Move over Rambo! Here comes Jan Baalsrud, arguably Norway's greatest WW2 Resistance hero, who I admit to never having heard a thing about, until seeing this movie. The 12th Man is based on his true story of escape and survival from a compromised and failed Norwegian Resistance commando raid in Northern Norway in 1943. He was the only escapee from his squad of twelve and was able to evade capture from the occupying German forces for over two months, despite suffering from frostbite, gangrene from a gun shot wound and snow blindness. His deteriorating physical condition forced him to rely on the assistance of Norwegian patriots. The 12th Man is as much about their stories of helpfulness under fear of German reprisals, as it is about Baalsrud's own amazing wilderness ordeal.
I've seen a few of director Harold Zwart's earlier Hollywood productions, but nothing quite like, or as good as The 12th Man. Apparently the Dutch-born, but Norwegian-raised Zwart, has long sought to do a story about this Norwegian folk-hero, about whom has had books written and a previous film made about his exploits. Baalsrud himself, during his lifetime, was at pains to stress the importance of the help he received from local folk along the journey and this production has clearly aimed to provide those sort of kudos.
"The 12th Man" is also first rate in technical and design aspects, utilising frequently spectacular widescreen location photography of alpine valleys, snow-capped mountain ranges and icy fjords by Geir Hartly Andreassen. I was staggered to find out that Thomas Gullestad who plays the central role of Baalsrud, is normally a hip hop artist and not a trained actor in any professional sense. Though he doesn't have a huge number of lines to rattle off, he is incredibly convincing in demonstrating the enormous physical and psychological challenges Baalsrud had to overcome in surviving situations, he really didn't have any right to survive. Likewise, Irishman Jonathan Rhys Meyers' impressive 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.
The film is by no means perfect. At a lumbering 135 minutes it's overlong. I feel the imagined delusional scenes and conversations with a ghostly doppelgänger are just overkill. Similarly the extended sequences of confinement in his ice cave and "The Hotel Savoy" could have been much more tightly edited, rather than being allowed to drag on to the point of near tedium. However for those sticking around to the end, I have to say that the crossing into neutral Sweden is brilliantly conceived and choreographed, supposedly (just about) true and incredibly emotionally uplifting. It even almost makes some sense given the part of the world in which it took place. The 12th Man is well worth a look.