The title pretty much gives away the ending, but that takes away little from the dramatic tension of “Lone Survivor.”
The true story of a Navy SEALs secret mission that went horribly wrong, “Lone Survivor” focuses on four SEALs dropped behind enemy lines in Afghanistan to kill or capture a Taliban leader. Mark Wahlberg and Ben Foster give standout performances as two of the four.
The movie's centerpiece is an extended firefight up and down a rocky mountain ridge that is skillfully filmed and edited under director Peter Berg (“Friday Night Lights”). The bone-crunching, blood-drenched action goes on and on as the Taliban relentlessly pursue the four, while their buddies back at Bagram Air Base (led by a somber Eric Bana) have trouble with communications and scrambling tactical support.
The brutally graphic war violence put me in mind of “Saving Private Ryan.” While the movie stays away from the politics of the war, the gruesome toll makes the same kind of anti-war statement as Steven Spielberg's movie did. Brace yourself for lots of close-ups of gaping wounds, spraying blood as bullets hit home, and men tumbling down steep boulder- and tree-strewn slopes.
At the same time, the way “Lone Survivor” lionizes the SEALs as the toughest of the tough, each of them possessed with undying loyalty toward his combat brothers and incredible stamina to keep going, it's possible somebody might see this as a powerful recruiting tool for the military. I doubt that's what it's trying to be, though an extended photo tribute at the end to 19 who died has its own weight.
Footage of SEAL training plays during the opening credits, hammering home the point of how tough you have to be to get into these elite units and how hard the men learn to push themselves past their physical limits.
But the movie doesn't get very deep when it comes to the personal lives of the four principal characters. A few bunkside personal effects, photos or emails hint at what they left back home. Character development is left to be defined by what they say and do during the firefight.
The primary moral dilemma comes when the four have hiked to a spot overlooking the Taliban leader's village, only to be stumbled on by a group of goatherders with a walkie talkie. That sparks debate over whether they should kill the unarmed civilians, tie them up and leave them to be devoured by wolves, or free them and have their cover blown. One of the herders is just a kid.
They opt for letting them go, at the urging of team leader Marcus Luttrell (Wahlberg), with backing by Michael Murphy (Taylor Kitsch, “Battleship”). Matt Axelson (Foster), the most intense among an intense foursome, loses the argument, while Danny Dietz (Emile Hirsch) seems to lean toward his side.
“Lone Survivor” can feel derivative in spots. But it's an action thrill-ride and a powerful, grim statement on the sacrifices military forces and their families make.
The movie tips its hat toward Muslim civilians as well, some of whom put their own lives on the line to shelter a wounded American.
* * * * *
Quality: Three stars (out of four)
Director: Peter Berg
Stars: Mark Wahlberg, Taylor Kitsch, Emile Hirsch, Ben Foster, Eric Bana, Yousef Azami
Rating: R for strong bloody war violence, pervasive language
Running time: 2 hours, 1 minute
Theaters: Aksarben, Bluffs 17, Majestic, Midtown, Oakview, Regal, Twin Creek, Village Pointe, Westroads