2 1/2 stars
Cast: Mark Wahlberg, Ben Foster, Taylor Kitsch, Emile Hirsch, Eric Bana
Director: Peter Berg
Running time: 118 minutes
Rated: R for strong bloody war violence and pervasive language
A grim chapter in Navy SEALs history earns a heroic, no-punches-pulled accounting in "Lone Survivor," an above-average action outing for Mark Wahlberg & Co.
Based on the true story of the ill-fated SEAL Team 10 and a mission that went messy in 2005, it is still very much a movie. A few scenes, a few sentiments and the tone seem inspired by the John Wayne flag-waver "The Green Berets," another film about another battle in another war (Vietnam), but also one where victory is spun out of something that looked nothing like victory at the time.
Wahlberg, Ben Foster ("3:10 to Yuma"), Taylor Kitsch ("John Carter," "Battleship") and Emile Hirsch ("Into the Wild") are SEALs dropped off in Afghanistan to kill a Taliban leader. "Rules of engagement" are debated and are blamed for things going wrong. It's the mountains, so communications are poor. And one bad thing leads to another as this intrepid team tries to shoot its way through every AK-47-toting Taliban between there and rescue.
Writer-director Peter Berg, recovering from "Battleship," frames his film within the culture of these fighting men, opening with real scenes of the brutal training (and washout rituals) of the SEALs.
Their code is in the clipped, hard language exchanged between officers (Eric Bana is in charge of the mission) and the men who do the dirty work.
"Moderation's for cowards."
"Never shoot a large-caliber man with a small-caliber bullet."
"You're never out of the fight."
The "helluva big gunfight" that breaks out as their mission unravels is shot in extreme close-ups, bursts of blood squirting up through the dust, gurgling, sucking wounds and the ringing, temporary deafness of a round that explodes too close to your head. Much of this stuff is excruciatingly real.
If nothing else, Berg forces us to appreciate the code these men live by and the toughness that is beaten into them, toughness that keeps them going as the wounds pile up even as they dole out kill-shots by the score on their numberless foes.
But the saga takes many a melodramatic turn as team is whittled down and rescue becomes more remote as a possibility. The third act is where the film's "true story" origins start to beggar belief in the worst John Wayne movie fashion. Fact-based or not, events turn cinematically familiar and far-fetched.
"Lone Survivor" — yeah, the title gives too much away — contains some of the most brutally vivid combat footage ever filmed. The characters are only superficially sketched in, but we still fear for them, understand their code and, above all else, appreciate the dirty, bloody, high-risk work these professionals do. That they go through all this and risk everything, by choice, is something Berg — to his credit — never lets us forget.