Peter Berg is no stranger to action films, having directed Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson in The Rundown (2003) and Will Smith in Hancock (2008), among others. His latest film Lone Survivor tells the true story of Operation Red Wings, a mission in Afghanistan in which a small team of Navy SEALs was severely compromised. The film is one hell of a ride for the first half, packed with intense shootouts and high-stakes survival, yet it goes somewhat downhill during its latter half, suffering from clichéd baddies and a rather lacking performance from Mark Wahlberg.
The fatal flaw in this team’s mission is Wahlberg’s character, corpsman Marcus Luttrell, and his orders to set the goatherds free. It’s evident that the townspeople are hostile toward American soldiers, which should have steered the SEALs’ decision about killing them off and proceeding with their mission. While this may sound relentless toward the unarmed civilians and insensitive toward Wahlberg’s characher, keep in mind that not just the three other men in the team die but also many soldiers that arrive later on to save them.
But looking at the film itself, Wahlberg does little to give our lone survivor humanity or even remote likability. The factual detail of his compromising orders aside, his dramatic portrayal of Luttrell is very callous and not on par with his co-stars. I am a fan of Wahlberg, but here, he struggles to grasp the ruggedness and desperation of the character.
The redemption of the SEALs comes from the three alongside the lead actor. Into the Wild’s Emile Hirsch does a fantastic job as Danny Dietz, getting shot maybe a dozen times and breaking his bones while falling down cliffs in gut-wrenching slow motion sequences. Ben Foster plays a soft-spoken, smooth-operating Matthew “Axe” Axelson going out in a slightly overdramatic but awesome death scene. Taylor Kitsch, who played the titular role in box-office bomb John Carter, portrays the last member of the team, Michael P. “Murph” Murphy. This “voice of reason” goes out in a glorious fashion as well, becoming a martyr while calling in reinforcements.
Additionally, Alexander Ludwig from The Hunger Games and Eric Bana from Star Trek get little screen time as support personnel back at the base.
Now, aside from the strong supporting players, the aspect that makes Lone Survivor a more-than-decent war film is its intensely realistic action. From the moment the SEALs are dropped off to pursue their objective to the climactic deaths of all but Luttrell, we are deep in a cat-and-mouse survival game, as hordes of Taliban insurgents hunt down four SEALs through dense, mountainous woodland.
Bullets pierce flesh with spurts of sanguine mist and explosions send the protagonists flying down jagged, bolder-riddled slopes for what seems to be a good hour of the movie – and what an intense hour it is. It’s as engaging as classics like Saving Private Ryan.
But here’s what bogs the film down: Its second half deals solely with the last man standing, who is sadly the least compelling character in the main cast. Also, the oppositional focus is eventually shifted to a particular Taliban higher-up rather than hordes of unidentifiable enemies. This could have been a good move if the new “villain” was at all menacing. Instead, he’s made a joke through clichéd motives and dialogue, making him more of a Middle Eastern Bond villain than a realistic obstacle.
Berg’s latest is, for an interval, one of the most intense war films in a while, with epic firefights and badassery from the supporting cast. Despite this, it falls apart with clichés and a less-than-intriguing focus toward its conclusion. Regardless, knowing Berg’s previous feature – the insufferable Battleship – it’s surprising that Lone Survivor is as good as it is.