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"BLACK HAWK DOWN"
(2001) (Josh Hartnett, Ewan McGregor) (R)

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QUICK TAKE:
Action: U.S. Rangers and Delta Force soldiers try to make their way out of a hostile foreign city and avoid the heavily armed locals after a planned brief military operation goes awry and turns into a several day ordeal.
PLOT:
It's October 1993 and U.S. military forces have remained in Somalia as part of a peacekeeping operation in response to the food hoarding measures taken by Somali warlord Mohamed Farrah Aidid that have left more than 300,000 people dead. As run by Maj. Gen. William F. Garrison (SAM SHEPARD), the forces - comprised of young Army Rangers and veteran Delta Force soldiers - set out on a mission to seize two of Aidid's lieutenants from a crowded marketplace in the capital city of Mogadishu.

Among those heading out are Staff Sgt. Matt Eversmann (JOSH HARTNETT), an idealistic Ranger who's just been placed in command of his unit; Ranger Spec. Grimes (EWAN McGREGOR), a desk clerk who has yet to see any combat; and Lt. Col. Danny McKnight (TOM SIZEMORE), a veteran who isn't crazy about the limited support they'll receive. They're led by Capt. Mike Steele (JASON ISAACS), their ground commander, and accompanied by the likes of Staff Sgt. Jeff Struecker (BRIAN VAN HOLT), Ranger Pvt. First Class Todd Blackburn (ORLANDO BLOOM), and Specs. Shawn Nelson (EWEN BREMNER) and Lance Twombly (THOMAS HARDY).

Representing the Delta unit is Sgt. First Class Hoot Gibson (ERIC BANA), whose legendary status precedes him, along with Sgt. Jeff Sanderson (WILLIAM FICHTNER) and Delta snipers Sgt. First Class Randy Shughart (JOHNNY STRONG) and Master Sgt. Gary Gordon (NIKOLAJ COSTER-WALDAU).

Their plan is to sweep into the city, seize their two targets and avoid the heavily armed locals, all in under an hour. Yet, things quickly go out of control when Blackburn falls from one of the choppers, setting off a chain of disastrous events that include two of the Black Hawk helicopters piloted by Chief Warrant Officer Mike Durant (RON ELDARD) and Chief Warrant Officer Cliff Wolcott (JEREMY PIVEN) being shot down.

From that point on, and as Garrison observes from his command post, the various American soldiers try to get to the crash sites, rescue their injured men, and get out of the city as hordes of armed citizens close in and open fire on them over the next two days.

OUR TAKE: 7.5 out of 10
Once upon a time in Hollywood, war movies were black and white, both literally and figuratively. The films were obviously shot sans color, but also had clear-cut villains, heroes and the latter's unquestionable goal to capture, defeat or vanquish the former. In addition, the related violence was displayed in a PG fashion that generations of kids faithfully emulated where you'd shoot the bad guy who'd melodramatically fall to the ground dead, but without any semblance of realism.

Then along came Vietnam, the unpopular war there, and the later related movies that questioned the politics of war and began to show more realistic violence and bloody mayhem. After they were essentially run into the ground, war movies pretty much disappeared from the scene until Steven Spielberg's "Saving Private Ryan" came along. It not only restored the hero/villain paradigm, but also took the portrayal of warfare to an incredibly graphic, "you are there" level never before seen in a mainstream film.

Now along comes "Black Hawk Down," a riveting picture that continues the new tradition of graphic, first-person realism and some questioning of politics, although clearly not to the point of its Vietnam-based predecessors and certainly not attempting to belittle, diminish or satirize a true event.

Based on Mark Bowden's 1999 work "Black Hawk Down: A Story of Modern War," the film focuses on the real-life, 18-hour drama that unfolded in October 1993 in the city of Mogadishu, Somalia. During that period, American peacekeeping forces attempted what was planned to be a brief raid into a crowded marketplace to seize two of warlord Mohamed Farrah Aidid's top lieutenants who were believed responsible for so much unrest, strife and murder in the capital city.

Things, of course, went terribly wrong and the forces then found themselves trapped in bombed-out environs surrounded by hordes of angry and well-armed locals intent on killing them. What resulted was one of the more explosive American military conflicts since Vietnam, although few viewers probably remember much about it, if they were even aware of it ever occurring.

If that's the case, this effort from director Ridley Scott ("Gladiator," "Alien") will certainly be something of a loud and violent reminder/wake-up call. Although lacking much of an emotional core and featuring some developments that feel a bit contrived or dramatized even if they might be faithful re-creations of what really occurred - a point only historians and those involved can confirm or deny - the picture is undeniably a powerful and riveting experience.

That's because no other film - save for individual moments from "Saving Private Ryan" -- so put the viewer smack dab into the middle of the conflict. While the script by screenwriter Ken Nolan (marking his first produced screenplay) condenses the nearly two day ordeal down into just two and a half hours or so, the nearly nonstop mayhem is so grippingly shot by cinematographer Slawomir Idziak ("Proof of Life," "Gattaca") and masterfully helmed by Scott that it will overwhelm or mesmerize viewers, or possibly both.

Shot in Morocco since Somalia is still a hotbed of unrest, Scott's crew has done an outstanding job in re-creating both the war-torn city and the tense battles that took place there. There's no denying that the film excels on all technical levels.

Yet, while all of the visual realism and mayhem will surely please fans of action-heavy war films - as that's about all there is - those looking for the human element that made "Saving Private Ryan" so good will likely notice its conspicuous absence here. We never really get to know many of the characters that well - save for how they react to the harrowing events as they unfold - as they're essentially just cogs in the great big war machine (which somewhat holds true in real life).

Among those who do stand out or at minimum are at least recognizable is Josh Hartnett ("Pearl Harbor," "O") who delivers a surprisingly good performance as the young squad leader. Ewan McGregor ("Moulin Rouge," "Star Wars: Episode 1 - The Phantom Menace") appears as a desk clerk known more for his coffee making than combat skills, while the ever reliable Tom Sizemore ("Pearl Harbor," "Saving Private Ryan") delivers another solid take as the veteran who calmly and somewhat amusingly tells a nervous soldier to shoot back after the young man complains that they're being fired upon.

Ewen Bremner ("Pearl Harbor," "Trainspotting") and Thomas Hardy (HBO's "Band of Brothers") are good as two soldiers who must find their way back to the rest of their unit after being separated from it, while William Fichtner ("The Perfect Storm," "Armageddon") and Eric Bana ("Chopper," "The Castle") are good in their roles. Meanwhile, Sam Shepard ("Swordfish," "Snow Falling on Cedars") appears as the mission commander back at HQ, but the various cutaways back to him feel more like temporary breathers for the viewer rather than anything of real substance.

The film boasts a slew of other performers, but most of them are reduced to just survival in the face of danger mode. While that's effective in a reflexive sense as it taps into our own pre-programmed fight or flee instincts, the cumulative result of all of the mayhem isn't quite as emotionally devastating as one might expect.

Although one is likely to feel bothered - mentally, viscerally and yes, even emotionally - the work isn't as rounded or profound as Spielberg's war masterpiece. It is, however, another exemplary effort of showing that war is indeed Hell, that heroes spring up when the going gets tough and the dangers and risks one's military often faces.

Superb from a technical sense but lacking somewhat in the all-important human element, Ridley Scott's war film is riveting, disturbing and likely to stick with viewers long after seeing it, but it comes up a bit short of being an all out masterpiece. "Black Hawk Down" rates as a 7.5 out of 10.




Reviewed December 18, 2001 / Posted January 18, 2002


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