You’re aware of the French, are you not? They are an odd set if you ask me (and probably just as odd if you didn’t). They project to the world a kind of sophistication of the Detached School born of Existentialism and being unbearably rude and smelly. I’m thinking here of Jean-Luc Godard and concierges the world over. Then, out of nowhere, you come across Luc Besson and the French Action film, which bears a resemblance to the kind of beast you’d find in the Galapagos or Madagascar where there are thematic similarities but presented in a way that suggests convergent evolution. Take note, if you please, of the strange bird that is Special Forces (2011), newly released on Blu-Ray. A film that diligently applies every cliché out of the action film genre but in a way that doesn’t quite feel the same. Presumably that’s what people were saying when they thought they were biting into their Royales with cheese. Nay?
Enter helicopters. To 80’s pop music? Out of the belly of these machines drop French Special Forces commander Kovax (Djimon Hounsou) and, Gerard Butler stand-in, Lucas (Denis Ménochet). We’re in Kosovo and they need to extract someone. They do, in fact, extract someone. Then they do something in Afghanistan. They go back to their outdoor grill for Kovax’s birthday and exposition-relaying party. As the French say, “meanwhile,” Elsa (Diane Kruger) is interviewing a young Afghan woman about all of the horrible things in Afghanistan today—including female slavery—when she is informed the super baddie, and lost Fiennes brother, Zaief (Raz Degan) knows all and will soon capture them both! Zaief does, in fact, capture them both. Back at the grill, after Lucas shows himself to be a loveable, but undeniably gruff personality, the cell phones go off and they all know something’s up. That’s right, these two stories are linked. Kovax and company are going to have to go in there and get Elsa out. They do, in fact, get Elsa out. But then the chase begins…
“Wait a moment,” you think to yourself, “didn’t I see this before?” That happens about a dozen times in Special Forces, or Forces Spéciales. The thing at the grill is stolen from Crimson Tide (1995), the general idea is a bald bit of thievery from Tears of the Sun (2003), there are notes of Navy Seals (1990), and later scenes take from Behind Enemy Lines (2001), Platoon (1986), Black Hawk Down (2001), and others. To add insult to injury, the musical sensibilities are all with the middle nineties such that it feels like self-parody. Where it diverges from these films is that it took the effort to look rather beautiful. Filming in Tajikistan, Djibouti, and the French Alps, director Stéphane Rybojad takes full advantage of the scenery. That is, when he isn’t rotating around his subjects like they’re filming on a carousel. In the first half of the movie, one is in serious danger of queasiness. And if I have to hear that selfsame guitar riff whenever these commandoes do anything bad ass, then I might consider legal action.
“Wait a moment,” you think to yourself, “that’s not Djimon Hounsou’s voice.” It’s a mark of Kovax’s strong, typical silence that it took about fifteen minutes before I noticed that the Blu-Ray was set on the English audio setting—that is to say, it was dubbed. My brain rebelled at this because some of the words looked only slightly off from the actors’ lips, but Hounsou’s first line suggested that the voice actor took his inspiration from Snake Plissken. Hounsou has a very rich, distinctive voice and is, as you might see from the cover, rather black while the dubber was clearly a white man in his middle thirties and a smoking habit. I switched to French audio and subtitles and found it a vast improvement. We’re still in the action genre, which does not lend itself to quality dialogue, so if I had to hear some of those clunking lines, I may not have been as forthcoming with excuses as to translation. “You’re more scared that I am,” says sniper Elias (Raphaël Personnaz), “and I don’t even hate you.” Hand, forhead, vomit, lap.
Luc Besson dispelled any idea that French action films would be a hybrid of the effete and the manly, but there’s always that glimmer of hope that a new vision will manifest itself. Don’t expect that of this film, which is very much Navy Seals in French (or dubbed, if you can’t be asked to read between raining bullets). These commandoes just can’t get enough action. They’ve got a significant lead, but they’re sick of running, so they engage their Taliban pursuers. What’s worse is they do it in the manner of a 21st century trained, 18th century commanded military force. They walk boldly towards their pursuers without taking cover and instead working their weapons as though they’re drilling at a gun range. Later, they leave a town where they received shelter, but go back when the Taliban starts ravaging the townies. These fellows are so ambivalent about the primacy of their mission that it borders on poor writing. Roughly from that point onward, the commandoes begin dragging one another across Central Asia.
Writers Stéphane Rybojad and Michael Cooper (in collaboration with Emmanuelle Collomp) are clearly not the cream of the cognoscenti, but they entered a sensitive area with the grace of a rocket-propelled grenade and must be chastised. The Taliban are quite evil. They provide the neatest counter to ethical relativism on the planet. Even so, can’t you give your villain something better than “I didn’t invite you into our country” and “democracy at the barrel of a gun”? Humans have the capacity to think foolish thoughts, but they are still thinking people. It’s better to put the decent and real argument forward and then dispel it than to draw up pathetic poetry that makes us feel better as the ones who really “get it.”
Speaking of pathetic poetry, I will leave you with a limerick.
I once saw the film Special Forces,
From reason it sometimes divorces,
But when it’s in French,
The dialogue’s stench,
Is lesser than burgers of horses.