A gripping and well-made tale of real-life heroism, The 12th Man is easily the high point of director Harold Zwart’s career, and a rather good fugitive adventure by any standard.
Before I review a film, I like to look at the director’s filmography and make rash judgements about their character and artistic worth. This was an especially illuminating activity in the case of Harald Zwart, the director of The 12th Man, even after I finally convinced Google to not correct his clearly intentionally-misspelled name. It turns out that this fellow was also responsible for Agent Cody Banks, The Pink Panther 2 (the one starring Steve Martin), and that hilarious knock-off of The Karate Kid in which Will Smith’s androgynous son learned kung-fu. It also turns out, then, that I hate him.
Having said that I did rather enjoy The 12th Man, a World War II drama based on the real-life exploits of a Norwegian resistance soldier who deployed from Scotland on an ill-fated skiing holiday and found himself pursued by the encroaching Gestapo across the frigid Scandinavian wilderness.
It’s a passion project for Zwart, then, who despite his horrible Hollywood output is nonetheless a native of the Netherlands – which explains the name. His muse is Jan Baalsrud (Thomas Gullestad), one of a dozen fighters sent to Norway to sabotage an airbase, a mission which doesn’t go entirely to plan. Alone and forced to defend himself not just against Fritz but also the uncompromising Arctic elements, Baalsrud sets out on a harrowing near-epic adventure in the hopes of one day being honoured in the hallowed frames of a Harald Zwart film.
The 12th Man is surprising in a lot of ways, such as how nicely-shot it is by Geir Hartly Andreassen. There’s a stately beauty to the landscapes, many of which would make for a nice postcard, but none you’d want to visit, which is entirely the point. Baalsrud’s suffering in the dreadful cold is relatable for anyone who has survived a dangerous English summer, and thanks to a portrait of resilience from Gullestad and – hark! – excellent direction by Zwart, the grisly extremes Baalsrud is forced to go to in order to survive gnaw your bones like the sub-zero air.
The snowy business is reminiscent of Alejandro González Iñárritu’s The Revenant, if thankfully devoid of his masturbatory camera work, and the scene in which Baalsrud tries to ski ahead of an avalanche reminded me of a similar scene in x*x, of all things, ridiculous action films being my go-to point of comparison for almost everything I see at this point.
The writing, courtesy of Petter Skavlan, doesn’t fare quite so well, littered as it is with commonplaces and thin characterisations of both Baalsrud’s pursuers and the various people who help him. Such things aren’t necessarily needed in a film like this, and the Nazis aren’t exactly deserving of an even-handed depiction, given matters of genocide and what have you, but it does seem a waste of human actors in roles that could just as easily have been filled by, I don’t know, Sam Worthington or another similarly emotionless android.
Nevertheless, as fugitive adventures go, The 12th Man is really a very good one, even by harsher standards than simply having been directed by Harald Zwart. It’s a bit hokey at times and slightly overlong, but it’s also consistently engrossing and suspenseful, and a message of real courage in the face of occupation by a xenophobic totalitarian government. In 2018, I’d argue that we need such films more than ever.