Perhaps the most interesting aspect for North American audiences of director Stéphane Rybojad’s unabashedly simple action film is the opportunity to see a loud-mouthed, uncompromising glorification of the military that doesn’t center on the good ol’ United States Army. There’s a certain incorrigible charm about the film’s cheerful reduction of complex moral issues; what might seem offensive in a more serious or more effective film is right at home in Special Forces, which is populated by characters and plot twists so rote and uninteresting that the film manages to entertain largely by virtue of having so brazenly abandoned its own subject matter. What remains for the viewer plays remarkably like an abandoned script for the next Rambo film, the appeal of which is best left up to the individual viewer to decide.
The film’s simple plot is one of its strengths. The story’s point-A-to-point-B setup matches the film’s generally underdeveloped nature and contributes to a carelessness that is, in its own way, somewhat endearing. The agenda on display is to advertise for the military and to put a lot of bullets into a lot of bodies, and the film creates and meets these expectations and no others. There seems to be no great passion for film-making on display, and indeed no great skill either, but there’s a certain enthusiasm that, for some, may manage to make these things forgivable.
Special Forces never seems to have time for itself. Action sequences and quiet character moments are played at essentially the same breakneck pace as the film plunges unstoppably forward. Rybojad, despite being a co-writer, seems to view the script’s various sequences as a series of checkpoints to be run through as quickly as possible, and he reacts (the viewer may, too) with irritation. Conversations are as quick and terse as the Special Forces members themselves, communicating only the exact information necessary, even in moments of quiet contemplation or of character-building. Whether this gives the feeling that the film is over-eager to maintain the viewer’s interest, or simply suggests disinterested pandering, one is almost forced into an adversarial position to the film, which is only intensified by its relentless, bald-faced emotional manipulation – the one thing the film will slow for, and happily, is the death of one of its various heroes. The film’s sad moments are presented in such triumphantly exaggerated opera, replete with super slow-motion and overbearing soundtrack, that they seem intended to serve at once as an apology and replacement for the lack of character development. The ploy is bold, if ineffective, and if the sequences were better-directed, it might even have worked – we might have wept in the theatre, only to realize on the way home that we didn’t care for, or even know, the characters we mourned.
But the film is glorification first and foremost, and the functions of its characters are as much to serve as avatars for military concepts – honour, bravery, loyalty, sacrifice – as they are to tell individual stories. The film’s title sequence, a giddy four minutes of technological pornography and recruitment-video verve, sets the stage for a black-and-white, action-movie world, as the Special Forces team blast their way into an enemy hideout and capture their leader amidst a pounding rock soundtrack. (A moment when one of our protagonists strikes the subdued and hand-cuffed baddie in the face is played as good-natured fun, an apt summation of the film’s stance on morality). There’s an 80s innocence to the film, unusual in post-9/11 action film-making, in that no attempt is made to characterize or sympathize with the antagonists, who quickly become the numberless, faceless mass of enemies that the Nazis became for Indiana Jones. The Taliban fighters are gunned down by the double digits in scene after scene with less attention from the camera than the surrounding landscape receives; in one sequence, about thirty baddies are slaughtered with (we assume) such effectiveness that the film cuts away as our heroes begin firing. In the action movies of past decades, henchmen died without even being given a line, but in Special Forces, they don’t even always get to die onscreen.
One’s response to the film may rest most strongly on what one’s individual connotations for military imagery and tropes are. It’s not art, and for the most part, it’s not good, but it certainly sticks to its guns. Whether or not that seems commendable will be a matter of taste.