Special Forces (Forces Spéciales)
The story did sound good, then there was the trailer which looked like the film was going to be very cinematic and exciting, and finally there was the allure of the cast with names such as Djimon Hounsou, Diane Kruger, Benoît Magimel, Denis Menochet, Raphaël Personnaz and Tchéky Karyo. It's fair to say that this is a strong sounding cast. Put all these facts together and you should be expecting a good film.
So I found the comments from other reviewers rather confusing, why was the film not getting very positive comments? I had to watch the film to find out where the discrepancy was and if the reviewers were wrong perhaps missing the point of the film or if the film was at fault.
The film tells the story of a team of French Special Forces who are sent to carry out some reconnaissance into a potential location where a recently kidnapped French journalist is being kept by the Taliban. However the French President decrees that the team must rescue her immediately and the impending threat of her beheading means they need to head straight into the compound and if she's there, extract her. To make matters more complicated the location is in the tribal regions of Pakistan on the border of Afghanistan, not actually in Afghanistan, and so the team don't have the backup and reinforcements that they normally would expect.
When they find the journalist they are forced to abandon their helicopter pick-up zone under heavy fire and with no clear extraction point on that side of the border they have to head across the mountains into Afghanistan for rescue, avoiding the Taliban who are hot on their heels and desperate not to lose face by losing their high profile prisoner.
As I said before, the film started superbly well right from the menus which showed some wonderful shots and moments from the film making it look like it would be rich with great cinematography, realism and a soundtrack that seemed to boast something just as epic as the photography. However very quickly into the film I was starting to think things were going wrong.
To be fair the actual opening of the film is just as strong and you can get used to the slightly over the top desire to cut from camera to camera and from sequence to sequence as the action is high. However it's hard to forgive the gaping chasm that appears really early on in the chaotically edited opening. In amongst the frantic cutting and editing there's a huge chunk of story seemingly ripped right out of the film.
We follow the Special Forces team into their destination in a rather ragged story telling style, but you can follow the gist of what's happening, it just feels a little like Michael Bay to the power of MTV. We see the team clearing a room and finding nothing until they pull a cupboard away from the wall and discover a darkened passageway. The two leads of the team put on night vision goggles and start to enter the passageway - bang, another cut.
We come out the other side of the cut with the two leads pushing hooded prisoners out of a house. There's no indication of what happened in those passages or between there and coming out of the house, or why they are so angry with the people they have just captured, all in all it just feels as though a hole has been carved in the middle of the scene, and as the harsh editing continues from here on you do start to see other similar gaps.
However it doesn't seem to matter too much to the film as long as the shots look great and they continue to do so for the rest of the film. There are beautifully shot vistas and that scale follows through right down to the smallest of scenes. There's great lighting and colouring throughout and every aspect of the film looks carefully considered and put together with the visual and aesthetic in mind, everything expect for the editing.
You do feel that there's a great effort in the authenticity of the film with the tactics and equipment of the team seemingly very real, reflecting some of the aspects we've seen in the trailers of the film Act of Valor, a hugely authentic film of Special Forces in action.
Another positive of the film is the strong cast as I mentioned before, Diane Kruger and Djimon Hounsou lead the way backed well by Benoît Magimel, Raphaël Personnaz and Tchéky Karyo who is doing his best impression of Tom Skerritt from Top Gun. They all do a good job though and the leads are convincing and engaging when they need to be, lifting the film an extra step or two.
Except none of this can overcome the heavy editing and overly dramatic score that tries to push it towards the likes of the Hollywood action epic and goes just a little bit too far. That would be okay in itself but the first twenty minutes are so overly hacked apart it's hard to follow the flow of the story, never mind to try and connect with the characters on any emotional level, and here the film is almost embarrassing as it tries to throw some incredibly fast scenes at the audience which give the leads of the Special Forces team some emotional hook to connect with, but they come away as being paper thin and emotionally flat.
It feels as though the film is in a race to get the bare bones in place in order to get on with the actual story, the travel back to Afghanistan after escaping the Taliban. Strange then that in the latter half of the film are scenes that are so drawn out they're almost farcical in the attempts to leave the single character fighting for their way back to rescue. I actually shook my head and groaned out loud and was wondering if they could stretch it any further, they do and they manage to deliver the beats that you expect from the story from there on.
Then there's a closing credits scene which makes no sense at all, again it seems to have had too much chopped out of it to make sense and the focus is on how good it looks, thinking between the shots I can guess what it was about but I didn't get that from watching the scene, a scene which feels like a left over edit.
Saying that if you can make the connections between the holes and live with the negatives the film does look wonderful and offer some great moments. The authenticity does shine through and lifts the film somewhat, as do the cast, but you can't help but wish for more.
Dolby Digital 5.1
The audio on the DVD is strong and there is good use made of the speakers with a strong spatial awareness in the design of the sound. You can hear bullets flying around you and atmospheric noise from all around. It's not overplayed and you don't feel like you're listening to an action film sequence with the casing sounds ramped up behind you with whizzing bullets everywhere, the sounds are directional, loud, but do seem very realistic, much like the rest of the film. The score also delivers well around the speakers, even if it is overused.
The picture looks fantastic throughout the film, as I've said throughout the review the cinematography is excellent and you really do see it in the sharpness, the detail, the colours and the photography. The picture is the strongest part of the entire film and even though I was just watching this on a DVD and not a Blu-ray, it felt as though I was watching the film on a higher quality medium.
Making of; Marius; Deleted Scenes
The making of is a real treat and the opening few minutes totally surprised me because of the scale of the production behind the film. Using actual locations such as those on the Afghanistan border and dropping the stars and the crew right into them, no green screens, no faked locations, and making it look as authentic as possible. There's also a big surprise in the amount of time they spend training the team with the actual French Special Forces and exactly how much they trained on. The featurette is superb and goes on for an hour and a half but none of it feels like it's too much. This is a proper story of the film, going from the beginning through to the end and with the director telling us about their journey, it's very entertaining and engaging, and what's more it makes you feel that there's so much more to this film and you can see it in some cut scenes, it's a shame it didn't all make it through to the final. This opened my eyes to how big the film actually is.
This extra looks behind one of the key military advisors on the film and gives a little of what he is about as well as his role in the film, following him through some moments as he trains recruits for real.
I had hoped for a lot more of these, and for most of them to be in the film. Amongst the deleted scenes are two that really should have been in the film, the moment where we see the two team members head into the darkness of the hidden room and the explanation scene around the closing credits sequence in the snow. More, more, more.
Special Forces sounds like it's going to be a big production and it certainly looks that way too, the cinematography is really strong and from the opening you feel like the film is trying to emulate a Hollywood action film, and not too far into the film you can see exactly where that comparison leads, Tears of the Sun (Filmstalker review). It's as though the film-makers decided to try and emulate it with more realistic tactics and set it within the French Special Forces in a current war zone. Add in the levels of authenticity with the equipment and the tactics and the strong casting and you'd be in the same place I was early on, thinking that this could be really good.
However the less than exciting reviews are borne out when you bear with the film for a short while and experience the incredibly harsh editing which at times carves holes in the storytelling, and while you'll find big gaps in the flow of the scenes the place where it hits hardest is in the setting of the story and the building of the characters, because this is done so quickly and clumsily there's no feeling of connection or empathy with the characters and you end up just watching them without actually feeling anything for them which really hurts later on in the story.
The extras bring back a lot for the film and do make you realise the scope of the production and what was intended for the final production. It's a shame because Special Forces could have been so much more and it shows so much promise, but I suspect a lot of what that promise could have become is sitting on the editing room floor. Maybe a future cut might just deliver what was intended at the beginning of the production.