"Special Forces," a sturdy French adventure film about a hostage-rescue effort in Pakistan, devotes its first half-hour or so to the important business of introducing and firming up cliches.
The kidnappers are Taliban; the hostage is blond; the rescuers are steely; the politicians are worried; the music is grinding rock 'n' roll guitar. And the movie is dull because all of this is far too familiar, based on far too many corny stereotypes from far too many wartime action movies.
But then an interesting thing happens to this conventionally macho rescue saga. It becomes something else: a survival movie. Once the film is finished wheeling through the mechanics of the rescue op -- the snatch, the firefight, the flight into dusty hills -- it begins the long slog to safety, pushing through progressively harsher conditions as the group treks toward the mountains and Afghanistan. The steely rescuers turn human and real, flecked with complicated anxieties. And the blond hostage, a French war correspondent played by Diane Kruger, displays an iron will of her own.
Djimon Hounsou plays a commander in the French special forces unit that swoops into the compound near the Afghan border, where a harsh landscape and the harsher complexities of guerilla warfare impede their escape. As they pick their way home, we get to know the guys: the hard-as-nails commando (Denis Menochet), the conscience-stricken sniper (Raphaël Personnaz), the uncommunicative loner (Benoît Magimel) with a trace of romantic yearning.
Directed by Stephane Rybojad from a screenplay by Rybojad and Michael Cooper, "Special Forces" recalls Peter Weir's "The Way Back" in its extreme conditions and the chapped-lip spectacle of Humanity vs. Mama Nature. This being set along the Afghan-Pakistan border, the good guys are pursued through sand and snow by relentless Taliban forces led by an angry, erudite, Cambridge-educated warlord (Raz Degan) with something to prove.
In storytelling terms, the film is far from subtle; a few narrative jerks and feints are so obvious they hurt. When platitudes aren't thick enough to spread on toast ("They can kill us, but they can never defeat us"), they're bizarrely subtitled ("We're all gonna learn to spit thunder out front and fart lightening out behind"). But heroic sacrifice makes a dandy subject for any film -- whether a war movie or a survival yarn -- and "Special Forces" devotes enough time on its characters that it matters, just a bit, when they begin to die off. You might feel your heartstrings tugged. And when the action closes with a dedication to fallen soldiers and war reporters "who take risks all over the globe," the gesture rings sincere. Cliche? Maybe. Boring? Nope.