13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi – Review (*** 1/2)

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Though not especially restrained by any typical cinematic standard, 13 Hours is what passes for a composed art-house film for director Michael Bay, who spins a surprisingly effective, largely apolitical action yarn out of this terrifying true story.

In 2012, the U.S. pulled most of their outposts from Libya, yet a secret Consulate still operated in the city of Benghazi, protected by six CIA security contractors (James Badge Dale, John Krasinski, Max Martini, Dominic Fumusa, Pablo Schreiber and David Denman). When local militants strike the compound, it’s up to these six men to hold off the attack until dawn.

While 13 Hours contains a number of Bay’s excesses – his love for bloated run-times, overt American imagery and cringe-worthy dialogue – it’s still easily one of his more focused efforts, with aspirations towards being little more than an efficient, beautifully shot action extravaganza with a real-life coating.

Yes, all of the six men have families and the movie makes great pains to fret this fact, but thankfully Bay spends more time on introducing us to these men through banter and chit-chat during downtime. Far from the juvenile nattering that defines the breaks between action in the Transformers movies, here there’s a real, aching sense of humanity, and some welcome doses of gallows humour to boot.

The action meanwhile speaks for itself; though there’s perhaps a little too much shaky cam on occasion, Bay is one of the few directors who, like Michael Mann, doesn’t make low shutter angle cinematography look like amateur garbage. The film is edited for maximum thrills, building tremendous amounts of suspense as the siege ratchets up, and providing plenty of payoff as the bullets fly…and fly…and fly. And of course, a few car chases are thrown in for good measure also.

Even though it clocks in at a meaty 144 minutes, this is probably the best-paced of Bay’s films, if only because the sentimental guff is fairly brief and compartmentalised, while an even bigger premium than usual is placed on the superlative action sequences, most of which are achieved with minimum digital enhancements.

This, really, is the sort of film Bay should be making; he keeps politics mostly off the table (except that which those salivating on both sides will needlessly project onto it), tones down the embarrassing goofiness and sticks mostly to what he’s good at. It’s also packed with several of the best performances from any of Bay’s films, especially from Dale, Krasinski and Schreiber.

While it perhaps could’ve been trimmed down to the two-hour mark, 13 Hours is nevertheless an unexpectedly satisfying actioner, playing to its director’s core strengths and refusing to bang the ideological drum (despite what your trigger-happy Facebook pals might tell you).

*** 1/2

13 Hours: The Secret Soldier of Benghazi is in cinemas now

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