The title Lone Survivor promises combat action and tragedy and writer-director Peter Berg (Friday Night Lights, The Kingdom) conscientiously delivers both those components in equal measure.
Adapted from the memoir of navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell, the film is a tough and fairly riveting account of a SEAL mission to kill a Taliban leader (Yousuf Azami) whose ranks have claimed a number of U.S. marines.
Luttrell (Mark Wahlberg) is dropped in enemy territory in the Afghan mountains next to a Taliban-held village, alongside fellow SEALs Lt. Mike Murphy (Taylor Kitsch), Matt Axelson (Ben Foster) and Danny Dietz (Emile Hirsch).
A quick recon suggests the four soldiers will be outnumbered by about 100 to four, but the film's preface, with actual footage of the insanely tough training soldiers must endure before becoming Seals, establishes the fact that this quartet is made up of superbly trained killers. You almost feel sorry for their enemies.
That doesn't last long. The mission is compromised when the SEALs encounter a trio of goat herders who stumble upon their hiding place. A debate ensues examining all the options, which, to the film's credit, includes a serious discussion about whether or not they should kill these obvious non-combatants.
Decency prevails, but at a price: The four soldiers find themselves overrun by Taliban, who prove more adept at mountain fighting than anticipated. (Even so, note how four SEALs proceed to claim dozens of enemy casualties before the situation -- exacerbated by communications problems and a lack of air support -- becomes truly disastrous.
Lone Survivor is the third Hollywood film in as many years to focus on SEALs, beginning with Zero Dark Thirty -- with its climactic, triumphant takedown of Osama bin Laden -- and followed by Act of Valor, a flat-out propaganda/recruitment movie starring actual active-duty Seals.
Berg's film functions as a corrective to the other two. It is certainly not a mindless celebration of can-do kick-ass, nor is it a mission-accomplished cinematic victory lap. Befitting the American military experience in Afghanistan, it is a chilling depiction of the horrors of combat in which even fighting men as exalted as SEALs can find themselves at a loss.
While most action movies -- Act of Valor, for example -- betray a childish love of firepower, Berg is more interested in capturing the brutal, stinging devastation of a firefight, whether in the pitiful regression that accompanies combat shock or the grisly wet sounds of a sucking chest wound. A recruitment commercial? I don't think so.
Even so, Berg is respectful of the four soldiers at the centre of his story, all nicely portrayed by his well-chosen cast, but he is not wilfully blind to the human frailties on view beneath the camo. And that leaves us more -- not less -- invested in their tragic fates.