The Hans Gruber axiom states that an action film is only as good as its bad guy: dumb antagonist, dumb film. In Israeli actor Raz Degan, Special Forces (Forces Spéciales) has a way better villain than most American action films. Taliban leader Ahmed Zaief, an otherwise stereotypical Islamic terrorist, is conflicted with religious zeal and Western tastes, a product of British schooling. Oh, he's an asshole, but for a while, Degan's serious charisma also kind of makes Islamic extremist fundamentalism look cool and badass, which could have been hilariously subversive if director Stéphane Rybojad had pushed it further. A French action film modeled on American-style military thrillers, the production obviously had the cooperation of the French military, judging by all the big hardware, including heavy cargo planes, the Charles de Gaulle supercarrier, a bunch of Renault Sherpas (French Humvees, basically), and many, many helicopters. When Zaief kidnaps journalist Elsa (Diane Kruger) and imprisons her in a desert stronghold, the French president orders a rescue mission, led by Commander Kovax (Djimon Hounsou). A pitched battle escalates to a lost-platoon scenario after the team misses its airlift and has to cross the desert without support. And certainly, Zaief can claim a degree of competence in his evil militant endeavors, considering the body count he piles up before the climax. But even though he's the most interesting character in the film, Hans Gruber remains the Socratic ideal toward which all action-movie villains aspire. Chris Packham
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