Black Hawk Down (2001)

Somalia, 1993. US military commander Sam Shepard, without informing his UN allies, stages a supposedly-surgical mission to enter Bakara Market in Mogadishu to arrest two lieutenants of local warlord Mohamed Farrah Aidid, who has been siezing food shipments and attacking UN peace-keepers. The two-pronged attack consists of a Humvee ground convoy and air cover from Black Hawk helicopters, and though the initial objective is achieved quickly the downing of a couple of choppers and several other military snafus leave wounded men stranded on the ground in a quarter of the city inhabited by gun-toting militiamen who attack en masse and complicate their extraction.

This is Ridley Scott's big war movie, and it's major advance in the genre is that it deals with a modern combat rather than a historical one - these are soldiers with cell-phones and mineral water, their commanders can watch the battle on video while it is going on, and the situation they are in isn't based on national conflict but of being caught up in an urban struggle where neither the US nor the UN (represented shakily by Pakistan) have any clear mandate. Though it does throw a few blame bombs - Shepard admits the Pentagon, on political orders, hasn't given him all the back-up he would like - and captions at the beginning and end fill us in on the situation before and after this day-and-a-half, the film is mostly a long battle scene. Taking a cue from The Thin Red Line, it doesn't individuate its cast much - above-the-title-billed Josh Hartnett is the caring NCO who gets to shoulder the sensitiveness issues, but all the others - Tom Sizemore as a hands-on colonel, Jason Isaacs as a Christian tough guy, Ewan McGregor as a coffee-making desk jockey hauled in to replace a chopper man who is out of action with a ping-pong injury, Ewan Bremmer as a grunt deafened by gunfire, Eric Bana as a Ranger who prefers to range alone - have to emerge from the pack as the film goes on, grabbing their own moments in Scott's deafening, strikingly-staged battle scenes (RPGs zooming out of crowds, stricken helicopters circling to crash, fighting from house to house).

There are traces of old-style gung ho, as the nineteen American casualties are valorised and suffer cinematically-underlined deaths (a sudden burst of silence for the moment, or a gruesome but fruitless bit of leg surgery) but a thousand Somalis get mown down like Imperial Stormtroopers because they never take cover and are only extras (even the child soldier pointedly isn't shot on screen, though a veiled woman does get taken out by a reluctant Hartnett), with a weird demarcation line on the map between the baddie 'skinnys' in the market and the happy dancing Yankee-cheering friendlies in the pacified quarter of the city who greet the survivors with joy as they jog out of the dust at the end. There's a very modish respect for and mythologising of the elite Delta Forces, with mottos and codes ('the man next to you') chanted as the experts wave away all thought of what it's all for and whether they should be there while doing their best to get the job done under impossible circumstances. Like a lot of Scott films, it's impressive but shallow, with amazing moments strung together; despite all the captions, some of the vital story-points are fumbled (it's hard to work out what the objective of the mission is) and while it delivers a great impression of a day and a half in combat with no relief, it's also strangely uninvolving on a human level.

With William Fichtner, Ioan Gruffudd, Zeljko Ivanek, Jeremy Piven, Brendan Sexton III, Orlando Bloom - presumably the lack of black faces among US troops is authentic, but it seems odd after so many more racially balanced combat movies.

First published in this form here

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