It calls itself a Ridley Scott Film, and in terms of style, panache and drive, it undeniably is — but it’s a Ridley Scott Film with the soul of Jerry “Louder, Bigger, Emptier” Bruckheimer. Black Hawk Down thinks it’s a serious work in the manner of Apocalypse Now and Full-Metal Jacket. The truth is that it’s more like an astonishingly well made Green Berets. As an impeccably produced, extremely bloody, exciting thrill-ride, it’s hard to beat. As anything beyond that … well, it’s apt to be seen as more important than it is, owing to factors that have little — if indeed anything — to do with the film itself. Much like the admittedly far inferior Behind Enemy Lines, Black Hawk Down is likely to find a warm greeting based on the mood of the day in our post Sept. 11 world, especially since its recounting of the events of Oct. 3, 1993 in Mogadishu are very much grounded in fact. The film traces — with very little background — the U.S. raid on the Somalian city to capture two of Somali warlord Mohamed Farrah Aidid’s lieutenants. It was a mission that was to have taken an hour. It ended up being an 18-hour nightmare for the men involved when the mission went wrong and they found themselves trapped behind enemy lines. Does this make for exciting filmmaking? Oh, sure, it does. As a purely visceral experience, Black Hawk Down is brilliant. The viewer truly feels as lost, confused and hopeless as the characters on the screen. The experience is at once nightmarish and electrifying. If you can leave it right there, Black Hawk Down is a great picture — well, very nearly. Even on that level, there are some problems. The film tries too hard to be two things at once: a searing war epic and a vehicle for Josh Hartnett of Pearl Harbor fame (is it coincidental that that film was also produced by Bruckheimer?). As a result, there are a good dozen too many close-up shots of Hartnett looking grimly serious inserted at points in the narrative where the only function being served is to remind us that he’s the star — and the only star in what is otherwise an ensemble piece. Other — better — actors (starting with Ewan McGregor) disappear into their roles, but Hartnett never does, and it’s at odds with the seriousness of the intent. Moreover, the film limits its historical significance to a handful of expository titles, none of which do all that much to clarify just why America is embroiled in this fight in the first place. Nothing in the dialogue does much to help, since the screenplay starts to sound like a recruiting poster every time anyone says anything important. The film badly lacks — along with a solid historical grounding — a sufficient background for the characters, who are at best sketched in, when they’re given any background at all. Sappy, contrived, improbable and wholly invented as it was, even the human story concocted for Pearl Harbor afforded the characters some semblance of reality. Here, they’re mostly just ciphers, and very often it’s difficult to tell just who’s who to the degree that the soldiers verge on becoming the war-movie equivalent of those “meat-on-the-hoof” teenagers in a bad slasher picture. The upshot of this is that the film’s attempts at resonance are all for naught. A few hours after it’s over, very little of the movie lingers in the mind. Technically, it’s an astonishing feat. The action is beautifully handled, compelling and, above all, convincing. And it’s hard not to give Scott and Company high marks for refusing to go light on the horrific nature of war in order to get a PG-13 rating. There’s no denying the war scenes are among the most harrowing ever filmed, but whether they’ll stick with you after the fact is another matter.
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