Nearly a decade and a half ago Ridley Scott's Black Hawk Down was released in the month of January and blew audiences away with his masterful direction in creating one of the most intensely emotional war films ever put to film. The new film 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi from the king of excess Michael Bay shares not only a similar release date as that Scott classic but also many thematic elements. While that gut instinct to write it off when seeing that name on the marquee might been the appropriate thing to do when considering this is the guy who gave us the cinematic abortion known as Pearl Harbor, you would be doing yourself a great injustice in this case. Read the full review after the break.
Review Vital Stats:
Projector Type: 2D Digital
Film Rating: R
Film Runtime: 2 hr 24 min
Studio: Paramount Pictures
Release Date: January 15, 2016
Loves: Not much unfortunately
Likes: The Rock, Bad Boys 1 & 2, Armageddon, Pain & Gain
Neutral: Transformers (the first one), The Island
Hates: Transformers 2, Transformers 3, Transformers 4, Pearl Harbor
Should Michael Bay be given less money to make movies?: Perhaps he would make better movies all the time with less money.
2012, Benghazi Libya is an uncontrolled warzone primed to explode. Nested deep inside the borders of Benghazi is a secret CIA outpost with over two dozen operatives stationed there. Since they are there unofficially they have no direct protection by the United States military leaving them to rely on the services of a select number of professional contract soldiers. These six men, led by Tyrone Woods (James Badge Dale) are under the control of the outpost chief (David Costabile) and under strict orders to not engage hostiles unless no other option is available or else risk their presence there become known.
On September of that year they receive word that a United States Ambassador will be arriving at Benghazi to visit with the local populace and try to ascertain what the situation is actually like there. Traveling with only a barebones security squad made up of rookie ex-military, Tyrone's men are deployed as advisers to the Ambassador's security team and are instructed to keep their distance as observers only. Shortly after the Ambassador arrives however a large number of rebels storm the villa he is stationed at only a mile away from the CIA outpost trapping him and his security detail inside the building. While still under orders to not get involved, Tyrone and his team decide to intervene before everyone at the villa are killed which leads to a night long standoff between these secret soldiers and an entire city filled with hostiles.
Michael Bay is not well known for his subtlety. In fact he has made a career out of going as extreme as possible whenever possible. Films such as The Rock, Pearl Harbor, Armageddon and Transformers have established him as the guy who likes to blow s**t up really big and really loud, usually at the expense of those pesky little things like story and character. While it is fun to see things blow up from time to time it can all get very exhausting, especially when combined with Bay's directorial style which has led many to despise his more extreme filmmaking tendencies such as his love for sports cars and his unwavering dedication to exploiting imagery of the American flag in nearly every shot of every film he has ever made.
However, Michael Bay is a skilled filmmaker regardless of how much he likes to blow s**t up, he just rarely shows us that side of him. His biggest departure up until now had been his film The Island, one of his lesser known and more aggressively hated projects. While that film wasn't exactly good, its first half did showcase a different side of the man with him focusing more on story and character than he ever had before. It wasn't original but at least we didn't have explosions every second, that would come in its second half where the whole film just became one huge action orgy seemingly in an attempt to make up for the lack of explosions in the first half.
It may be a little too early to call it but 13 Hours may well indeed be Michael Bay at his most restrained. Yes there at the typical explosions, upward low angle shots and plenty of American flag porn but not nearly as much as you might expect. Much like The Island, 13 Hours is nearly devoid of any action or explosions in its first half which has been replaced with this slow and tension filled build up to the eventual chaos we know is coming. Bay also uses this time wisely to introduce us to his characters and maybe it is the fact that he is depicting real American heroes as opposed to fictional ones but they aren't the usual machismo laced super men that fill most of his other action movies, they all come off as real people with real problems and real emotions.
When we first meet Jack Silva (John Krasinski) he is clearly set up to be the outsider who must have everything explained to him for the sake of explaining it to the audience but his character goes beyond that. We feel his angst and his regret of leaving behind his family (another Bay cliche) but we also identify with why he makes that sacrifice. He isn't there to blow s**t up, in fact he isn't there to even shoot his weapon, he just wants to get in and get out as fast as possible in order to see his family again. When the s**t does eventually hit the fan he doesn't turn into some rambo stereotype he is still the same guy but now he is fighting to survive. He goes head first into danger not because he wants the glory, he just wants to be able to live with himself by knowing he did the right thing.
The same goes for all the soldiers. They are all given real reasons for being where they are and when they are and it all works towards making the audience identify with them in a way where you actually start to care for them. It may be a bit manipulative but it never crosses the line into flat out melodrama. Between the performances, the carefully fine tuned script and direction this is Michael Bay's most mature film yet. You will find yourself attached to each and every one of these six guys by the end and feel as though you know them like your best friend. This is without a doubt some of the best character work ever done by Michael Bay and nobody is more surprised by that statement than this reviewer.
Michael Bay also sets the stage extremely well, showing us all the dangers of the city that lie in waiting to strike at our characters as they try to covertly navigate the mazelike streets of the city. Everyone looks the same, the rebels and the friendlies wear nothing to distinguish themselves from one another leading to probably the film's second greatest strength, its sense of paranoia. Our six guys almost never know who is with them and who isn't which leads to a number of tension fueled moments that put them in mortal danger at nearly every turn. One of more effective scenes happens at the Ambassador's villa when Tyrone's men arrive on scene just after the rebels had fled. The grounds are filled with bystanders and other miscellaneous locals who are all armed to the teeth but they have no idea if any of them will suddenly turn their guns on them and open fire, but they can't do anything about it.
By the time the film reaches its middle point it has only just begun for our characters as they soon find themselves in a situation very similar to that of the Alamo where they are surrounded by larger numbers of hostiles as they try to hold down the fort until help can arrive. Michael Bay could have easily taken this opportunity to turn the film into an action-fest filled with fireballs and gunfire but unlike what he did with The Island he restrains himself yet again only giving up an explosion here and there for dramatic impact more than as simple eye candy. The character moments are the real treat during these scenes and as they soldier on throughout the night we can't help but become fully invested in their plight.
13 Hours is not Black Hawk Down, but then again it isn't really trying to be that. The two films are similar for the most arbirtray of reasons and are not even remotely related in the way they were made. Scott's film dealt with United States military soldiers who were assigned to their outpost and swore an oath to do their duty for their country. Bay's film focuses on a small squad of men who have no binding agreement to save civilians or even to stay loyal to each other. They are under contract but they are not under orders to risk their own lives for others. The fact that they decided of their own free will to put themselves at risk to save those couple dozen civilians in Benghazi makes them even more brave and valiant than any comissioned soldier ever could be simply because they have a choice. The fact that they made the choice to put themselves in danger makes them true heroes. Michael Bay's film gives them the respect they deserve and puts a spotlight on a group of men who should be remembered for their sacrifices.
I may come to regret this at some point later in life but I really loved 13 Hours. This is far and away the best film that Michael Bay has ever made. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that he actually wanted to make this film as opposed to doing it just for a paycheck (cough...Transformers...cough). If you have any hesitation seeing this simply because the name Michael Bay is on the poster then try to look past that as you will otherwise be missing out on what is sure to be one of the best films of 2016.