Perhaps because we are at war, the visceral combat movie Black Hawk Down has gotten a bit of a free ride from many critics. Let this be a roadblock, if a small one. The film takes a relatively recent true war story — the disastrous 1993 military effort in Somalia — and strips it down for action. It’s as if a slasher film had half an hour of sketchy character set-up, then devoted two straight hours to nothing but kill, kill, kill. There’s a certain purity to it, but past a certain point it’s just Ridley Scott playing toy soldiers.
Scott, you may recall, was once a real director — gifting the science-fiction genre with two of its finest ornaments, Alien and Blade Runner, and doing a solid job of work on Thelma & Louise that amounted to staying out of the way of Callie Khouri’s excellent script. 2001’s Hannibal was a comeback of sorts for him — the movie was his to screw up, and he didn’t — but otherwise he has collapsed into the mannerisms of his brother Tony, burying simple stories in pompous gritty style, and Black Hawk Down is the grittiest yet. The movie isn’t a militaristic joke like Scott’s 1997 G.I. Jane, but it’s on about the same dramatic level.
Screenwriter Ken Nolan’s paring down of Mark Bowden’s acclaimed book reduces the soldiers to ciphers carrying only the most functional of dialogue (and not always the most functional of weaponry). As one Black Hawk helicopter goes down, and then another, and the soldiers try to carry out frantic rescue missions while flattened by Somali fire, the movie’s businesslike relentlessness gets oppressive and exhausting — which, I suppose, is true to the actual experience, but it would’ve been nice to get to know a few of the men we’re meant to care about.
Here, for instance, is Josh Hartnett, who still looks like a high-school senior but is unaccountably getting war-hero roles in movies like this and Pearl Harbor. Whenever the camera’s on him, he purses his lips and looks grim. Let’s move on to two Trainspotting alumni, Ewan McGregor and Ewen Bremner, who manage to sneak some spark into their roles (a desk jockey who’s sort of eager to get into combat and a bug-eyed, deafened soldier, respectively). Then there’s Tom Sizemore, who’s going to be typecast as the Reliable Potato-Shaped Grunt for the rest of his life if he isn’t careful; and quirky talents like Ron Eldard and Jeremy Piven, thrown away as chopper pilots; and poor Orlando Bloom, previously seen ventilating Orcs in The Fellowship of the Ring, now seen as a wet-nosed private whose mishap sets the whole rotten tragedy of errors in motion.
Hartnett, Bremner and Sizemore were also in Pearl Harbor, which like Black Hawk Down was produced by Jerry Bruckheimer (both films also pretentiously lack a studio logo at the beginning, as if the movies were too important for that). Bruckheimer seems to be taking it upon himself to be the trash Thucydides of the new millennium, the chronicler of American catastrophe; he’s even been warily suggesting that he might be interested in a film about the 9/11 attacks, and such a film, if nothing else, might make an ideal companion DVD along with Pearl Harbor and Black Hawk Down in the inevitable “Americans Under Fire” boxed set.
How is Black Hawk Down as a pure combat movie? Sometimes tight — Scott gets a lot of mileage out of rocket launchers — but eventually monotonous, with the time-honored badly wounded soldier choking out a request to tell his parents he fought hard, and his buddy’s time-honored reassuring response, “You can tell ‘em yourself.” There are a few fake-outs, such as when a downed pilot makes sure to linger over a pocket photo of his wife and kids before he’s overtaken by a crowd of enemy soldiers and then … isn’t killed.
Indeed, the characters’ chances of survival increase or decrease according to their audience-recognition factor; the guys from Pearl Harbor and the guy from Moulin Rouge will most likely make it out okay, but the eighteen Americans who died on Somalian soil are mainly played by unknowns. The fallen soldiers are listed before the end credits, not that we know them any better now than we did before the movie started.