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Review: Unrelenting “Lone Survivor” is a tough war film to watch

Lone Survivor

Despite some solid pre-release buzz, I did not expect Peter Berg’s Lone Survivor to be a winter box office smash, and that seemed even less likely to me after seeing it. I was way off. I reviewed it for the Buffalo News, and stand by my two-star verdict. It might be a hit, but that does not make it a great film.

The most moving chapter of director Peter Berg’s based-on-a-true-story Afghanistan war drama “Lone Survivor,” opening Friday, does not include stars Mark Wahlberg, Taylor Kitsch, Emile Hirsch or Ben Foster.

It is instead a five-minute-or-so collection of real video and images of Navy SEAL(s) in training that is kinetic, compelling and moving. We watch as they are plunged into water relentlessly and speak of the bond they share with their “brothers.”

This footage is unique and memorable – far more so than the nearly two hours that follow. Berg (director of “Hancock” and “Battleship”) and company try hard, but despite some of the most violent, relentless close-range combat in recent cinema, that opening is never topped.

“Lone Survivor” is based on the book by Marcus Luttrell, a Navy SEAL played by Wahlberg. He was as the title indicates – and this is hardly a spoiler – the only SEAL to survive a failed 2005 mission in Afghanistan.

As the film opens, Luttrell and his brothers – Kitsch plays Mike Murphy, Hirsch is Danny Dietz, and Foster is Matthew Axelson – await the order to hunt Taliban leader Ahmad Shah. Among them, Murphy is clearly the legend of the group.

Soon, the mission begins in nicely subdued fashion. The four find their target, sit and wait. But when a goat herder and two younger Afghanis stumble upon them, the mission is quickly compromised.

The most interesting moments between the four main characters happen here, as they debate what to do next. It’s a fascinating sequence, in which they are forced to face serious questions in a matter of minutes: Should they kill the trio? Release them? Tie them up, and get out as fast as possible?

It serves as a reminder of how difficult it must be to make possibly life-altering decisions without warning.

A decision is made, and from this point forward, it’s a different film – in essence, it becomes the most unrelentingly bullet-heavy military drama since “Black Hawk Down.”

It is no exaggeration to say that once the first shots are fired, they rarely stop over the next hour, bludgeoning the viewer to such a degree that it is difficult to leave the theater feeling anything other than mental exhaustion.

Was that Berg’s point? Perhaps. He is clearly attempting to thrust the viewer straight into the action, to make us experience the violence and terror that these four brave soldiers endured.

But we can’t experience it, really. Unlike those early photos and videos, we are watching Berg’s re-creation, and he cannot resist directorial tropes that only serve to highlight that disconnect between the real and the unreal. It is hard not to wonder how accurate the film is, especially considering its final stretch, in which villagers take on the Taliban to save Luttrell’s life. But even with those questions, the lengthy fighting and the ending is often gripping, and occasionally shot with real verve and creativity.

Berg knows how to craft an action sequence – one in particular, involving a helicopter rescue attempt, is a stunner. This is certainly a stronger work than the awful “Battleship,” but the early buzz pegging it as an Oscar sleeper was wrong. It’s no war classic.

Script-wise, none of the main characters are particularly well-developed; each gets a tidbit of background only, generally involving their significant others back home. Still, Wahlberg, Kitsch and Foster, especially, do fine work.

Wahlberg continues to make mostly solid choices that maximize his everyman appeal and penchant for dopey humor. Here, however, he is surprisingly overshadowed by co-star Kitsch, who gives a simple, effective performance. Eric Bana also is solid as a commanding officer faced with increasingly tough decisions.

“Tough” is a word that describes the film well, actually. “Lone Survivor” certainly works as a tribute to the men who died on that mountain. But it is not a great film – merely a “tough” one.