an action film, it is adamant that its audience does not approach the film from a political perspective. The film itself does briefly engage with politics, though in an off-hand and simplistic way. Zaef wonders why Casanova should enforce her culture’s standards on his own culture, only to be told that her culture is better. Later, it arises that Casanova, as a journalist, has been critical of the Special Forces’ activity in the Middle East. Kovax tells her that they are military and, hence, politics is none of their concern. Casanova will eventually learn the error of her ways and come to love the French military.
As a film told from a Western perspective, Special Forces is hopelessly wrong-footed by trying to engage as simplistically as possible with a subject that is not open to easy solutions. As a result, the people of Afghanistan and Pakistan are either brave, but willing, martyrs or crazed extremists. Meanwhile, the French military is presented as unequivocally just as all the right people get killed. As to the question of why they should be there in the first place, the film generally avoids the issue by blowing something up. To give credit where credit is due, however, Special Forces, albeit a dumb, right wing and reactionary take on the Middle Eastern conflict and a sorbid example of contemporary propaganda posing as a dumb action film, is far from the sadistic, racist and morally defunct Rambo (2008).
Politics aside, the film is hopelessly clichéd, from a story, which has been done before to the tired and apparently barbed repartee of Lucas, the cynical one. The characters all yell loudly as the fire their weapons, something that looked old as far back as 1969 in Peckinpah’s otherwise brilliant The Wild Bunch. Another scene acts as a re-run of that cheesy scene from Platoon and the radio equipment is destroyed so matter-of-factly that one wonders whether the soldiers had any intention of escaping Pakistan. In one scene, the French President, upon finding out that Casanova has been kidnapped, asks how long it will take before Special Forces is in the air. He is told that they are already, which allows the President to indulge in a slight smile. It is a small moment, but it drops the film into a kind of cringe-worthy militaristic quagmire from which it never really recovers.
Special Forces marks Stéphane Rybojad’s feature film debut and at least one moment gives the impression that he knows what he is doing. He lingers on the image of a plane landing in billowing sand simply because it looks nice. The rest of the film is disastrously choppy, with scenes ending with a speedy fade to black just a few beats too soon and a barrage of fast and slow motion with neither rhythm nor style. It is easy to get the impression that Rybojad doesn’t think a scene is interesting unless it is coupled with flashy edits or crashing zooms. Many of the opening scenes are filmed with a pointlessly shaky camera typical of apparently serious Middle East-set films. The aforementioned Platoon scene is left entirely unemotional due to an inconsistent and strangely erratic display of varying film speeds, almost as if Rybojad had grown contemptuous of his own material and wanted to get it over with.