Any synopsis of Special Forces would make it sound like standard issue direct-to-video Hollywood fodder. That is until you see that Djimon Hounsou and Diane Kruger are speaking in French...and so is everybody else. That's right, Special Forces (aka Forces Spéciales) is a French Men on a Mission film that mixes together elements of Tears of the Sun and Behind Enemy Lines with distinctly European flair before forcing its protagonists into a showdown with an unflinching opponent. I'm talking about Mother Nature. Spoiler alert: she's in full-on bitch mode.
After a rousing opening that features our titular badasses capturing a war criminal in Kosovo, the film sets the stage for its central conflict by introducing the character of Elsa Casanova (Diane Kruger). She's a French journalist who digs a little too deep into the workings of the Taliban, incurring the wrath of one of its warlords, Ahmed Zaief (Raz Degan), in the process. Zaief kidnaps Elsa and makes an example of one of her friends to demonstrate that he means business. In turn, the French government puts a search and rescue operation into action. This includes our small Special Forces group acting as a recon team until the heavy artillery can arrive.
When the team arrives at Zaief's compound, they realize that the circumstances are much more dire than expected. They will have to act immediately and save Elsa themselves. While the rescue itself goes off as planned, they find themselves without any open lines of communication or any means of transport. Determined to survive, they embark on foot for safe haven across the border, with Elsa in tow. With Zaief's men in hot pursuit and the elements conspiring against them, they will have to call upon all their training if they are to complete this mission successfully.
As I said, nothing about that summary screams novelty and that's a fair criticism. This sort of search and rescue story has been done before (I've already mentioned it but comparisons to Tears of the Sun are unavoidable). Fortunately, execution still counts for a lot in my book and that's where director Stéphane Rybojad (working from a screenplay co-written with Michael Cooper) shines in his feature debut (his only previous credit is a documentary about the French military...big surprise). Rybojad approaches the material with a fair amount of realism but overlays it with just enough of the sort of slickness that audiences have come to expect from modern action movies. The result is engaging in a you are there manner while not skimping on the slo-mo heroics that give the proceedings a glossy sheen.
As one may expect from a film of this sort, the protagonists are largely reduced to types. Hounsou is the stoic and heroic leader while Denis Menochet is ornery and efficient as his second in command. Benoît Magimel gets to play the charming cad who Diane Kruger will have a hard time resisting (there's always room for a bit of romance when the bullets aren't flying). Raphaël Personnaz is compelling as the young sniper of the group while Alain Figlarz and Alain Alivon establish their grizzled veteran status (with Alivon being a former instructor in the French Naval Special Forces in real life). I'm happy to report that with all the testosterone in the air, Kruger still gets to stand her ground and play a strong, plucky female lead.
Raz Degan plays Zaief with suitable cruelty but is short-changed by Rybojad who refuses to place his villainy front and center. As I mentioned earlier, our heroes aren't just trying to evade Zaief and his men. They also need to survive the harsh climate and terrain that stands between them and a safe trip home. To this end, Rybojad actually makes nature a far more intimidating opponent than Zaief can ever hope to be. While this helps add a realistic element of survival to the movie, it diminishes the human threat and deflates the climax a bit. The stakes are still high but far less personal. This nitpick aside, the film is still engaging from start to finish and should prove to be a pleasant surprise to anyone approaching it with modest expectations.
The image is presented in a 2.35:1 aspect ratio with anamorphic enhancement. As one may expect given the material at hand, earth tones dominate the natural color palette. Fortunately the image is presented with sharpness and clarity. There aren't too many dark scenes as the film mostly transpires in the daytime but shadow detail is reasonably good. A few scenes do feature visibly bleached whites but this seems to be intentional. Altogether, a worthwhile presentation which provides able support to cinematographer David Jankowski's work.
The audio is presented in French and English 5.1 Dolby Digital Surround mixes with an optional English 2.0 mix being available as well. English and French subtitles are included. I chose to ignore the dub and viewed the film with its original French surround mix (which has a fair amount of English in it anyway). This isn't an especially chatty film but dialogue comes through with clarity. More importantly, the action scenes comes alive with vibrant energy. The gunplay has an immersive quality as do the chopper shots of the early rescue scene. Composer Xavier Berthelot's score is also done justice by being placed front and center on numerous occasions.
We kick things off with a set of 7 Deleted Scenes. The scenes are roughly divided between action and character moments that could have worked nicely in the film and other extraneous bits that deserved to be excised. The only other extra is a short featurette on Marius (3:31) which features Alain Alivon in naval commando mode taking us through realistic training exercises.
Director Stéphane Rybojad has delivered something resembling a French Tears of the Sun with his feature debut Special Forces. Djimon Hounsou may not have the star power of Bruce Willis but the cast as a whole is efficient and keeps the team dynamic at the forefront. The climax is too drawn out and divided in focus to match up to the energy of the film's first half but the overall impact is still fairly positive. Recommended.