04 August 2014

FWS Movie Review: FORCES SPECIALES (AKA Special Forces )(2011)

Movies about Special Forces are nothing new, and extreme popular today. Special Forces have been popular topic of cinema since the Post-World War II era and have varied from the realistic (Black Hawk Down) to the propaganda (Green Berets) to the downright silly (Rambo/Commando). The entire genre of war-movies was altered by 2001's Black Hawk Down and 1998's Saving Private Ryan. In 2011, Easy Company, Canal+, and StudioCanal films invested ten million euros to create a French language Special Forces film set in Afghanistan, starring Djimon Hounsou (Amistad, Gladiator, Four Features, and Guardians of the Galaxy), Diane Kruger (Troy, National Treasure and Inglourious Bastards) and Tcheky Karyo (Nikita, Wing Commander, The Patriot, and Golden Eye ). Forces Speciales was filmed on-location in France, Tajikistan, and Djibouti and was directed by Stephane Rybojad, who also helped write the script. Many critics and reviewers have compared this French film with 2003's Tears of the Sun starring Bruce Willis and Monica Bellucci. I would only learn of this film one day when I logged onto IMFDB.org and on the main page, there were images of this modern warfare film, and after some research, I decided that this would be a good film for FWS. There film was hard to track down, and was not available for streaming on AT&T's U-Verse, and I finally found it at my local Dallas-based Movie Trade World...yes, I could have ordered it from Amazon.com, but, that wouldn't have been any fun.

The Plot
Elsa (Diane Kruger) is an French journalist on-assignment in Kabul covering the war and the rebuilding of Afghan society. During her assignment, she runs afoul of a local Western-born Afghan warlord named Ahmed Zaief (Raz Degan). His own wife comes to Elsa repeatedly and spills the secret of the man and his operations. Given the brutal of Zaief, the informant is taking a huge risk. Elsa's stories about Ziaef, whom she has labeled "the butcher of Kabul" are very popular in her native France.
During an interview with Zaief's wife, she tells Elsa to leave the country, Zaief and his men are aware of her betrayal. Panicked, Elsa attempted to get Zaief's wife out of Afghanistan, but Elsa and the two men with her are betrayed by a friend, leading to their capture while on the streets of Kabul in their 1990 Toyota Land Cruiser. Ziaef mets with the prisoner Elsa, and kills an local that had arrangered the meetings between Elsa and Zaief's wife. This murder is videotaped and released on the internet.
The video tape of the killing and her capture soon reached Elsa's newspaper and the French Government. The plan is to send a Special Forces RECON element into the region where she is being held to get on-site intel, and wait for a larger hostage rescue Special Forces unit (GIGN maybe?)to arrive.  The unit that arrives in a rough frontier French FOB is Naval Commandos under the leadership of Kovax (Dijmon Hounsou).
It is during the unit's insertion into the tribal regions of Pakistan, that the French Government alters the assignment of the Naval Commandos. Instead of RECON mission, they are to rescue the hostages. It believed by the French government that time is ticking down, and she will be killed prior to the arrive of the GIGN. The team moves in to rescue the hostages, but that is easy part of this operation that lasts over 10 days for Else and her rescuers.  

This is a beautiful shot film with impressive vistas, that really capture the isolation and ruggedness of Afghanistan and the tribal region of Pakistan. Director Stephane Rybojad did a very good job of telling the story visually with some impressive lighting as well. The overall story of a French citizen being taken into the tribal regions of Pakistan is both a timely one and a one that highlights the core mission of the Special Operations community. One realistic element that Forces Speciales borrows for real-world SPECOPS missions is the  tough choices that face these commandos in the field and how fucked up a mission can get in the field, especially in Afghanistan. It is these moments that the film really shines, and it is most heartbreaking. Towards the end of the film, is the most impressive of the entire experience.
All of the cast in the Naval Commandos, to the Afghan citizens, Dijmon Hounsou and Diane Kruger all turn in good solid performances that allow story integrity and honor real-world warfighters.While the filmmakers try hard to forge some individuality with the Naval Commandos, the standout here is Raz Degan playing Taliban commander Ahmed Zaief. Some other reviewers have complained that Zaief is too brutal, and too much of a stereotype, but to me, it is the best performance in the movie.
Actor Raz Degan is a three-year veteran of the IDF and besides an actor, he is also a model, and captures the screen when on it. Zaief is a London-educated Afghan, who grew up in the west, and only joined the Taliban after 9-11. He fancies himself as a battlefield commander, but he is not trusted by the spiritual leadership of the Taliban, nor other Taliban warlords. He solves this by being brutal and cold. But at his core, he is conflicted.  Like the majority of recently films about SOF missions, real Special Forces members trained and lead the actors on what the reality was, adding that je ne sais quio to the film like Tears of the Sun, Zero Dark Thirty, and Black Hawk Down. One small thing, is that the French film is about French Special Forces, and is not a French film made about US SPECOPS units...I like that and respect that choice.

One of the worst elements of Forces Speciales is that it just simply overdone. There is too much emotions, too much over-the-top moments, too much loss of life that is just there to trigger an emotional response from the audience. While I had a similar experience with 2003's Tears of the Sun, and this French out-does that American movie, and leaves the film heavy-handed. Added to this, the French commandos scream alot after something dramatic happens. Totally odd. One of the biggest sins committed by Forces Speciales is how jumpy it is. I kid not when I say that upon the second viewing, it reminded me of a squirrel hopped up on espresso. Some of this is the fault of the editing. While I know that things happen in combat randomly, and filmmakers and game designers attempt to replicate the chaos of combat, but this is just too much. During scenes that set up the entire reason for the Naval Commandos being in-country are jump-cut, leaving the viewer confused. It feels like dialog is not respected in the film, nor are the quiet moments. The worst examples of this jumpiness is in sudden violent actions occurring in the film that defy logic. One of these events is a sniper shot, and it is good, and very well done. But the final conflict between the commandos and Zaief is forced and bizarre, and totally milks the whole "suddenly" plot device.
A film like this depends on the realism of the setting, actions of the commandos, and the enemy. While the film gets a great deal right, it also has some glaring errors. One of the biggest I noticed, was about the French Naval Commandos switching their pistols far too much. This perplexed me about Forces Speciales, the both times I watched the film for this review. For example, during the opening raid on the warlord compound in Kosovo, several of the French commandos draw their pistols in instead of using their fully outfitted MP5 submachine guns. Both the pistol and the SMG have lights and aiming devices, and there seems little reason for the switch. Was this just to look cool? It gets even worse. When the Naval Commandos roll into the Tribal village to rescue the hostage, several of the character switch to pistols, despite carrying H&K MP5SD3 that they especially brought for the hostage rescue mission in the village! What kind of logic is that?! The worst part was while the MP5SD3s are sound suppressed, most of the pistols used by the French Commandos are NOT!

When award season rolls around and the editing awards are handed out, I never quite understood the power and effect of good editing on a film...that was until I witnessed the utter hack-and-slash-job that is the editing on this film. Editing is what breaks Forces Speciales down from being a good solid foreign made modern war film to an marginal action film. Honestly, it is that bad. The power of some scenes are completely destroyed by the sudden switch, and the lack of flow in combat sequences is criminal. Also, other scenes are given the briefest of moments, like a night time firefight via the green glow of NVGs that lasts...no joke...13 seconds, while others are allowed to drag out. This completely hampers the overall story, the acting, and dialog. It was frustrating, to see the power of the scenes, the good performances, and overall interesting storyline; only to have all of it been wasted by the completely ineffective editing.

The Weapons of Forces Speciales
Forces Speciales is a field-day of modern weaponry, and some is not often seen in cinema. The small team of French Naval Commandos use a variety of weaponry, but all in 5.56x45mm, 7.62x51mm, and 9x19mm. While French military is known for using the compact bullpup FAMAS 5.56 assault rifle, but it does not appear in the film. Instead the French Naval Commandos use a variety of more NATO-accepted firearms, like the M4A1, the Colt Model 727, and the rarely seen Beretta ARX-160. The pistols are a mix pf Glocks, Sig Sauers, and even a CZ-75. Someone on IMdB posted that French Special Forces do not use the FAMAS due to flexibility issues with the FAMAS, namely that the little bullpup does not take STANAG magazine The odd thing is that real French Naval Commandos seen in Afghanistan have been photographed with the FAMAS.

  • The Character of Elise, the sniper, dies in a manner similar to Elise from Platoon
  •  The AR-15 carbines in the film are a mixed of Colt Model 727s and M4A1s
  • Alain Alivon, who played Marius, is an actually French Naval Marine Commando and served as a technical adviser on the film
  • Despite the FAMAS being the standard assault rifle of the French military, none of the Naval Marine Commandos use the bullpup. 
  • The opening scene shows the Marine Commandos of the film being tasked with an HVT capture mission in Kosovo. However, the licence plates on the cars are French. 
  • This is one of the first foreign films to feature an Porsche Panamera. 
  • The French Armed Forces were heavily involved in the film, lending technical advice and equipment, including helicopters, fighters, and an aircraft carrier!

Should You Watch Forces Speciales?
First off, I would not buy this...well, that at first. Do yourself a favor, and rent it, and watch it twice. I bought this randomly at an Dallas Movie Trade World, but I now wished I hadn't. I don't know how much I will re-watch this film in the future. If you are going to watch this film, do yourself a favor, turn on the original French language track with English subtitles...the sound and dialog are superior in the original French, and the voice-over dubs in English is of poor quality and is laughable in some parts. In the end, while well-acted and beautifully shot, Forces Speciales could have been much better than it was. The overall plot is simple, but effective, and the most of the other elements are there. But the film does not capitalize on them enough for this to be any thing more than a French Commandos-in-Afghanistan-Tears of the Sun-inspirited-movie. However, towards the end of the film, as the commandos struggle to walk out of the tribal region and into Afghanistan is the overall best moments of the film itself, they are both uplifting and bittersweet. A very perplexing film.

Next Time on FWS...
It is finally time, dear readers of FWS. For decades, I've always wanted to have a place to discuss my favorite science fiction weapon, and now that blogpost will be written. It just so happens that this icon of sci-fi weaponry is from my favorite science fiction film, 1982's BLADE RUNNERDeckard's iconic and legendary handgun was never given a official name, but that has not stopped it from becoming an inspiration for us creators and a favorite of prop makers for decades. In the next installment of The Weapons of Sci-Fi, we will be discussing in-depth, the M2019 .44 PDK Detective Special. This is going to be fun.


  1. Hi William

    About the future blogpost of PDK Detective Special - Are U planning to write something like "The fictional history of" like U did 2 years ago for the EM-33 plasma pistol?


    If so, I have some good ideas for the technical and mechanical properties of the gun, explaining the: two triggers, upper tube above the barrel, rectangular box under the barrel & the lack of hammer, without needing to resort to hypothetical second barrel with special replicate "silver bolt".

    Best regard


  2. The blogpost is fully written, and it is similar to the M41A1 weapons of sci-fi blogpost from last year. I did include my thoughts and notes from my Blade Runner novel. However, if you would like to send you data in a fictionalized history of the of the PKD 2019 Detective Special, I would be happy to include it along with giving you credit. Send it to my email and with how you want me to credit it. Cheers!

  3. I've heard about this movie a while ago and as a French guy was intrigued about how we would do a military action movie. The critics I've read are mixed : some call it "great and a fresh take on the genre", others call it "overdone, blatant French propaganda", etc. I was hesitating seeing it, but if you say that the editing is crap, I might not take the chance...

    On the weapons used, seeing M4-like rifles doesn't surprise me much, as some are indeed used by French SpecOps. But the Beretta ARX-160? I know Wikipedia isn't a 100% reliable source, but it seems like the ARX is not even issued by any branch of the French armies!

    The lack of FAMAS is also weird. A particular version of the weapon issued by the French Navy, called FAMAS G2 ( http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/2/2b/FAMAS-G2-IMG_8894-white.jpg ) can accept STANAG magazines and is in use in the French Naval Commandos, just like on this picture ( https://c2.staticflickr.com/4/3347/4562441054_5f841090e0_z.jpg ). Rails can also be mounted on it to improve flexibility.

    I've been watching this blog for quite a time, learning a lot about armies, guns and sci-fi goodness. Keep up the amazing work!

  4. If you can see this movie for a few bucks or even free, than I would watch it...once. Portions of it a quiet good. But the editing so bad that it should be shown in Film School to be an example of what NOT to do.
    The Beretta ARX-160 being in this film is probably a "cool gun" insert...cannot imagine the French SOF using it over weapons like the H&K 416 or their own insane FAMAS...always wanted to fire one of those!
    I am very happy you have been enjoying your stay here on FWS. I really try to make FWS a home for military sci-fi and not some lame advertisement for new products or publishers.
    Thanks for reading and commenting!