Michael Bay is back. Potentially forever lost to giant toy movies (which certainly have all had their moments of gee-whiz visual insanity), he’s stepped up and made an uncompromising modern combat film with 13 Hours. Smartly avoiding any overt political specifying or sketchy speculation, Chuck Hogan’s battle-ready screenplay, based on Mitchell Zuckoff’s book, is all forward momentum, focusing on the harrowing and desperate efforts of six American private military contractors who leapt into action when a United States diplomatic compound in Benghazi was attacked by terrorist insurgents on September 11, 2012. Captured with Bay’s always spectacular sense of bravado, heroics and adventure, this is a grab you by the throat action picture, violent and sad and upsetting, never diluted by extraneous side plots or unnecessary digressions, all made more robust by the surprisingly thoughtful contextualization of the enemy and the local people of the area. The extra-macho cast includes the movie stealing James Badge Dale who completely dominates with a tough as nails performance, a surprisingly effective John Krasinski, the terrific Pablo Schreiber, Max Martini, Toby Stephens, David Denman, Dominic Fumusa, Freddie Stroma, and Alexia Barlier. The opening act and closing moments might’ve been a bit tighter, and some of the spoken dialogue is a tad corny in spots, but these are very minor quibbles, as this was a movie designed for maximum sensory force and extreme visceral impact, made by a filmmaker who seemed liberated to be working in a more decidedly adult arena.
Dion Beebe’s powerhouse cinematography is nearly hallucinatory at times, conjuring up images that are absolutely tremendous, while emphasizing spatial geography in nearly every instance, putting you smack-dab in the middle of one ferocious fire-fight after another with striking clarity. You’ve seen plenty of war films but not one done by Bay in this particular fashion, and it’s clear that he took notes from Black Hawk Down and Lone Survivor and other recent genre entries that have demonstrated a single-minded obsession of detailing bloody, terrifying sequences of wartime violence. The lucid and precise editing by master cutter Pietro Scalia (Black Hawk Down) only further ratcheted up the suspense, dread, and excitement. Lorne Balfe’s on-edge musical score highlights triumph where needed but mostly uses somber, almost mournful ambient sounds to give the film an added sonic pulse. One set-piece in particular, featuring a group of mercenaries taking refuge in a heavily armored Mercedes SUV that comes under fire from every direction, ranks as some of the best on-screen firepower that Bay has ever delivered, to say nothing of the overwhelming final blasts of rooftop fighting, with one particular on-screen injury ranking as one of the gnarliest I’ve seen. And that’s saying something. I’ve always been a fan of Bay’s distinct brand of visual mania, and this is the hardcore action picture I’ve been waiting to see from him for a very, very long time.
Review by Nick Clement