'The 12th Man': Film Review

A war movie of the old-fashioned kind.

Jonathan Rhys Meyers plays a ruthless Gestapo officer in Harald Zwart's World War II thriller based on real-life events.

Little in Harald Zwart's filmography would have suggested that he would one day direct a gripping World War II thriller. The filmmaker's previous credits include such bland Hollywood fare as Agent Cody Banks, The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones and the 2010 Karate Kid remake, but his latest, far superior effort is clearly a labor of love for the Dutch filmmaker. Telling the real-life wartime story that was also the subject of Nine Lives, a 1957 Norwegian drama nominated for a best foreign film Oscar, The 12th Man is the sort of suspenseful, old-fashioned war movie that should particularly appealing to older viewers, provided they don't mind reading subtitles.

Norwegian hip-hop performer Thomas Gullestad makes an impressive starring debut as Norwegian national hero Jan Baalsrud, one of 12 British-trained commandos who participated in a 1943 anti-Nazi mission in his home country. The mission failed spectacularly, with Baalsrud the only one who managed to escape as the other 11 men were either captured or killed. Suffering a gunshot wound to his toe in the process, Baalsrud swam through freezing waters to make his way across the wintry landscape. He was relentlessly pursued by Kurt Stage (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), an Inspector Javert-like Gestapo officer determined to hunt him down. In the ensuing months of struggling for survival, Baalsrud relied on the efforts of numerous ordinary Norwegian citizens who risked their lives to help him travel to safety.

The 12th Man relates this amazing tale of survival in harrowing detail, not stinting from depicting the effects of gangrene on Baalsrud's toe and his many other injuries. The stark beauty of the Arctic settings contrasts with the grittiness of the storyline and the frequently graphic violence on display. But there's a strong humanistic aspect as well, especially in the hero's warm interactions with the people, including his primary helper Marius (Mads Sjogard Petterson) and his younger sister Gudrun (Marie Blokhus), who facilitate his survival.

It's hard to know whether some of the more outlandish plot elements are based in truth, one example being when Baalsrud takes to skis to elude his pursuer and literally bumps into him. An annoyed Stage helps him up, complaining, "I thought Norwegians knew how to ski." Some of screenwriter Alex Boe's dialogue is a bit ripe as well, such as when one of the Germans comments about their leader's obsessiveness, "They say no one has escaped him before." On the other hand, the film takes pains to reassure us with its opening graphic reading, "The most incredible events in this story are the ones that actually took place."

Despite its occasional hokey moments, The 12th Man proves consistently engrossing and suspenseful, with its lead performances further enhancing its impact. Gullestad has charisma to spare as the beleaguered hero, handling his role's considerable physical and emotional demands with a skill that belies his acting inexperience. And Rhys Meyers, his face adorned with the sort of scar that instantly signals villainy, is hypnotically compelling as the Nazi who will do anything to capture his quarry. The actor's intense turn is all the more effective for being delivered entirely in German.

Production companies: Nordisk Film Production AS, Zwart Arbeid
Distributor: IFC Midnight
Cast: Thomas Gullestad, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Marie Blokus, Mads Sjogard Pettersen, Martin Kiefer
Director: Harald Zwart
Screenwriter: Alex Boe
Producers: Aage Aaberge, Veslemoy Ruud Zwart, Espen Horn, Harald Zwart
Executive producers: Henrik Zein, Lone Korslund, Jetil Jensberg, Petter Skavian, Jonathan Rhys Meyers
Director of photography: Geir Hartly Andreassen
Production designer: Mikael Varhelyi
Editor: Jens Christian Fodstad
Composer: Christophe Beck
Costume designer: Karen Fabritius Gram
Casting: Petter S. Holmsen

131 minutes