Special Forces Review: Nothing Special

SPECIAL FORCES (15): On General Release Friday 18th November

On the surface, Special Forces has a few problems. The writer/director, Stéphane Rybojad, is famous for French documentaries and shorts but not full length feature films. It’s an action flick with subtitles and the biggest obstacle of all, it is based on the notion that the French military can do anything more than retreat.

All right that last one might not be fair, but in a film that centers on a team of six special forces badasses that take down terrorists left and right in their effort to rescue a journalist from the clutches of the Taliban, it’s a bit incongruous to hear them shouting commands in French.

The team, led by Kovax (Djimon Hounsou) and his go-to guy Lucas (Denis Menochet) also includes the cavalier Tic-Tac (Benoit Magimel) and killer-with-a-conscience Elias (Raphael Personnaz). The journalist Elsa (Diane Kruger) has been taken hostage by maniacal terrorist leader Zaief (Raz Degan) and it’s up to the French fighters to rescue her, but when their helicopter rendezvous fails, they must travel by foot from terrorist-laden Pakistan to their headquarters in Afghanistan.

At times, Rybojad’s inexperience shows. The camera work is shaky, especially during the shootouts which can be difficult to follow, and the editing is problematic as well. The opening scene has nothing to do with the rest of the plot and the narrative repeatedly jumps from our heroes in Pakistan to very brief moments with the stereotypical heads-of-state back in France, providing poorly disguised scene transition.

The storyline is shallow to say the least, providing nothing new to the good versus evil model of soldiers against Middle-Eastern terrorists. The highly trained team is simultaneously presented as no-nonsense professionals and immature gunslingers and they run into so much bad luck that by the end their hardships seem trivial.

Rybojad’s film isn’t all bad though. The action is thrilling, albeit excessive and if you like to see guys with turbans and beards taking bullets, this film is right up your alley. The scenery is definitely the highlight, with shooting taking place in Djibouti and Tajikistan, and this makes up slightly for the unrealistic plot.

The acting is as good as can be expected given the weak script. Kruger, Hounsou and Magimel turn in particularly good performances. The actors aren’t asked to do much, mostly screaming and cowering for Kruger and shooting and being shot for the rest. Nevertheless the film is a testament to the talented pool of French-speaking actors. Israeli-born Degan may play the terrorist leader a little over-the-top, but he commands the screen and is seems genuinely evil. This being a French film, we must assume that the decision to make him Cambridge educated is meant to add to his depravity.

It is a shame that Rybojad didn’t do more with a solid cast and respectable budget. He could have turned in something more Hurt Locker and less The Kingdom, with a focus on revealing a new side of the genre instead of just glorifying the French military.

Special Forces is only a disappointment if you go in expecting too much . While you might hope for an intelligent film from a foreign documentary director, this isn’t one. Though it’s difficult to swallow, if you can manage to accept that even the French can get in there, shoot up some bad guys and look cool doing it, it’s an enjoyable ride with some scenic highlights.