12 STRONG: 3 ½ STARS

“12 Strong” tells the tale of one of the most successful missions in military history. In just three weeks twelve Green Berets with the help of General Abdul Rashid Dostum of the Northern Alliance battled the Taliban and inhospitable terrain to take back the occupied city of Mazar-i-Sharif.

Chris Hemsworth leaves the mighty hammer of Thor on Planet Asgard to play the earth bound hero and Green Beret Captain Mitch Nelson. On leave when 9/11 happened he immediately reported for duty, asking that his team be reinstated to fight the Taliban. “You break his team up,” says Chief Warrant Officer Cal Spencer (Michael Shannon), “and you cut the head off your most venomous snake.” Named Task Force Dagger, they are shipped off to Afghanistan with orders to team with Northern Alliance General Abdul Rashid Dostum (Navid Negahban). Outgunned and outnumbered 5,000 to 1 this uneasy partnership must endure impossible odds to defeat the Taliban on their own turf.

Based on Doug Stanton’s non-fiction book “Horse Soldiers,” “12 Strong” is both conventional and unconventional in its approach. Structured like a traditional war film, it’s also the first time (to my memory) we’ve seen modern warfare on horseback on the big screen. Once in Afghanistan the Green Berets discover the best method of transport through the rocky and treacherous terrain is on the back of a horse. In a clash of old and new, the cavalry battle tanks and rocket launchers and it makes for some striking images.

Like so many war flicks before it, in it’s opening minutes we see Nelson, Spencer and Sergeant First Class Sam Diller (Michael Peña) with their loving families before they are sent to battle. It’s standard shorthand to create empathy for the characters. They are family men driven by a sense of duty to their country. All well and good. We’ve seen it before but actors like Hemsworth, Shannon and Peña rise above the cliché to bring some heartfelt moments to those scenes. But what about the other nine guys in the troupe? We never learn much about them and, as a result, they are just bodies on a screen instead of fully rounded characters.

Having said that, for every war cliché—“Let’s get this war started,” howls Nelson at one point—there is another scene that offers insight into the difficult and confounding task the men have ahead of them. There is much talk of the struggle of fighting an ideological war against people who believe their great reward is in the afterlife. “There’s no playbook for this mission,” says Nelson. “We have to make it up as we go along.”

As the first American soldiers to take on the Taliban on their home turf after 9/11 they face a steep learning curve, finally coming to understand that this will be a war of small victories with no clear endpoint. They may win the battle but still need to fight the war. The confounding nature of this war will be familiar to anyone who has followed the news coverage of the war in real time but is concisely summed up by Dostum. “There are no right choices here. This is Afghanistan. The grave of many empires.”

HOSTILES: 2 ½ STARS

“Hostiles,” the new Christian Bale drama, is a period piece with a potent message for today. With a nod to the John Wayne classic “The Searchers,” it’s a sombre tale of a man who must confront his deeply held racism.

Set in 1892, Bale plays Joseph J. Blocker, a U.S. Army captain approaching retirement; soul darkened by a career spent warring with indigenous peoples. He’s lost many of his men at the hands of his enemy, seen his people butchered and scalped. In return he turned battlegrounds into killing fields soaked in blood.

Under orders he reluctantly does one last official job before riding off into the sunset. His commanding officer (Stephen Lang) gives him a choice, escort an old enemy, Cheyenne war chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi) now dying of cancer, from a remote Army gaol in New Mexico to the Chief’s home in the grasslands of Montana or face a court martial. Putting together a crew of his most trusted men, including his right hand man Sergeant Tommy Metz (Rory Cochrane), he begins the long, dangerous trek. A day or so in the come across Rosalie Quaid (Rosamund Pike), a widow whose family was slaughtered right in front of her.

The physical journey is ripe with danger—they are ambushed by Comanche and must drop off a dangerous prisoner (Ben Foster) along the way—but the metaphysical journey is more interesting. As the days pass Blocker rediscovers his humanity; the man he was before he allowed hate to overwhelm.

Writer, director Scott Cooper’s film drips with gravitas. It is a serious minded look at the bigotry and brutality that fuelled the U.S. Army dealings with the frontier tribes while making room for Blocker’s redemptive arc. But for as beautiful as the movie is, it never feels authentic. Sure you can almost smell the campfires, blood and sweat. Cooper’s details are evocative of a time and place, it’s the relationships between the characters that don’t ring true. The anti-racism message is a powerful and important one but turned into a cliché in its execution. Underdeveloped indigenous characters, all stoicism and nobility, seem to exist only to aid Blocker’s attitude change, which makes the movie feel lopsided, tilted toward Blocker and his band of white saviours.

I think the movie mostly has its heart in the right place in terms of promoting tolerance but the reconciliation portrayed here feels off kilter. (SPOILER ALERT) By the time the end credits roll on this ponderous story, the white viewpoint of the storytelling is made all too clear in a conclusion that sees the two above the title stars come to the rescue of a young indigenous character.

“Hostiles” is a beautifully turned out film. Cooper fills each frame of this deliberately paced movie with a kind of bleak beauty. But with the elegance of the filmmaking comes frustration at the story’s missteps. Bale digs deep, grappling with the anguish and regret that has scarred Blocker’s soul but his transformation doesn’t seem real, or possible.

DEN OF THIEVES: 2 STARS

A new film tells us Los Angeles is the bank robbery capital of the world. “Den of Thieves,” a new crime drama starring Gerard Butler, shows us an elaborate heist, the bad guys who steal and the even badder guys who try to stop them.

Butler is Nick Flanagan, major case squad cop and wild card. We know he’s a tough guy because he keeps telling us—“You’re not the bad guys,” he growls at a suspect, “we are.”—and because he smokes indoors. When he arrives, hungover, at a crime scene where several police officers have been shot and an armoured truck stolen, he and his team begin tracking the most sophisticated robbers in L.A., the Merriman Gang. Named for its leader (Pablo Schreiber), the gang, Bas (Max Holloway), Bosco (Evan Jones), Levi Enson (50 Cent) and getaway driver Donnie (O'Shea Jackson Jr.), will stop at nothing when it comes to relieving banks of their cash. With Flanagan on their trail they plan their most audacious robbery yet, a $30 million takedown of the bank of banks, the Los Angeles Bank of the Federal Reserve.

“Den of Thieves” is more concerned with its own mythology and troubled cop clichés than the story. Butler is a walking, talking cliché, a cop with a bad marriage and even worse attitude. Over the course of a too-long 2 hour and sixteen minute running time he reaffirms his badass bona fides again and again, whether it is eating a donut from a blood spattered box at a crime scene, throwing back the booze or threatening a prisoner. “Do we look like the types who will arrest you? Put you in handcuffs and drag you to the station? No we'll just shoot you. Less paperwork.” He’s the “original gangsta cop,” and we’ve seen that all before and we’ve seen it better.

“Den of Thieves” attempts to get mileage from the old chestnut that good and evil—in this case Flanagan and Merriman—are mirror images of one another. It’s a classic push-and-pull but isn’t given much new life here apart from some flashy editing that visually ties the characters together.

The been-there-done-that feel to “Den of Thieves” wouldn’t matter as much if director Christian Gudegast had kept the pace up. Instead he draws scenes out, pads an already overlong movie with family drama subplots that go nowhere—the only female characters are kids, wives and hookers who make brief appearances—and stages what must be one of the longest and most reckless shoot outs in cinema history. It’s one thing for the bad guys to shoot one another, but when cops place dozens of innocent people in the middle of an automatic gun battle it feels gratuitous even for a movie like this.

FOREVER MY GIRL: 2 ½ STARS

There are movies that surprise and surpass our expectations and there are those that don’t. The former feed the brain, the latter are like comfort food. With that in mind, “Forever My Girl,” the new romance starring Jessica Rothe, is meatloaf with a side of potatoes. Not good for you perhaps, and not really good at all, but somehow satisfying.

In a story that casts shade on Thomas Wolfe’s “you can never go home again” theory, “Forever My Girl” begins with Liam Page (Alex Roe), a small town boy made good. He’s a country music superstar, playing to packed houses and bedding groupies nightly. He’s also unhappy and suffering from writer’s block. As the country song on the soundtrack warbles, he’s “followed the script closely with whiskey, women and pills.” When he learns his best friend from high school was killed by a drunk driver he goes AWOL, leaving behind a sold out tour to reconnect with his roots in St. Augustine, Louisiana.

No one is particularly happy to see him, not even his father (John Benjamin Hickey), the local minister. Even less thrilled is local florist Josie (Jessica Rothe), the woman he left on the altar when he skipped town to pursue his career. “No one has spoken about what you did here,” she says, “because we are family. We are loyal. Please just leave.”

Turns out there is more to the story in the form of Billie (Abby Ryder Fortson), a precocious eight year old and the daughter he never knew about. “I said I wanted to meet him,” Billy says, “but I didn’t say I would be easy on him.” As Liam reconnects with Josie, meets Billy and spends time with his dad the puzzle pieces of his life fall into place and he realizes what’s been missing. “I have no right to ask for anything,” he says, “but I’m here now.” You know the rest. (SPOILER ALERT) This is a romance not a tragedy.

“Forever My Girl” is written and directed by Bethany Ashton Wolf, based upon the novel by Heidi McLaughlin but is the kind of story Nicholas Sparks could conjure up in his sleep. The flowery Sparksian language is missing and there are no tearstained romantic letters—there is, however, a poignant voicemail saved on a duct-taped flip phone—but the spirit of everlasting love he exalts in parcels of passion like “The Notebook” loom.

London-born Roe has the dark good looks of a tortured country star and does earnest quite well but it is the female stars that shine. As Billy, Fortson is a sparkplug with most of the film’s best lines. Rothe displays the natural charm that made her last performance in “Happy Death Day”—imagine “Groundhog Day” with a terrifying twist—so winning.

“Forever My Girl” isn’t great art. It’s a Hallmark movie by way of Harlequin that features nice looking people falling back in love but it’s the best non-Nicholas Sparks/Nicholas Sparks movie to come along in a while.