Oh, Michael Bay…you sick, confusing son-of-a-bitch. Just when I’ve written you off as the over-blown, racist, one-note, hack director douchebag (with an admittedly accessible style), that you most likely are, you pull a ‘fast one’ and dump something like THIS in our laps. I say that as a ‘good thing’. ’13 Hours’ actually worked from me, and is a legitimately ‘solid’, well-crafted, and effective movie. As I’m sure I’ve noted in previous reviews, I have a Love / Hate / Love to Hate relationship with Mr. Bay. His first two outings, ‘Bad Boys’ (1995) and ‘The Rock’ (1996) are absolutely kick-ass slices of pure 90’s action movie goodness. They’re big, loud, stupid and fun…and I expect nothing more from them. Then he shat out the hugely over-cooked and moronic ‘Armageddon’ (1998)…and the ‘slide’ began. With the exception of a few select flicks like ‘The Island’ (2005) and the guiltily-entertaining ‘Pain and Gain’ (2013), his filmography is a list of maddeningly insulting (but visually dynamic) crap. I enjoyed the hell out of the first ‘Transformers’ (2007), but every following movie was another nail in the coffin holding whatever remained of his artistic integrity. I had heard that he was going to do a ‘smaller’ movie (rumored $50 million budget) between his umpteenth entry into the idiotic ‘Transformers’ universe, I was intrigued. I’ve found that Michael Bay’s…ahem…best, always emerges when he doesn’t have a blank cheque on cash and resources. Bay, like I suspect is the case with George Lucas, is a better artist when he HAS to stretch his resources and get creative to get his vision on screen. It also helps that this one is ‘Based on a True Story’, so history could’ve theoretically helped keep his story-telling in line.
THAT history, and by default, the movie, goes a little something like this: In 2012, there was a particularly abnormal amount of unrest in the Middle East and North Africa, and as a result, numerous embassy and covert intelligence assets and property found themselves in a whole heap of danger. In the Libyan city of Benghazi, following the capture and summary execution of tyrant dictator Muammar Gaddafi, a convert CIA base and the nearby US Embassy Compound fell into the cross-hairs of a virtual army of Islamist Militants. The sudden and vicious attack on the compound occurs while hosting US Ambassador Christopher Stevens; a man seemingly intent on bringing the fractured country together for the mutual benefit of both countries. The narrative focus’ on the 6 private ‘contractors’ attached to the CIA who risked their life and limb to try and save American lives from the relentless onslaught.
Given my fatigue and irritation with many of Bay’s…Bayisms…, I was fully prepared to be scoffing and snorting in annoyance and disgust for the majority of the 144 minute run-time. But, much to my surprise, I found myself pulled right into this one and held there for about 96% of what I saw. I expected melo-dramatic slow-mo, obnoxiously patriotic Americana, juvenile racist humor and cardboard cut-outs of ‘people; all set to a jeans commercial-like veneer and harsh ADHD chop-edits. What I got was surprisingly somber, restrained, and engrossing. Like, I know, right!? ’13 Hours’ can easily be counted among other big-budget and well-crafted ‘modern’ military / combat movies like ‘Black Hawk Down’ (2001), ‘The Kingdom’ (2007),’The Hurt Locker’ (2009), and ‘Lone Survivor’ (2013)…and Michael Bay is allowed to be proud of that.
The cast consists largely of bearded ‘tough guys’ in body armor, but a couple do stand out. John Kasinski (‘The Office’) was an interesting and unexpected choice for the sorta ‘Main’ character portrayal of real-life ex-contractor and Benghazi survivor, ‘Kris Silva’. Normally associated with the dry wit and humor of his ‘Office’ character ‘Jim’, Kasinski beefed up impressively and turned in a physically tough and appropriately dramatic performance. Next up would be the character of ‘Rone’, plays with charisma by the increasingly-reliable James Badge Dale (Iron Man 3). There was another character that almost seemed to be taking over the spotlight in the narrative, given how much effective screen-time he was given, and that was the character of ‘Tanto’, played by ‘Orange is the New Black’s own ‘Pornstache’ Pablo Schreiber. He very much sold me on the determination and capability of his character, and I enjoyed every scene he was in. The rest of the supporting cast performed admirably in the service of this story as well. There was a scattering of stupid dialogue and wooden deliveries, but for the most part, everyone did what Bay needed them to do.
Being a historical combat story, there’s plenty of opportunity here for Bay to do what Bay does best…when he’s not over-sexualizing women or perpetuating racist stereotypes…and that is Action. The man definitely knows his way around an exciting action scene and there are many here that are top-notch in tension-building and execution. SEVERAL times, I found myself physically tensed up and feeling the suspense or the exhilaration in the lead-ups to the waves of attacks, or the fast and violent ‘run n gun’ attacks themselves. This is another area where it seemed like MB actually attempted some semblance of restraint, when it came to the depiction of a historical event. Last time he attempted that, he gave us a steaming pile of ‘Pearl Harbour’; a movie so idiotic and insulting to the people who survived the incident that inspired it that I hope any living WW2 Pacific Theatre veteran bitch-slaps Bay in public for it. Here…I think the survivors and the memories of the fallen are well-served with Bay’s depiction of events from that chaotic September 11, 2012. NEVER thought I’d ever write THAT sentence…but I have to.
If there’s one complaint that I’d have to dredge up, it would the understandable but noticeable use of ‘digital’. Several times the specific level of digital clarity and some ‘artifact’ing was present (especially in light flares) and I found it somewhat distracting. I like the grainy sheen that comes from movies shot on film and I’m still trying to learn to readily accept the noticeable difference in picture quality between the two formats. That being said, it certainly wasn’t a deal-breaker, where my enjoyment of the movie was concerned.
All in all, ’13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi’ was a surprisingly effective return to ‘form’ for Michael Bay. While I’ve lost ALL hope for the now-bullshit ‘Transformers’ franchise (seriously, I couldn’t even finish the highly insulting 4th movie), I would love to see the man tackle more fare of this ilk. Smaller budgets. Concise stories. Restrained approach. No juvenile humor. No racist stereotyping. Good things COULD come of that. He’s done it before…he can do it again. ’13 Hours’ does deserve to rub shoulders with the likes of personal ‘combat’ movie faves of mine like ‘Black Hawk Down’ and ‘Lone Survivor’. It shares a gritty, ‘no nonsense’ aesthetic that I appreciate in those films…and THAT will ALWAYS work for me. If you want solid, exciting action scenes, convincing character portrayals, a little slice of contemporary history you may not know much about, or you’re just curious about how ‘The Office’s ‘Jim’ looks brandishing a tricked-out M4 assault rifle…then this is the flick for you! Also…if you’re a Michael Bay fan (guilty-pleasure-style or otherwise)…or someone like me, who gave up on the man but came back due to the siren song of morbid curiosity…this movie will do it for you…and possibly even reinvigorate your enthusiasm for Bay’s material…all ‘Transformers’ bullshit excluded.
* One MAJOR issue I have with Bay is his sell-out penchant for blatant product placement. Given the material, there wasn’t tons of opportunity to put ‘product’ in our faces…until the very ‘IN YOUR FACE’ wife-of-contractor-character-takes-kids-through-McDONALDs-Drive-Thru scene. Holy shit! It was SO obvious, it was like Bay was trying to make up for the forced lack of product by over-compensating with a LOUD Mickey D’s ‘shout out’. (shakes head in dismay)