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updated: 1/9/2014 1:40 PM

Lean, mean military drama deserves SEAL of approval

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  • Lt. Murphy (Taylor Kitsch), left, and Marcus Luttrell (Mark Wahlberg) take stock of their situation in Peter Berg's fact-based drama "Lone Survivor."

      Lt. Murphy (Taylor Kitsch), left, and Marcus Luttrell (Mark Wahlberg) take stock of their situation in Peter Berg's fact-based drama "Lone Survivor."

  • Video: "Lone Survivor" trailer

 
 

Lean and mean as a U.S. Marine, Peter Berg's fact-based military drama "Lone Survivor" contains zero percent narrative body fat.

During the opening credits, Berg whisks through the obligatory training sequences, showing how candidates for the Navy SEAL program endure torturous physical abuse to test their limits, to test their worthiness.

Then, we get to know just enough about the main SEALS to individualize them and make them real: Lt. Mike Murphy (Taylor Kitsch), Petty Officer 1st Class Marcus Luttrell (Mark Wahlberg) and Petty Officers 2nd Class Danny Dietz (Emile Hirsch) and Matt Axelson (Ben Foster).

Next comes the announcement of their mission to kidnap (or kill) a powerful Taliban honcho named Shah (Yusef Azami). As the SEALS go over plans of attack, Berg intercuts a scene showing who Shah is (he orders a young man's head be hacked off with a knife) and what the Americans are up against.

These scenes have been distilled to their essence, so that by the time the four SEALS get dropped behind enemy lines on a mountain in Afghanistan, we know who these guys are, what they can do, and what they intend to do.

Then, in a bizarre twist of fateful morality and an over-dependence upon technology, things go very wrong.

"Lone Survivor" is based on the best-selling memoir by the real Marcus Luttrell, the only SEAL to return home after the botched 2005 mission in which 19 servicemen died.

Berg reportedly put himself through an abbreviated version of the SEALS training, and that experience pays off in a macho motion picture sweating with band-of-brothers authenticity and drive.

In adapting Luttrell's memoir to the silver screen, Berg deftly sidesteps most of the moldy genre clichés. (Portraying Shah as a ruthless, one-dimensional Middle-Eastern villain is one he keeps). At least the movie draws an important distinction between the Taliban and regular Afghans who don't necessarily support the terrorist group.

As the SEALS wait for an opportunity to grab or tag Shah, three shepherds (an old man and two young ones) discover the Americans, who tie them up just as they tie themselves up in a moral quandary.

What do the SEALS do with them? Let them go? Leave them tied up to be eaten by wolves? Kill them?

Luttrell takes the high ground and advocates freeing them, even though they all know the shepherds will head straight to the Taliban below. Besides, these are kids.

"That's not a kid," Axelson says. "That's a soldier. That's death. Look at death."

Rarely do action movies delve into the moral implications of the heroes' decisions, but this one does.

The SEALS barely finish with one dilemma before plunging into another: Communication devices don't work on the mountain top.

"Lone Survivor" quickly segues into a blistering, suspenseful, all-out firefight with scenes so vividly and tightly constructed that they achieve near-documentary you-are-there realism.

This is no James Bond movie where bad guys miss the good guys with a zillion bullets. The SEALS take hits in their toes, shoulders, sides, hands. They tumble down a rocky mountainside, smashing into trees and boulders with bone-crunching force.

But these are well-trained warriors. They don't stop.

Here, Berg shoots himself in his own foot by sliding into cheap, annoying slow-motion for many of the tumble shots, then sharply speeding up the footage upon body impact.

This affected device yanks us out of the movie experience by calling attention to the fact we're watching a fabricated scene, not a "real" scene as we want to believe.

Was Berg channeling Sam Peckinpah's seminal western "The Wild Bunch"? Giving his otherwise commanding motion picture some military video-game cache?

Fortunately, Berg's disruptive directorial decision is merely distracting, not dramatically debilitating.

"Lone Survivor" still ranks as a worthy addition to the recent spate of top-quality survival tales, including "All is Lost," "Gravity," even 2012's "Life of Pi."

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