Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Black Hawk Down (2001)

You know, there was every chance for this film to go horribly wrong. Military duty is not to be taken lightly. While it is a dignified affair, the results can also turn out horrible for the soldier, physically and psychologically. Making a film of this subject matter, which we’ll dive deeper in later, needed to be crafted with the most thorough, delicate, and buttoned-up hands. I suspect that some people in 2001 may have been worried when they heard two of the names attached to this project. One of those names was Ridley Scott. When one hears the name Ridley Scott, two films usually come to mind: Blade Runner and Alien, two films that are now highly regarded as laudable, fecund, science fiction visionary masterpieces. However, keep in mind that while Alien did well with critics back then, Blade Runner was a different story.

While it did receive newfound popularity over time (a 1992 director’s cut could partially be the reason), the film, at that time, deeply divided people. There were some people that thought it was plodded; heavy on spectacle, light on substance. In addition, some say that Ridley Scott’s track record hasn’t been necessarily immaculate. While his 2000 flick, Gladiator, earned him an Academy Award for Best Picture, that film, like Blade Runner, was very divisive. Some think of it to be a colossal, ambitious, yet overrated snooze fest. And need we remind you that he directed the film that many people consider to be the low point of the Hannibal Lecter franchise?

The other named people raised eyebrows and scratched heads at was Jerry Bruckheimer. This producer is particularly known for slam-bang, furious, no-holds-barred action films (Gone In 60 Seconds, Armageddon), sugarcoated kids’ films (G-Force, Confessions of a Shopaholic), and forgettable, fantasy flicks (The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time). So, I’d like to think that some expected this film to be a disgusting, overly-patriotic, pious propaganda piece; a film that could be summed up in three words: America, F*** Yeah! However, these two questionable and somewhat disparate cinematic moguls have come together to create a nifty, gritty, competent experience.

What’s the film about? The film takes place during 1993 in Somalia. Warlord Mohamed Farrah Adid has seized food from his fellow citizens, resulting in famine and anguish. The U.S. responds to this atrocious situation by sending their Army to Somalia, capture Adid, and seize Adid’s food supplies to give to the poor. What is seemingly thought of as a straightforward, breezy assignment turns into an absolute nightmare. Planes take heavy, unrelenting fire and men drop dead one by one.

The first five minutes of Black Hawk Down is great cinema. It opens with dim, unfiltered cinematography, which plays a huge part with the success of this film. The film has a crafty and flexible color palette, which ranges from bright, enticing yellows to blurry, desolate green and blues. Every shot connects with its tonal counterpart and really puts the viewer in the atmosphere and mood of the scene, which is exactly what happens in the opening. We, also, in the beginning hear that familiar, poetic African singer that always punctuates an epic yet horrifying moment. Some may find that a cliché, but I think it’s a great chance of pace from having the usual overwrought, bombastic orchestra music. The opening also immediately confronts us with the terror of the situation pre-military intervention. It also offers a great cultural portrayal of Somalia, outside of the horror. The way it’s shot, the way it juxtaposes African and American music; all of it makes me feel like I’ve been to Somalia. These first five minutes are an excellent summation of the things I absolutely adore about the film.

Unfortunately, the rest of the film never lives up to the greatness of the first five minutes, but nevertheless, it is still a strong piece of filmmaking. This is one of those war films where the soldiers begin the film as somewhat juvenile, frivolous punks, ready to transform into Rambo-type heroes and kill some scum, but then have a character arc, where they realize that there’s more to the military that meets the eye. Yeah, we’ve seen that storyline before. However, the characters themselves are, nonetheless, interesting individuals. Of course, they are done justice by the actors who play them, which include Sam Shepard, Josh Hartnett, Eric Bana, Tom Hardy, Orlando Bloom, and many more. One of the criticisms for this film is that the film lacks in character development. In my opinion, I’m glad that time was not spared for character development. This film is about situation, not character. The situation is, in itself, complex, misleading, and progresses into additional anxiety and puzzlement. The characters aren’t developed, but our sympathy for them is, which is just fine with me.

Of course, the characters are no more than prelude to the real astonishment of the film: the battle scenes. For a guy who previously produced Armageddon, a film that many described as “frenzied,” “aggressive,” “assaulting,” “ugly,” and “a film that cuts so quickly,” some may find it shocking to know that these battle scenes are skillful, but there it is. This film departs from the Armageddon style of filmmaking and adopts a style that is more cohesive, structured, comprehensible, and realistic. Of course, the action has the Bruckheimer stamp, meaning that it is kinetic. The difference here is that the action here is about honor and duty, as opposed to seeing things blow up really good, though the explosions in this films are competently done. I, also, love the desire to inject these scenes with small yet delectable details, such as blood splattering onto the camera and the POV camera angles. They don’t feel as if we’re playing a video game, quite the contrary. It, instead, submerges the viewer deeper into this chaotic dilemma. In addition, these scenes have, you’re never going to believe it, no shaky cam! See, it is possible to do battle scenes without the camera shaking to the point of nausea. And when shaky cam is used in the film (yeah, I guess I kind of contradicted my last statement), it’s moderate and grounded.

The film has additional tiny details that hugely left an impact on me: the sporadic yet present moments where it naturally alternates between drama and humor, which results in one of my all-time favorite movie quotes (“I’ll make it so you can tell the difference between shit and French fries), the moments of unsettling, nerve-wracking silence, the use of contemporary music, as opposed to orchestral music, and, in particular, one brief scene that really affected me. Adid captures one of the soldiers and Adid says to him, “There’ll always be killing. That’s the way things are.” That one moment gave me goose bumps. We delve into Adid’s warped yet insidiously sensible mind. He isn’t just portrayed as a sparsely developed, point-blank Hitler copy. He has motives, as depraved as they may be. He, like many other great film villains, believes that the world can’t revolve without anarchy and agony. He’s just adding to it. The military can kill Adid, his henchman, or any other deplorable Somalian figure, but it won’t make Somalia a spotless, wholesome unit. It’s one of the most frighteningly logical and intensely articulate movie moments I’ve ever seen!

Oh, I should probably emphasize that VIEWER DISCRETION IS ADVISED!! This film is rated R and for good reason. I’d say that the film practically bathes itself in blood, but that’d be an understatement. There are some extremely grisly moments, particularly a graphic first-aid scene that nearly killed one of my fellow classmates (I won’t say whom). While the gore is authentic and sensory-provoking, I feel that it is my obligation to spread the word. You’re welcome!
Now, as much as I bring up the respectable qualities of the film, it’s not perfect. Some of its flaws revolve around iteration. As much as I love the poetic singer, a little of that goes a long way. As much as I love the battle scenes, there were a couple times where there were minorly exhausting, but seeing how they always find a way to pull me back in, that complaint isn’t as strong. Another flaw actually could be connected to the lack of character development. Although I am accepting of the lack of character development, it does, however, drag the drama right down with it. While there are times where there is some effective drama, it, overall, doesn’t deliver on the visceral level, seeing how we aren’t given time for the characters to unfold, emotionally. And for the love of God, please stop using the cliché of the military man who was a wife, kids, or both, and wants to be with them, but looking at that convenient family photo gives him the courage to keep going. Moments like those are so mawkish and pointless that they could end up in a Nicholas Sparks film.

Overall, though, Bruckheimer and Scott have assembled a tight, atmospheric package. Tense, jarring, furious, and chocked full of compelling performances, ever-changing camerawork, and raw battle scenes, this film was exactly the boost Scott and Bruckheimer needed for their careers. That is until Bruckheimer went back to producing his typical, expected kinds of films and Scott went on to direct what many people consider to be one of the worst Robin Hood adaptations ever. Well, it was fun while it lasted.

RATING: Three-and-three quarters stars out of four

P.S. I recently saw Gone in 60 Seconds and I can confirm that it is a no-holds barred action film...when it's not being vapid, imbecillic, and having most of its actors walk around like zombies. Nice job, Bruckheimer.

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