Thursday, 25 February 2016

13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers Of Benghazi (2016) - Movie Review

Michael Bay: A name synonymous with Hollywood hackery, thanks in no small part to his generally woeful Transformers film series. And yet, at least in the last couple of years, I find myself defending the guy? Okay, let me rephrase that. I’m defending the guy’s recent output which, for various reasons, I can easily say shows some definite improvement from the guy who gave Deep Wang and “I’m directly below the enemy scrotum”. Between the genuinely great satire of Pain & Gain, the leap in the right direction of Transformers: Age Of Extinction and even the surprisingly decent Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles film, I can easily say that I was properly looking forward to this one. I mean, there is a place in the world for Bay’s style of bona fide excess of America, Fuck Yeah; I just wish that his latest would more resemble The Rock than The Fallen. So, are we gonna get another Shyamalan? Only one way to find out.

The plot: A group of private military contractors, comprised of Jack Da Silva (John Krasinski), Tyrone S. "Rone" Woods (James Badge Dale), Mark Geist (Max Martini), John Tiegen (Dominic Fumusa) and Kris "Tanto" Paronto (Pablo Schreiber), are assigned to protect a secret CIA outpost in war-torn Benghazi. When U.S. Ambassador Chris Steven (Matt Letscher) arrives on a diplomatic mission, the outpost is attacked by Libyan militants. With overseas assistance being limited, and the outpost nor the people inside it being officially recognised as being there, it is up to Da Silva and his team to hold off the assault and keep casualties on their side to a minimum.

I know nothing about the situation in Benghazi, either past or present. I say this so that anything and everything I say from this point on is divorced from any potential political leanings, which would only hinder my readings and the response to them. However, going just by what the film presents (we’ll ignore the concept of using a Michael Bay film as an accurate representation of any form of reality), it details a decent enough picture of where the main battle takes place. We have our five main PMCs, a few scattered soldiers alongside them and several non-combatants against… well, they don’t know just how many Libyan terrorists are out there, and neither do we. It also doesn’t help that the foreign allies they do have are easily confused for the enemy, and not for the expected racist reasons. That air of paranoia and, at times, hopelessness is probably this film’s strongest weapon, which ends up going off with a loud bang during the film’s final reel.

Of course, that’s when the filmmakers actually show the initiative to use said paranoia to build up the film. Here, rather than being used to set up any kind of lingering atmosphere, it used in much the same way jump scares are used in most horror movies: Short but sharp surface tension that just ebbs away before too long. But this is Michael Bay we’re talking about here; the guy doesn’t go for much in the way of anything that isn’t visceral. I say this in spite of the fact that this film really doesn’t carry that many of his traditional calling cards. Sure, we have the idealised look of the U.S. military and a pretty bro-y sense of humour, but otherwise this is a pretty major outlier in the guy’s filmography. Hell, we don’t even get any helicopters and/or planes flying during an orange sunset. I hate to be ‘that guy’ who says that he called it but, back when I brought up how Michael Bay seemed to be improving as a director, this is the kind of progression I was talking about. He keeps a steady hand, only getting into shaky-cam when it’s actually called for, the focus of the story is well and truly on the main group of PMCs instead of trying to rope everyone in together and his usual jingoism is pretty much non-existent.

That last one is kind of mystifying in its own right because, at its core, there are pretty much no underlying politics to this film. In-universe, the soldiers admit that they don’t really know that much about the political state of Benghazi; just that they don’t want to be shot in the head. There’s even time taken out to mourn the terrorists who fell, keeping well and truly in mind that these are still human beings who were killed. While I would argue that the lack of any kind of political stance is… kind of boring, especially for a guy who lives for over-reading shit in movies, it actually adds its own flavour to the overall proceedings. No, this film is boring for entirely different reasons. For one thing, the characterisation is extremely lacking, to the point where everything started to run together after a while. There are only three characters who end up standing out, and only one of them for any good reasons: De Silva because I recognise Krasinski as an actor, the chief of the base (David Costabile) because of how hilariously one-note he is and Tanto because he legitimately gets not only the most memorable dialogue in the film but also the single best moment of the film near the end. Other than that, it’s a haze of bro-military jarhead jargon, succeeding at little else than reminding me of some classic Robot Chicken.

This isn't helped by Michael Bay's approach to action scenes, which unfortunately is still exactly the same. Sure, there's some restraint shown in exactly how much gets blown up per set piece, but we still have the arse-numbing to contend with. Yeah, probably one of Bay's biggest issues is that he never seems to know when enough is enough and insists on going for the two-and-a-half hour running time. Going for that would be perfectly fine if were following people that we actually knew anything about outside of what their immediate family looks like... oh wait. It's seriously bizarre when the guy we see dancing on-screen to Sexy And I Know It has the most defined and relatable personality of the entire cast. The build-up is decent enough during the first act, but from then on it's pretty one big shoot-out with a few beats for breathing room. It's all very monotonous and the long duration makes it feel even worse.

All in all, while this definitely shows some maturity on Michael Bay's part and manages to refrain from some of his more egregious filmmaking tropes, that doesn't automatically make for an enjoyable watch. Instead, despite how promising it started out and how it was to see James Badge Dale in another lead role, it largely comes across as a bunch of wasted opportunities and milquetoast action beats, all of which isn't helped by Bay's apparent need to only make films that are nearly three hours long. I maintain my optimism, largely because I want to believe that Bay has another Pain & Gain in him somewhere, but this isn't that big a step forward for him.

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