Harrowing physical adventure “The 12th Man” retells the story of Jan Baalsrud, the sole survivor of a thwarted Allied sabotage mission against the Nazis in occupied Norway. Wounded, hunted, often near-death, his long but ultimately successful escape to Sweden was already dramatized onscreen in 1957’s “Ni Liv” aka “Nine Lives,” an Oscar nominee considered one of the greatest Norwegian features ever made. (More recently it was also the subject of documentary miniseries “In the Footsteps of Jan Baalsrud.”)
One might not automatically set expectations quite so high for a new version directed by Harald Zwart, who’s scored some major hits both at home (comedy “Long Flat Balls” and its sequel) and internationally (the “Karate Kid” remake) as well as some thoroughly mainstream duds (“Pink Panther 2,” “The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones”). But “12th Man” easily reps a personal best for the helmer, and is a stirring adventure by any standard. It opens in New York and Los Angeles this Friday via IFC Midnight — a bit curiously, as this isn’t that distributor’s usual horror or other genre fare.
An opening title notes that “The most incredible events in this story are the ones that actually took place,” which both provides wiggle room for dramatic license and prepares one to accept a saga of arduous peril at times so extreme it might normally beggar belief. Baalsrud was a much-traveled cartographer who fled his native Norway after fighting during the initial German invasion, eventually landing in Britain to train with a squad of fellow expats. In early 1943 a dozen of them took a boat heavily loaded with explosives back to their homeland, intending to blow up Nazi airfields. Discovered before reaching their destination, they had to destroy their vessel and cargo and were fired upon by the enemy as they swam ashore in freezing waters.
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Only Baalsrud (played here by Thomas Gullestad) managed to escape capture, despite having been shot in the foot and losing a boot. His flight to safety remains almost beyond the limits of human endurance: He somehow not only successfully eluded an extensive Nazi manhunt, he spent more than two months in an arctic winter landscape traveling on foot, by boat, skis and sled, though blizzards and other harsh conditions — dealing with gangrene and near-starvation en route.
Those among his comrades who weren’t tortured to death were executed by firing squad. Baalsrud’s lone endurance made him a popular hero of Norwegian resistance even as his ordeal was ongoing. Thus he finds rural residents ready to help him when he stumbles into their isolated farmhouses — though such acts could get them killed by the occupiers.
While much of “The 12th Man” is naturally dominated by our protagonist’s solo battle for survival — which included long forced stints hiding under a mountain rock and in a cave — the film’s emotional core is provided by his interactions with civilians who recurrently save his life. These samaritans’ resourcefulness, bravery and self-sacrifice is quietly moving, as shown by two key characters played by Mads Sjogard Pettersen and Marie Blokhus. It’s typical of the judicious script by “Kon-Tiki” scribe Petter Skavlan (billed here for unknown reasons as Alex Boe) that their patriotism is seldom verbalized; it’s taken for granted that these people will do the right thing, no matter the risk.
There are very few false steps in this long but taut account, though Zwart doesn’t quite pull off some moments of delusion and/or nightmare that feel unnecessary. An 11th-hour crisis involving a reindeer-pulled sled feels a bit over-the-top, whether it’s actually based on fact or not. But otherwise “12th Man” wisely hews to an understatement that appreciates the tale’s considerable scope without caving in to the kind of melodramatic tone that might’ve rendered its epic pileup of emergencies implausible or excessive. Likewise, Jonathan Rhys Meyers’ German-speaking turn as Col. Kurt Stage, the Gestapo officer obsessed with tracking Baalsrud down, provides a villain whose rage simmers under a rigid surface rather than bursting into stereotypical tantrums.
Gullestad, who reportedly lost more than 30 pounds within eight weeks to convey his character’s hardships, runs a thespian gamut of physical and psychological extremity with nuanced skill. It’s all the more impressive a turn given that this is his first major acting role; until now he’s been primarily a Norwegian TV personality and member of pop hip-hop group Klovner i Kamp.
“The 12th Man” is also first rate in technical and design aspects, with frequently spectacular widescreen location photography by Geir Hartly Andreassen (also DP on “Kon-Tiki,” as well as several of Zwart’s prior features) and a fine score by Christophe Beck.