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In Theaters: LONE SURVIVOR (2013)

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LONE SURVIVOR
(US - 2013)

Written and directed by Peter Berg.  Cast: Mark Wahlberg, Taylor Kitsch, Emile Hirsch, Ben Foster, Eric Bana, Yousuf Azami, Ali Suliman, Alexander Ludwig, Jerry Ferrara, Sammy Sheik, Rich Ting, Dan Bilzerian, Rohan Chand. (R, 121 mins)

LONE SURVIVOR is an often visceral and unflinchingly brutal adaptation of Marcus Luttrell's 2005 chronicle of his time as a Navy SEAL in Afghanistan.  Played in the film by Mark Wahlberg, Luttrell was involved Operation Red Wings, a four-man operation to take out Ahmad Shah (Yousuf Azami), a major Taliban figure.  As the title hardly warrants a spoiler alert, things didn't go as planned.  Making their way into the remote Kunar Province mountains, Luttrell, Lt. Michael Murphy (Taylor Kitsch), Danny Dietz (Emile Hirsch), and Matt "Axe" Axelson (Ben Foster) find themselves outnumbered and unable to contact the military base, and opt to secure positions higher in the mountains but they're stumbled upon by three goat herders.  After deciding to cut them loose--the film presents it as a debate, but Luttrell has said Murphy made the call as per rules of engagement--the four SEALs make a run for it to wait for extraction but are soon overwhelmed by Shah's forces, who outnumber them 4-to-1.

Writer/director Peter Berg (THE RUNDOWN, THE KINGDOM, BATTLESHIP) handles this extended firefight sequence--which takes up about a third of the running time--quite well aside from an occasional over-reliance on shaky-cam.  Berg takes the time to lay out the positions of the principles to give the audience the lay of the land and to watch the methodology at work.  You'll be thoroughly convinced these four actors have been to hell and back, from the utterly convincing makeup work to the sounds of bullets tearing through flesh and bones slamming into rocks as the SEALs roll down a mountainside.  Luttrell served as a technical advisor and Berg spent time with US forces in Iraq to observe them in action and make the depiction of the Red Wings ordeal as ultra-realistic as possible.  He even included little details to honor the memories of those involved, like a shot of Lt. Cmdr. Erik Cristensen (Eric Bana) wearing Birkenstocks at the base.  Cristensen was killed during an attempted rescue of Luttrell and a look at his Wikipedia page reveals that his mother requested he be buried wearing his ubiquitous Birkenstocks. It mostly works--there's a level of raw, take-no-prisoners ferocity here that doesn't approach SAVING PRIVATE RYAN levels but is easily in the same class as BLACK HAWK DOWN.

But to get there, you have to endure some frequently tiresome military clichés.  Berg wants to honor these fallen heroes, and he succeeds, but the opening and closing narration by Wahlberg-as-Luttrell sounds like a bad high-school essay, especially when he's talking about a "fire within."  The same goes for sniper Axe positioning himself and grunting "I am the reaper" or "You can die for your country, but I'm gonna live for mine!" or Luttrell's "I'm about to punch their time card." Of course, this is probably an accurate depiction but it comes off as tired, macho warrior chest-thumping more akin to a RAMBO movie.  Fortunately, Berg keeps the jingoism to a minimum, especially in the last third when Luttrell is found and given shelter by Muhammad Gulab (Ali Suliman) and the members of a peaceful Afghani village who lay their own lives on the line, knowing the Taliban are after the American.  These anti-Taliban Afghanis, living by a 2000-year-old code of honor, were instrumental in saving Luttrell's life and let's be honest, a lot of Hollywood depictions of Luttrell's experiences would've eliminated them entirely in order to spend more time waving the flag.  Berg's script doesn't allow for much in the way of character development other than Murphy planning a wedding, Dietz trying to pick some interior design colors for his girlfriend back home, and Axe being married.  Oddly enough, it's Luttrell who gets the least amount of character sketching.  But it works--it's a BAND OF BROTHERS/"fuckin' A, bro!" film first and foremost, but knowing these men a little more might've given it greater emotional weight.  While Wahlberg is fine, his breakdown in the climax feels, through no fault of his, like a lightweight revamp of a similar scene at the end of CAPTAIN PHILLIPS which represented arguably the best acting of Tom Hanks' career.  Aided by an effectively minimalist score by post-rock outfit Explosions in the Sky, LONE SURVIVOR isn't a war movie classic, but it's good, accomplishing what it sets out to do, and does so in a way that honors the heroes--American and Afghani--of Operation Red Wings and its aftermath. 

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