Sunday, July 13, 2014

Crisis In A Hot Zone - Revisiting Black Hawk Down

Just two years after Spielberg forever changed the look of the war film, Ridley Scott's 2001 picture Black Hawk Down borrowed Saving Private Ryan's aggressive visual intensity to portray the devastating power of modern mechanized combat. Some 13 years on, Scott's film takes it's place alongside Alien and Blade Runner as one of director's finest works, with credit due also to producer Jerry Bruckheimer for not diluting this huge 100 million dollar production with his usual commercial excesses, a lesson learned perhaps from the critical mauling of Bruckheimer's previous film Pearl Harbor. Originally Black Hawk Down was to be helmed by Con Air director Simon West who brought Mark Bowden's 1999 account of the battle of Mogadishu to the attention of Bruckheimer. Scheduling conflicts with West's 2001 film Tomb Rider forced him to opt out (he retains an executive producer credit on the finished film) and the film was offered to Ridley Scott who was enjoying something a second wind with Gladiator and Hannibal.


Ridley Scott has long professed to being a fan of James Cameron's Aliens, and one imagines Scott relishing the idea of making his own combat movie. Although Black Hawk Down and Aliens are literally worlds apart, both films deal with marines stranded in hostile territory ill-prepared and ill-equipped for battle. Black Hawk Down is a brutal, exhausting wholly immersive war film, if one wanted to experience the noise, the disorientation and savagery of urban combat this is the film to see. Scott places his cameras right at the centre of combat and never flinches from the gruesome details of warfare, the mangling of bodies by bullets, bombs and shrapnel, including one particularly harrowing moment of improvised field surgery when a medic plunges his hand into a gaping wound to clamp a leaking artery. Scott's visual sensibilities are as sharp as ever and punctuates the ferocious pace with arresting images - a helicopter stirring up a vortex of dust and strewn rubbish, or a shot of a marine carefully placing a comrade's severed hand into his satchel, presumably to return to its owner.


The film is fitted out with a fine cast, among them some well known faces which can be hard to spot among the crew cuts and combat gear, (look fast and hard for early appearances by Orlando Bloom and Tom Hardy), and while the rangers have little or no back story screenwriter Ken Nolan (and various uncredited writers) invest the principle players with memorable bits of business to hang to their characters - Eric Bana's delta force loner and self-confessed war-junkie, Tom Sizemore's no-bullshit battalion commander, or Ewan McGregor's wet behind the ears desk clerk plucked from the office as a last minute replacement. The film was criticized for offering little Somali perspective in the film, except for a token dialogue scene between a Black Hawk pilot and his captor, but the film unapologetically sets out its stall as a blue-collar combat movie, pro-military, and light on political analysis. For the definitive account of the events of October 1993, Mark Bowden's book is required reading...

12 comments:

  1. I skipped this movie as I had family overseas in the middle of all that crap when it came out. Now that they're all home safe, I might check this one out one of these days.

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  2. Yep, I can well imagine the film being something to avoid in that regard. I don't have any personal perspective on the film I'm glad to say - I wonder would it be a good idea to sit some world leaders down in front of this in the hope of doing something about the bombardment of Gaza or the conflict in Ukraine... I haven't read Mark Bowden's book, but I have read Martin Meredith's very fine State of Africa, a history of the continent since the demise of colonialism and one of the chapters is devoted to the Battle of Mogadishu - and it is a shocking account of human mismanagement...

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  3. Wes, I'm not sure why, but this post never showed up in my blog feed - and it still isn't there. Whatever they are doing behind the curtain here is a disaster...

    Anyways, this is an interesting post. I was very disappointed with this film on release ( I actually saw it at an advance screening a few weeks before it popped) as I was a huge fan of Bowden's novel. The novel was so dense in bullets, terror and tension that to be honest, no matter who had directed it or how it turned out, I was no doubt destined to be nonplussed. It was one of those rare reads for me in non fiction that thoroughly gripped me - you genuinely feel like you are in the thick of it, and even though it's exhilarating, it's utterly terrifying.

    I felt some of it was lost in translation to the big screen, but one or two of my gripes centered more on the portrayal of certain characters, specifically, I think mcGregor played his role in a very bumbling, 'desk jockey rookie' way, that was probably a disservice to the real life guy.

    I popped it on recently when it was on Sky Movies in HD, and I gotta say, I was a lot more immersed in it on the second viewing than I was the first time around. I think I've come around on all of Scott's comeback trilogy (Gladiator and Hannibal) and have enjoyed them for the films they are, and not for what I hoped they would be. I think I'll probably pick up BHD on Blu Ray to really get to grips with it again, as on my second viewing I missed huge parts of it. It definitely seems to be one that will be remembered better than it reviewed at the time, and Scott did a great job of keeping track of such sprawling action from multiple characters all wearing the same clothes. No easy job at all.

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  4. I'm thinking John, the no-show was caused by the fact that I posted this last year, in the white heat of seeing the Blu-Ray, and then pulled it because I thought it didn't fit in with the rest of the stuff I was posting - not trashy, or weird enough I suppose, a sort of reverse snobbery... I went to read Bowden's book last year but was abandoned because the kindle-file was glitched. I will seek this out again at some stage because I've become interested in Africa in recent times... I can well understand the film being a little bit milky after reading the book, when you impose a dramatic film structure on something like that, it's immediately diluted. But I like the film very much as a technical tour-de-force - I wonder was Ridley looking at his younger brother's films thinking, "I could do that..."...

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  5. Absolutely, I've learned my lessons hard on getting too worked up from having a great novel to what to expect on the screen - usually I am disappointed, but I find if enough time passes I can come back to the film and enjoy it on its own merits several years down the line.Seeing as I read the book nearly 14 years ago at this stage, the details are nearly extinct, and the film seems like the logical choice to move on to now.

    It was a pity that Scott took a bit of a nose dive again after this picture. I've found him to be slipping back into that seriously uninspired phase he went through in the 90's - even looking through his filmography - Kingdom of heaven was a dud, the less said about A Good Year the better, and the jury is still out on Prometheus... I'm just not sure what to make of him as a director any more. I am seriously worried on what will become of this Blade Runner sequel at this point...

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  6. Is that Blade Runner thing still going ahead ? Jesus wept... Yeah, Kingdom of Heaven was not so great. I saw the film in Italian once, in Rome and it played better somehow... Orlando Bloom doesn't have the shoulders to carry a whole film but it has other problems as well, and y'know the Crusades is a really fascinating chapter of history, it was a shame that the film didn't really get to grips with the complexity of it all - I don't suppose Paul Verhoeven's long lost Crusades film might have been any better but at least Verhoeven would have injected a bit of humor, and plenty of flesh and blood into the mix. But what would expect for a 130million dollar picture ? Audiences still require spoon feeding these days, no matter how much hipness is creeping into the summer blockbuster. I'm thinking of the film now and that whole "rise a knight" speech is just terrible, phony writing... I've undergone a change of heart with Prometheus, but still a film so outlandish and misjudged, you have to wonder... For what it's worth John, here's my Ridley roll-call - Duelists, Alien, Blade Runner, Legend, Black Rain, Thelma & Louise, Hannibal, Black Hawk Down, Prometheus... Not a bad run when you lay it right there. I'd like to see Body of Lies again (isn't that just the worst title for a film?). And I'd like to see White Squall - a friend of mine assures me it's no lost classic but sometimes you get a bug for a film that must be exorcised !

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    1. Allegedly it still is, Wes - I feel the same. Wasn't Arnie attached to that Crusades film at one point? Did Kingdom of Heaven evolve from it? I heard that the script for that had been tossed around for decades...

      No doubt I'll ease up on Prometheus at some point, but it angers me how so many people took it so seriously - I mean, it was a pretty silly film, that didn't make a lot of sense. I have yet to see Body of Lies (yup, TERRIBLE title, no wonder I've dodged it) but I think American Gangster was worth a watch. And as you said, he does have a decent resume. Now lets hope he doesn't tarnish it too badly...

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    2. Yeah, I think Schwarzenegger was involved at some point, but whether Kingdom of Heaven flowed from the same spring as Crusades, I'm not sure, but very likely... Prometheus I think is symptomatic of this trend we're in at the moment to prequelize or sequelize every important film of the last 30 years - I know Hollywood have always done this, but current vogue for comic culture and the "origin story" has really contaminated Fantasy Cinema and given the studios far too much wriggle-room to riff on former glories. I actually think there's no story beyond the Alien trilogy, the Ripley-clone in the fourth film smacks of desperation, maybe a bit like Fox reheating the Planet of the Apes series with the time-travelling cheat in the third film (a series I really like I must say!). The idea of the alien creatures coming to earth was well and truly beaten into the ground with the second Alien vs Predator film, which showed up the obvious absurdity of the creatures ambling across a street in small-town America. But Prometheus grew on me, and I made my peace with it when I realized that what I was watching was just a big budget New World horror pic á la Forbidden World or Galaxy of Terror... I thought American Gangster was just okay, I thought it lacked something, but I'd definitely like to see it again. Do people seriously rate Russell Crowe ? I mean apart from that great nervy, neurotic performance in The Insider, I find him a very workmanlike actor... I wonder what Ridley Scott might have done with his proposed film I Am Legend, with the first hour planned to be completely free of dialogue - it might have been fantastic !

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    3. See Wes, I completely with you 100% on you comparing Prometheus to Forbidden World, or the New World pics of the time - that's exactly how I felt about it when watching it. I was enjoying it, but I said to myself at around the hour mark, "Fun as this is, it's as dumb as a transformers movie"... yet people seem to think that because it's Ridley Scott, and a writer from Lost was involved, that it has to be more than what we saw on the screen. And that's where I became a bit more negative towards the film, and it really was just to back up my argument. I think if watch it now, I'll still have the same fun I had with in in the cinema.

      Speaking of prequels, have you heard the latest?? The Shining is getting a prequel.... I'll just leave that there for you to mull over.

      I think Crowe is one of those guys that has let ego tarnish a reasonable talent, and chose roles that sold into it, rather than picking roles that were interesting. Maybe he's coming around after his turn in Les Mis? I thought he was great in it...

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    4. I suppose people were expecting the film to be the answer to all their Space-Jockey dreams and instead they wound up with two boneheaded scientists lost in a cave, menaced by something slimy... nothing no one hadn't seen ten thousand times before... I must admit I was pretty disappointed as well. I just think they is no story left in Alien - why do we need to know how those eggs got in the derelict spacecraft ? I mean as much as I love Alien (and I really do!), the film demands a huge leap of imagination to get around the fact that you have a creature born no bigger than a small cat metamorphisizing into a 10 ft tall alien humanoid in the space of a few hours ! Like, do we really need to see the Predator alien's home world ? Am I being too much of a handbag ? John, my complaining is totally redundant, considering the people who bankroll these films care nothing about integrity or safeguarding a legacy... That line from Cannbal Holocaust seems strangely appropriate at this point: I wonder who the real cannibals are ? I think I know...

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    5. absolutely dude, I needed nothing more than what I had gotten from the original films - things cease to be scary when you know the reasons behind it all anyway. We could probably just vote with our wallets in the future (why oh why did I ever see Alien Vs Predator 2??) but then again, we need to see this stuff to have a perspective on it in 30 years, so we are damned either way!

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    6. I remember my one screening of Alien Vs Predator Requiem on Sky Movies - easily the darkest film I've ever seen. I genuinely thought something had gone wrong with the transmission. Whoever color timed that film must have been out for revenge...

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