From its purportedly humanitarian and generally stereotype-free representation of Middle Easterners to its closing dedication to the soldiers and journalists who’ve died in Afghanistan, it’s clear that Stéphane Rybojad’s Special Forces was at the very least made with good intentions. Pity, then, that it so often resorts to Tony Scott-grade aesthetic hyperkinesia, typified by the frequent and—with one late, and probably accidental, exception—meaningless time-lapse cuts that suggest concessions to short-attention spans. Concerning the efforts of a group of French soldiers to extract a kidnapped journalist (Diane Kruger) from the clutches of rankled warlord Ahmed Zaief (Raz Degan), “the butcher of Kabul,” the film walks a questionable line between Important Issue seriousness and antsy video-game machismo.
The rabbit-season/duck-season shenanigans of the film’s first half are somewhat remedied by solid characterizations (Inglourious Basterds alums Kruger and Denis Ménochet especially stand out) and a final act that strives for existential intensity as time and the elements wear on our oppressed protagonists. Alas, even when it doesn’t flirt with cartoonishly offensive portrayals of combat (Ahmed’s character motivation suggests trite playground bullying more than fundamentalist violence), Special Forces falls victim to its own sheepish attempts to appeal to the largest possible audience, falling back on halfhearted one-liners, milquetoast character drama, and rudimentary aesthetics.
Even when bullets aren’t flying, the proceedings lack even the vaguest sense of pacing or rhythm, and the choice to bridge many scenes with fades to blacks gives the film the feeling of a soap opera that doesn’t know when to quit. Still, Rybojad exhibits an acute handling of small moments (a last act of defiance before death, the restraint of doing what’s right versus what’s necessary), however infrequent and fleeting, which is saying something given how so much of the script suggests a relentless steamroller. At the end of the day, Special Forces aims for both breadth and depth on matters of war and brotherhood but comes up short on both counts.