Wartime survival epics are a rich genre unto themselves, and with “The 12th Man,” Norway has one that ranks among the very best.
Give it to run of the mill Dutch director Harald Zwart. He makes his own journey from “Agent Cody Banks” and “The Karate Kid” into the snowy peaks and fjords of Norway pay off with his most impressive movie.
It takes brass to open your picture with this title — “The most incredible events in this story are the ones that actually took place.”
Jan Baalsrud (Thomas Gullestad) is an ex-pat who has trained as a commando in Britain’s Shetland Islands. But when he and eleven other saboteur/commandos sailed a trawler to Norway in March of 1943, everything went wrong. The rest were killed in action, executed on the spot or captured, destined for torture at the hands of the Germans.
Jan alone escaped, urged on by one doomed comrade (in Norwegian, with English subtitles) — “Make sure this wasn’t all in vain.”
Even though he isn’t Errol Flynn, the Rambo of his day, Jan is determined to get on with his mission. But he has a toe shot off in that escape. There’s no chance he can accomplish anything except his own survival, which in itself is a long shot.
Jonathan Rhys Meyers, back on the big screen and speaking German, is Kurt Stage, the SS officer in charge of tidying all this up. He’s got a spotless record, and he’s not going to let some subordinate (Martin Kiefer) convince him that missing commando drowned in the sub-freezing fjord he plunged into.
“You’re chasing a ghost!”
“Until we find his body, he’s alive!”
Thus begins an obsessive cross-country man-hunt, interspersed with occasional breaks for breaking the Geneva Convention. Stage likes to oversee the torture, personally. Nazis always do.
The narrative Peter Skyaylan scripted here is conventional, emphasizing the extent of Baalsrud’s suffering and the many everyday Norwegians who risked their necks to help this stranger get to Sweden.
“It’s bigger than just me,” Jan realizes. Eventually.
The story’s bravura, “Saving Private Ryan” opening — a nightmare of a beach landing, under fire and under icy water — is merely glimpsed, its details to be filled in much later.
Gullestad, better known as a Norwegian rapper (apparently), suffers mightily, pain and starvation leading to hallucinations, self-surgery and the like. Rhys Meyers is stunningly convincing as a monomaniacal Nazi, the sort of fellow who dunks his prisoners in freezing water to get information from them, getting in the water himself with a stopwatch to see how much they should be able to endure.
But the picture is also packed with grace notes, touching moments of fear and concern with Jan’s helpers, chats with the children of those who take him in, including a smart little girl who knows her geography and meteorology.
“Have the Germans stolen our Northern Lights?” he teases.
Zwart never shies away from showing the deteriorating state of Baalsrud’s feet, and dwells a bit too much on the various hiding places, impressing upon us how much Baalsrud endured, the many modes of transport attempted, the many innocent lives he endangered as he was carried, by boat, sled, skis, etc., out of harm’s way.
But it’s no spoiler to say the climax of this crackling good yarn is a dazzler –tense, stunning in scale and you’ll-never-BELIEVE-this surprising.
With “The 12th Man,” Norway has a survival saga to rival “Rescue Dawn,” “The Way Back,” and “Unbroken.” And the Dutchman Zwart has a career-making title that could lift him out of the kids-movie ghetto Hollywood long-ago sentenced him to.
MPAA Rating: unrated, graphic violence, torture, gruesome injuries and smoking
Cast: Thomas Gullestad, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Marie Blokhus, Mads Sjøgård Pettersen
Credits:Directed by Harald Zwart, script by Petter Skavlan. An IFC Midnight release.
Running time: 2:10