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.