If you've been keeping a close eye on the films I've been reviewing throughout the years, you may have noticed the overall lack of war cinema coverage here. I'm just not a big fan as the genre generally doesn't allow for much stylistic variation. Black Hawk Down is a welcome exception, but I hadn't seen the film in years. I figured it was a good opportunity to revisit one of Ridley Scott's better films. I admit that I somehow expected the worst going in a second time, but was surprised to find that Scott's war flick got me hooked again.
There was this short period in the early 00s when proper intensity was an actual thing in Hollywood. Both Scotts were actively pushing this niche forward, with Tony releasing Domino and Man on Fire after brother Ridley had set the bar with Black Hawk Down. Sadly it didn't really stick, as audiences tend to prefer less disorienting and more narrative-driven cinema, but for a short while there was at least some small part of Hollywood had a real draw on me.
What helps is that Black Hawk Down has a somewhat atypical setting. No rainforests, no open battlefields, no dreary deserts, but a dense and bustling city in the midst of Somalia, where danger lurks around every corner. It's like an ant's nest, full of narrow streets and overflowing with thousands of people. Add lots of dust and a blistering sun and you may start to understand why this is not the best place for a violent conflict to erupt. Then again, it has all the right ingredients to cook up a very intense experience.
The film recounts the true story of an escalated conflict in Somalia's 1993 civil war, sparked by some US meddling. A quick mission to take out a warlord in the center of Mogadishu goes completely south when an American Black Hawk chopper is shot down and lands in the middle of enemy territory. The enemy militia flock to the scene and make life for the remaining US soldiers extremely hard, while outside forces are having trouble entering the city in a desperate attempt to aid their friends.
A film like Black Hawk Down leans heavily on visuals, especially to get its intensity across. Ridley put his cameras right in the middle of the action, which means you can't realistically expect neat and uncluttered camera work. The film's Hollywood-sized budget still allows for expensive and impressive shots though, especially where the choppers are involved. Add some neat color grading (with a strong focus on yellows and greens) and you have a film that looks amazing and succeeds in getting the intensity of the war situation across flawlessly.
The soundtrack is decent enough, but not too out of the ordinary. The film features the standard heroic music you'd expect from an American war film, only supplemented with some indigenous sounds to strengthen the atmosphere of the foreign setting. It never gets too in your face, but chances are you won't even notice it all that much, considering the strong focus on action. The sound effects are really on point though, which does a lot more to bring the warzone to your living room.
Black Hawk Down has a pretty broad and varied cast, but you have to wonder why they even bothered. Sure, with names like Ewan McGregor, Eric Bana, Ewen Bremner and William Fichtner present there's plenty of potential for some acting spars, but 30 minutes in everyone is running around like crazy, trying to fight the chaos. This is not a war film about specific characters and their bonds of friendship, but about the insanity of a mission fought in several places at once. The cast is good, but for the most part they're just nameless faces trying to overcome the enemy.
The film starts off rather slow, taking its time to introduce the setting and some of its key players. The first half hour is pretty uneventful, but once the actual mission starts the slow intro is quickly forgotten. What follows is two hours of harrowing mayhem with only a couple of short pauses in between to allow the audience to catch its breath. There's a lot of shooting, shouting and panic so sift through and it does start to weigh after a while, but that's exactly what this film is about.
Because of the way Black Hawk Down submerges you into its hellish war crisis, it becomes more of a visceral experience than a narrative one. It can be a little hard to keep track of everything and keep everyone apart, but that's more of a perk than it is a critique. Black Hawk Down is dense, chaotic and exhausting, fueled by strong camera work, slick editing and perfect pacing. There's still quite a lot of mediocre Hollywood nonsense in here, but because Scott focuses quite heavely on the visceral experience it's extremely easy to ignore.