Sony // 2001 // 144 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Patrick Naugle // June 11th, 2002
Leave no man behind.
Master director Ridley Scott has tackled almost every genre known to cinema. His sure hand has dabbled in fantasy (Legend), horror (Hannibal), science fiction (Blade Runner), action/adventure (Gladiator), female empowerment (Thelma and Louise), period pieces (1492: Conquest of Paradise), and tough military drama (G.I. Jane). In 2001, Scott turned Mark Bowden's non-fiction novel "Black Hawk Down" into a major motion picture event starring Josh Hartnett (Pearl Harbor), Eric Bana (Ang Lee's Hulk), Ewan McGregor (Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones), and Tom Sizemore (Saving Private Ryan). A commercial and somewhat critical success, Black Hawk Down went on to win two Academy Awards, one for Best Sound and one for Best Film Editing. Soon to be a DVD "Special Edition" in the near future, Columbia has decided to release Black Hawk Down in a fairly bare bones edition as an initial release.
In 1993, an elite group of Delta Force Soldiers and American Rangers were sent into Mogadishu, Somalia, to capture warlord Mohamed Farrah Aidid, who had seized international food shipments and subsequently killed 300,000 Somolians due to starvation. What was supposed to be a 30-minute mission turned into a horrendous turn of events when two of the US choppers were shot down in the city of Mogadishu. The team of soldiers included a newly appointed staff sergeant (Hartnett), a dedicated veteran (Sizemore), a trained fighter (William Fichtner, The Perfect Storm), and a desk jockey (McGregor) who was suddenly thrust into battle. As the team waited for rescue from Major General William F. Gerrison (Sam Shepard, Swordfish) and his control base, the men fought for their very lives against a city in ruins and an army of militants looking to kill every last American in Mogadishu.
Like Saving Private Ryan before it, Black Hawk Down is a gritty look at war and its consequences on human life. Unlike Saving Private Ryan, Black Hawk Down decides to bypass any real human drama or characterization for scenes of gunfire and gratuitous explosions. It will come as no surprise to find out that Black Hawk Down was produced by Jerry Bruckheimer, the man behind such flashy, vacuous action flicks as Armageddon, Con Air and the mother of all big budget emptiness, Pearl Harbor. While Black Hawk Down towers above those films when it comes to quality (emotional, not physical), the film still sits ten notches down from true war classics like Oliver Stone's Platoon and Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now. This isn't to say that Black Hawk Down isn't an enjoyable movie -- it's just a very loud, long war film that adds nothing new to the war genre.
Certainly no expense was spared shooting the film. The sequences of mass destruction and war are all slick and realistic. Like Saving Private Ryan and Scott's own Gladiator, Black Hawk Down has a gritty look to it, the cinematography shrouded in drab colors and filthy camera lenses. Because this is Hollywood, the true-life tale of Black Hawk Down is diluted into a two-plus hour movie with the 100 soldiers slimmed down to about 40 characters. Maybe this is where the characterization troubles come in: the fact is that there are just too many actors on screen for us to establish links with. Josh Hartnett could be considered the "lead," though this could be argued since his screen time is only slighter longer than the other actors. While Hollywood seems to think Hartnett is a rare acting talent, I find his skills to be less than stellar. With a slack, deadpan delivery of almost every line, Hartnett tends to have all the charisma of baked beans. Luckily there's the likes of William Fichtner and Ewan McGregor to support him. Both of these actors are the standouts in Black Hawk Down: McGregor brings some much needed levity to his role of a meek but brave office clerk, while Fichtner is always fascinating to watch as a determined solider. Sadly, the rest of the cast gets swallowed up in the special effects and beautiful cinematography. The based-on-a-true-story screenplay might have been more engaging had it been more fleshed out. I haven't read the book on which the film is based, though through friends and colleagues I'm told it's much more intricate and detailed than this film. It might be that some books can't be condensed into two hour films with total success.
Since September 11th, there has been a sweeping rise in patriotism. Moviegoers have been clamoring for films and stories about war and heroes, and Hollywood has obliged with numerous features including the Bruce Willis bomb Hart's War, Mel Gibson's We Were Soldiers, the empty headed but entertaining Behind Enemy Lines, and Scott's Black Hawk Down. Maybe there's been an over saturation in the marketplace for movies about war. Too much of anything tends to make one grow distant towards a certain genre. Let's face it -- if I have to see one more American Pie rip-off I'm going to up chuck on my parents' dinette set. It may sound as if I am smearing Black Hawk Down's name. In actuality, I thought it was an entertaining movie with more flaws than successes. As a loud, rough movie about war it is a spectacular event. The special effects, action, and soundtrack are all top notch. As a movie that will go down in Hollywood war history, it's only mediocre.
Black Hawk Down is presented in 2.40:1 anamorphic widescreen. This transfer is a bit of a mixed bag to judge. On one hand, the transfer is an excellent reproduction of the theatrical experience. On the other hand, the film is purposefully filled with harsh and drab color schemes (due to Slavomir Idziak's cinematography), grain, and other things that make the dirtiness of war jump off the screen. Otherwise, this very nice looking transfer includes almost no edge enhancement or digital artifacting. Overall, this is a great presentation by Columbia and a wonderful looking picture on a big screen TV (and even better on widescreen sets!)
The audio is presented in Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround in both English and French. I wasn't the least bit surprised to find this soundtrack to be rumbling, expansive, and very exciting. For those with a 5.1 surround system you're in for a treat: bullets and bombs rocket around the viewer almost the entire way though the film. The action is progressive and hardly lets up, meaning the soundtrack is given a full and through workout. With directional effects well placed and no distortion throughout, this is a great mix and an almost reference quality disc. Also included on this disc are subtitles in French, English, Thai, and Chinese.
If you're already planning on holding off on purchasing Black Hawk Down for the upcoming "special edition," then read no further as this disc ain't gonna appease. For the rest of us that are only interested in the movie, the special features here are fairly limited: included on this disc are two theatrical trailers (Spider-man, The One), a few scant filmographies on the cast and crew, and the 20-minute featurette titled "Black Hawk Down: On The Set." This featurette is basically one big commercial for the film that features interviews with Josh Hartnett, Ridley Scott, writer Ken Nolan, Jerry Bruckheimer, and a few other cast and crew members. The spot is a mix of behind-the-scenes footage and clips from the film. It's an entertaining piece, if a bit too fluffy for my tastes.
Those of you lying in wait for the special edition of Black Hawk Down will want to bypass this thinly stocked release. For those who enjoyed the movie and don't feel the need to own six thousand special features, this release of Black Hawk Down will do the trick. While I have mixed feelings about the film, the fact remains that visually and audibly, this is a well produced DVD.
I'm letting Black Hawk Down go because while it's not the perfect war movie, it's worth seeing. Case dismissed!
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Scales of Justice
* 2.40:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
Running Time: 144 Minutes
Release Year: 2001
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Theatrical Trailers
* "Black Hawk Down: On The Set" Featurette