×

Film Review: ‘The 12th Man’

A stirring retelling of Resistance hero Jan Baalsrud's epic cross-country flight in Nazi-occupied Norway.

Director:
Harald Zwart
With:
Thomas Gullestad, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Mads Sjogard Pettersen, Marie Blokhus, Martin Kiefer, Torgny Aanderaa, Vegar Hoel, Hakon Thorstensen Nielsen, Eirik Risholm Velle, Daniel Frikstad, Alexander Zwart, Eric Dirnes. (Norwegian, German, English dialogue)
Release Date:
May 4, 2018

2 hours 10 minutes

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.

Popular on Variety

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.

Film Review: 'The 12th Man'

Reviewed online, San Francisco, May 1, 2018. Running time: 130 MIN. (Original title: “Den 12. Mann.”)

Production: (Norway) An IFC Midnight release (U.S.) of a Nordisk Film and Zwart Arbeid presentation. Producers: Aage Aaberge, Veslemoy Ruud Zwart, Espen Horn, Harald Zwart. Executive producers: Henrik Zein, Lone Korslund, Kjetil Jensberg, Petter Skavlan, Jonathan Rhys Meyers.

Crew: Director: Harald Zwart. Screenplay: Alex Boe, based the book “Jan Baalsrud og de som reddet ham” by Tore Haug and Astrid Karlsen Scott. Camera (color, widescreen, HD): Geir Hartly Andreassen. Editor: Jens Christian Fodstad. Music: Christophe Beck.

With: Thomas Gullestad, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Mads Sjogard Pettersen, Marie Blokhus, Martin Kiefer, Torgny Aanderaa, Vegar Hoel, Hakon Thorstensen Nielsen, Eirik Risholm Velle, Daniel Frikstad, Alexander Zwart, Eric Dirnes. (Norwegian, German, English dialogue)

More Film

  • PAW Patrol

    'PAW Patrol' Animated Movie in the Works

    PAW Patrol is on a roll! The popular Nickelodeon animated series is coming to the big screen. The Paramount film, directed by animation veteran Cal Brunker, whose credits include “Nut Job 2: Nutty by Nature” and “Escape From Planet Earth,” hits theaters in August 2021. Spin Master Entertainment’s executive vice president Jennifer Dodge will produce [...]

  • Bruce Willis attends the "Motherless Brooklyn"

    Bruce Willis’ ‘Cosmic Sin’ Picked up by Saban for North America

    Saban Films has acquired North American rights to Bruce Willis-starring sci-fi-action project “Cosmic Sin.” One of the hottest projects being pitched at the Berlin Film Festival’s European Film Market, the picture is written and directed by Corey Large and Edward Drake (“Breach”) with Large also producing. “Cosmic Sin” follows a group of warriors and scientists [...]

  • 'Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns

    'Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue': Film Review

    At a kitchen table where two younger women are industriously assembling dumplings, an elderly resident of Jia Family Village, a rural settlement in China’s Shanxi province, reflects on a colorful past. In the 1950s, he served as First Secretary of the Communist Youth League, playing his own part in the country’s social revolution and carousing [...]

  • Donna Rotunno Gloria Allred

    Donna Rotunno Complains to Judge About Gloria Allred Attacking Her in the Media

    Harvey Weinstein’s lead attorney Donna Rotunno asked the judge to silence Gloria Allred, the high-powered attorney who is representing three women who’ve testified in the New York rape trial. Before the jury entered the courtroom on Friday morning, the fourth day of deliberations, Rotunno made a complaint on the record to the judge regarding Allred’s [...]

  • Call of the Wild

    Box Office: 'Call of the Wild' Fetches $1 Million on Thursday Night

    Harrison Ford’s “The Call of the Wild” opened with $1 million in Thursday night previews. STX’s supernatural horror sequel “Brahms: The Boy II,” meanwhile, earned $375,000 at 1,800 screens from Thursday previews. The earnings for Disney-20th Century’s “The Call of the Wild” is in the same vicinity as “The Upside,” which took in $1.1 million [...]

  • Infinity Hill

    Viacom International Studios, Infinity Hill Sign Exclusive First Look Deal

    Viacom International Studios (VIS) has signed an exclusive first look development deal with Infinity Hill. The companies will co-develop and co-produce a slate of Spanish-language features, filmed globally and utilizing international talent on both sides of the camera. Infinity Hill is the new label from longtime Telefonica and Viacom exec Axel Kuschevatzky, one of the [...]

  • There Is No Evil

    German Regional Film Funder Boosts Budget, Targets Young Filmmakers

    Since taking the helm at German regional funder Filmförderung Hamburg Schleswig-Holstein (FFHSH) last year, Helge Albers has revamped the organization, worked to increase its budget by €3 million ($3.3 million) and introduced new initiatives aimed at young filmmakers. Albers, a former film producer who previously served as head of the German Producers Assn. and a [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content