A pair of macho, guys-vs.-guys actioners that come from different sides of the respectability spectrum, but will probably appeal to about the same demographic…
Den of Thieves…Can writer-director Christian Gudegast (whose previous screenwriting credits include “classics” like “London Has Fallen” and the Vin Diesel howler “A Man Apart”) be sewed for copyright infringement? Because that’s how much “Den of Thieves” owes to “Heat,” which it flagrantly rips off under the guise of “updating” it for the “Fast and Furious” generation. [Although even then Gudegast steals from “The Shield” in creating Gerard Butler’s rule-breaking LAPD task force.] Butler looks like somebody beat the hell out of him with a sock full of batteries, and I guess that’s supposed to signal his new “gritty” look, but he still keeps much of his old acting ticks like masticating nearly every scene (either by eating food on camera or chewing over the syllables of his American accent). After ripping off “Heat,” this thing screws up that film’s perfect ending, by shoehorning in a closing “Usual Suspects” rip-off that’s spectacularly unconvincing.
12 Strong…If you’re like me, you may have noticed the astounding lack of Afghanistan-based war movies, and may be puzzled why Hollywood is still obsessed with Vietnam (“The Post”) when Afghanistan surpassed it as America’s longest war several years ago, and many Americans couldn’t tell you if we’re still at war there or not (I’m a bit fuzzy myself). You’d think that might be the kind of conflict Hollywood would be all over, but watching films like “Sole Survivor” and now “12 Strong” may bring the answer why we don’t see it more: Afghanistan looks like if “Mad Max” were set in a forest, and the stop-start, hill-based squirmishes most troops see there against a backdrop of trees, rubble, and goats doesn’t really lend itself to cinema. Movies like “American Sniper,” “13 Hours,” and “Black Hawk Down” are mostly set in cities where things go wrong, and there may be something more inherently dramatic in that setting. [Afghanistan needs a take that’s a bit more hallucinatory and spiritually dark to be compelling–not unlike most of the best Vietnam movies.]
Also, “12 Strong” is about a several week-long slog through a complicated hillside mission that’s as much about diplomatically balancing the needs of rival war lords (called the “Northern Alliance” in an overstatement) as it is battle. As such, it may technically be a better movie than “13 Hours” or “Sole Survivor” but it loses much of the immediacy and tension their long-night-of-the-soul missions had. But its window is much more contained than “American Sniper” or “Hurt Locker” so it doesn’t lend itself well to character development or seeing the after-effects of war either. And it may be a bit dunder-headed in its larger political thinking since it begins with a bizarre caption about how Vladimir Putin (of all people) warned Bush about 911 (or so he says), and ends with rah-rahing that doesn’t mention how Afghanistan is now our longest war, and the thousands that have died since this early success. Not since Mel Gibson’s “We Were Soldiers” (which focused on a successful early Vietnam battle while ignoring the trajectory of the rest of the war) has a film quite literally won the battle to lose the war.
Verdict: “Den of Thieves” has some nice heist scenes and a fully-committed performance from Pablo Schreiber, but is too derivative of better films to earn anything other than a “C grade” and while “12 Horses” has a better cast, performances, and grander ambitions, its action is quite dull compared with its political deal-making so it can’t hope to earn better than a “B- grade.”