★★ out of ★★★★

By Van Roberts

Mark Wahlberg struggles to stay alive in war-torn Afghanistan throughout “Friday Night Lights” director Peter Berg’s “Lone Survivor”, a heroic but tragic combat chronicle co-starring Taylor Kitsch, Emile Hirsch, Ben Foster and Eric Bana.  This gritty, profane, but ill-fated secret mission saga about former Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell’s battlefield exploits qualifies as an entertaining but predictable saga.  Basically, this blood, sweat, and tears, mission-gone-awry movie reminded me of Ridley Scott’s grueling warfare spectacle “Black Hawk Down.”  Scott’s actioneer dealt with a disastrous mission in Somalia, back in 1993, when U.S. Rangers were dispatched to snatch two warlords out of a town teeming with heavily armed fanatics.  They encountered chaos galore and had to fight for their lives.  Comparably smaller in scale, “Lone Survivor” lacks the harrowing intensity of “Black Hawk Down.”  Our desperate “Lone Survivor” hero endures a nightmare-experience that lesser souls would never have survived.  Sadly, his three SEAL team unit members caught none of his breaks.  Nevertheless, while watching “Lone Survivor,” I didn’t feel like I was dodging a firestorm of ordnance as I did when I sat through “Black Hawk Down.”  Despite its two-hour plus length, “Lone Survivor” never bogs down.  Although Berg’s combat choreography lacks the visceral quality of “Black Hawk Down,” the “Lone Survivor” stunts look and sound very physical.  Scenes of soldiers plummeting down the sides of craggy mountains made me flinch.  Recently, I fell and shattered by right elbow so every time one of the SEALs struck either a rocky outcropping or a tree, I cringed at the sickening sounds.  Specifically, Berg doesn’t emphasize the predicament that ricocheting bullets posed.  If you read the frank and outspoken Luttrell, whose memoir Berg adapted, the SEAL team member wrote about how ricochets could prove as menacing as the shots themselves.  Most of the time, the SEALs find themselves trapped in terrain with scant foliage.  Meaning, it was doubly difficult for them to hide not only from the flying lead but also ricochets. Unlike Luttrell, Berg doesn’t dwell at length on the fatal mistake and its consequences as much as Luttrell’s memoir.  Instead, Berg winds up depicting the SEALs as honorable men who refused to take the easy way out of a moral quandary.

“Lone Survivor” covers the three days during Operation Red Wing when an elite four-man unit of Navy SEALs set out to capture Taliban chieftain Ahmad Shah (Yousuf Azami of “Crank”) in the rugged Hindu Kush Mountains of the Kunar Province.  They want Ahmad because he masterminded the murder of 20 American soldiers.  Like the disastrous mission in “Black Hawk Down,” the “Lone Survivor” heroes are conducting business-as-usual until everything that can go wrong goes horrendously wrong.  Similarly, like “Black Hawk Down,” “Lone Survivor” derives its narrative from a factual, eyewitness account.  During the opening credits, Berg gives us a glimpse at wannabe Navy SEALs negotiating a gauntlet of an obstacle course.  Grainy, documentary-style footage of SEALs enduring the worst that you can imagine outside of combat foreshadows the tenacity of our heroes.  They can take a licking and keep on ticking.  Afterward, we meet the quartet of warriors and enjoy their easy-going camaraderie.  Twenty-nine-year old Texas native Marcus Luttrell (Mark Wahlberg of “Ted”) is a Hospital Corpsman who has no idea how complicated his life will be on his next mission.  Luttrell’s friends, Lt. Michael Murphy (Taylor Kitsch of “John Carter”), Gunner’s Mate Danny P. Dietz (Emile Hirsch of “Savages”); and Sonar Technician Matthew “Axe” Axelson (Ben Foster of “3:10 to Yuma”), are just as oblivious.  Thoughts about home and their loved ones dominate their thoughts.  No sooner have they reached their objective than an elderly goat herder and two boys accidentally stumble onto them in the brush.  Our heroes capture these Taliban loyalists and take them prisoner.  Lieutenant Murphy boils down their options.  First, they can execute their hostages.  Second, they can leave them tied to trees in the wilderness like snacks for wild animals.  Third, they can release them and scrub the mission.  Our heroes behave like noble western gunfighters.  They decide to turn the shepherd and his sons loose.  Luttrell and company believe they can clear out before the enemy show up.  Unfortunately, our heroes find themselves suddenly surrounded by an army of Taliban terrorists armed with AK-47 assault rifles with an inexhaustible supply of ammunition.  In his memoir, Luttrell compared their predicament to Custer’s Last Stand.  Afterward, a running gun battle follows with our heroes mowing down terrorists by the dozens.  The problem is the Taliban have the SEALs hopelessly outnumbered and our heroes have nowhere to go.  Worse, the SEALs have trouble getting a clear signal so they can contact headquarters and summon relief helicopter gunships!

Characterization remains sketchy at best in “Lone Survivor.”  Indeed, we never gain much insight into the Americans as three dimensional characters.  Berg treats the quartet of SEALs as if they were an ensemble so you’re not sure initially who is going to buy the farm.  No single character lords it over the others in spite of their respective ranks.  Not surprisingly, the Americans emerge as sympathetic, but the filmmakers don’t demonize the Taliban.  Primarily, Berg keeps the villains at arm’s length.  The Taliban amounts to pugnacious, trigger-happy, dastards.  Essentially, they resemble the hordes of Apache Indians in a cavalry western.  We know little about them except that they are miserable marksmen, wear too much eye-liner, and live only to slaughter Americans with extreme prejudice.  Surprisingly, Berg shuns any geopolitical messages or cultural bias.  The sloppy but violent combat sequences will keep you distracted from diatribes from either side.  “Lone Survivor” is a good movie, but you won’t want to see it more than once.

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