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With: Josh Hartnett, Ewan McGregor, Tom Sizemore, Eric Bana, Sam Shepard, William Fichtner, Ewen Bremner, Gabriel Casseus, Kim Coates, Hugh Dancy, Ron Eldard, Ioan Gruffudd, Thomas Guiry, Charlie Hofheimer, Danny Hoch, Jason Isaacs, Zeljko Ivanek, Glenn Morshower, Jeremy Piven, Brendan Sexton III, Johnny Strong, Richard Tyson, Brian Van Holt, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Steven Ford, Ian Virgo, Tom Hardy, Gregory Sporleder, Carmine Giovinazzo, Chris Beetem, Tac Fitzgerald, Matthew Marsden, Orlando Bloom, Kent Linville, Enrique Murciano, Michael Roof, George Harris, Razaaq Adoti, Treva Etienne, Abdibashir Mohamed Hersi, Pavel Vokoun, Dan Woods, Ty Burrell, Boyd Kestner, Jason Hildebrandt
Written by: Ken Nolan, based on the book by Mark Bowden
Directed by: Ridley Scott
MPAA Rating: R for intense, realistic, graphic war violence, and for language
Running Time: 144
Date: 12/18/2001

Black Hawk Down (2001)

2 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Hawk of the Town

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Director Ridley Scott's track record is in itself a thing of mystery. He's made at least three four-star films, Alien, Blade Runner and Thelma and Louise, which should alone make him a candidate for the canon of great living filmmakers.

But he's also directed a series of clunkers ranging from simply unmemorable to so awful that Alan Smithee would hang his head: 1492: Conquest of Paradise, Black Rain, G.I. Jane, Legend, Someone to Watch Over Me, and White Squall.

Which brings us up to the present. His film Gladiator won last year's Oscar for Best Picture, but it was the third worst film I saw in 2000 -- the action scenes were completely inept -- jumpy, blurry, indistinguishable and unwatchable. The performances were one-note, the dialogue embarrassing, and the special effects cheap.

However, Scott's Hannibal, released some six months later, raised the bar and created a beautiful atmosphere, a definite sense of place and sophisticated dread -- a great improvement, though it, too suffered somewhat from clunky action scenes.

So I'm extremely pleased to report that Black Hawk Down shows a vast improvement in Scott's technical expertise, bringing him nearly back up to the level of his early work.

This story, based on Mark Bowden's book, tells the story of America's botched 1993 mission in Somalia. Sent to capture two high-ranking enemy agents, two UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters were instead shot down in the middle of a town square.

In an attempt to rescue the wounded, eighteen Americans died and 72 were wounded by heavily armed Somali troopers hiding around every corner. The more our boys attempted to rescue their colleagues, the more they themselves needed rescuing.

As long as Scott and screenwriter Ken Nolan stick to this uncertain chaos, with its distinct sense of place and danger, the film works like gangbusters. However, there is trouble in paradise. Whenever the battle stops for even a moment to focus on characters, just about every war movie cliché imaginable takes over.

Now, I know that this is a whole new generation of soldier and a whole new war, but that doesn't mean that all the old experiences are new again as well. Another similar movie from earlier this year, Amos Gitai's Kippur, managed to tell the story of a helicopter rescue unit (whose job was to pull the wounded and dead off the battlefield) with an extraordinary sense of poetry and power by embracing the emptiness and meaninglessness of chaos.

In Black Hawk Down, characters look at pictures of their loved ones just before being captured and a medic continues to dazedly pump the heart of a dead soldier while an onlooker chants, "doc... doc... let it go... he's dead... there's nothing more you can do." (Even if this happened in real life, it doesn't necessarily translate to the screen without old baggage attached.)

Not to mention that it's difficult to tell who is who in their dusty uniforms and helmets. The cast includes Ewan McGregor, Tom Sizemore, Eric Bana (from Chopper), William Fichtner, Ewen Bremmer, Jeremy Piven, and about a dozen more. Only Josh Hartnett as a first-time mission commander is given any special attention, but he's carved out as an idealist who really believes in what he's doing so that he can deliver a little patriotic speech from time to time. (This is a Jerry Bruckheimer film, after all.)

To tell the truth, Saving Private Ryan suffered from almost exactly the same problems: a dazzling re-creation of battle sequences with limp characters and floppy dialogue interspersed. But that did not stop critics and fans from embracing Ryan as some kind of Important Work of Art -- and that was during peacetime. Now that we're at war and patriotism is at an all-time high, Black Hawk Down will no doubt be accepted unconditionally. Sadly, I cannot join in.

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