Last year's "Battleship," directed by Peter Berg, was hands down one of the worst movies of the year. It was a stupid idea based off a simplistic board game that was full of enormous amounts of cheese and patriotic grandstanding. While pride in one's country is certainly not a bad thing, the ridiculous alien invasion story that surrounded it made such grandstanding laughable. When you combined that with lazy dialogue, contrived plot points and horrific performances, particularly from real life war veteran Gregory D. Gadson in one of the worst performances ever put to screen, you got something that was practically unwatchable.
Berg is now back with "Lone Survivor," another "Go America!" film that shares a fair amount of rough dialogue and cheesy moments, but these moments are offset by real actors giving gritty performances and action scenes that are truly intense. It's not perfect (and it's highly unlikely its limited release shoehorning into the last week of December is going to give it any awards recognition), but this is a major step up from Berg's previous travesty. This is actually quite good.
Based on a true story, "Lone Survivor" follows SEAL Team 10 on a mission dubbed "Operation Red Wings." Their goal is to capture or kill terrorist leader Ahmad Shahd. After a smooth drop into the nearby mountains, they identify their target on the grounds below. However, some unexpected civilians show up to put a kink in their plans. They have one of two options: they can either let them go and risk exposure or kill them and continue on with the mission. Refusing to kill civilians, they decide to let them go. Unfortunately, their radio equipment is malfunctioning and after those civilians notify the terrorists below, they find themselves in a firefight in the mountains.
"Lone Survivor" is not a pleasant film. Despite all the action, this is not a fun, stand-up-and-cheer "Rambo" type of action movie. It's intense and scary and, for a while at least, a slow-burner. This doesn't open with a slam-bang introduction, nor does it end with a high-flying conclusion. Instead, it starts out slow before finally erupting into violence. And when the bullets start flying, they don't stop.
The action never lets up, so the grip the film has on you stays there until the end. Slow beginnings like these require good acting to keep things interesting and this talented cast, which includes Mark Wahlberg, Emile Hirsch and Ben Foster, among others, is up to the task. Despite the cloying music and sentimental dialogue about their loved ones back home, they create real people out of these characters. By the time many of their inevitable deaths come, they mean something.
One of Peter Berg's biggest deficiencies as a director, at least in regards to "Battleship," was that he went too big. Everything was bombastic and in-your-face. He smartly goes the opposite route here. Much of the action consists of pop-and-shoot gunplay which requires a more focused approach than an explode-y Avengers-esque film, where the visuals can make up for a lack of substance, and he manages to pull it off. The sole flourish he occasionally includes are down-the-barrel shots, similar to a first person shooter video game, which feels a bit out of place in the context of both the story and style he implements elsewhere.
Bizarre stylistic choices similar to that are easily the film's biggest problems, including an over usage of slow motion, which is supposed to be dramatic, but instead only serves to pull you out of the otherwise gripping and realistic action. But the movie's intention is to highlight the heroic actions of these men who risked everything to live up to a well-intentioned moral code. They did the right thing and it cost almost all of them their lives.
These men are to be applauded and remembered because even though their job required them to be violent, they carried out that violence only when necessary and they valued the lives of the innocent, and the lives of their fellow soldiers, above their own. That's a noble thing. It's still a bit too Hollywood to resonate and that aforementioned patriotic grandstanding is so heavy-handed that it threatens to derail it, but in the end, "Lone Survivor" strives to tell a simple story of courage and nobility and it does it well.