Ridley Scott's Black Hawk Down, based on reporter Mark Bowden's factual account of a 1993 U.S. Army operation gone dreadfully awry in Somalia, doesn't just kick your ass. It pummels your entire body; it leaves you trembling. Once the premise and setting are established, this brutal combat adventure doesn't catch its breath until about an hour-and-a-half into things, and even then it exhales only long enough to set you up for the second assault. That the movie looks great is no surprise coming from Scott, nor is it a revelation that, as a Jerry Bruckheimer production, it seeks to create cinematic adrenaline. The shock is that it actually succeeds on both counts; Bruckheimer's track record has been feeble ever since partner Don Simpson died, and Scott hasn't made a good movie in a decade (1991's Thelma & Louise), though he fooled audiences, quote-whore critics and Academy voters with last year's wretched and overrated Gladiator.
Perhaps the big difference is that Scott's actually working with a script, one based on a book that documents a real event. It probably doesn't hurt that regular Scott editor Pietro Scalia seems to have gone easy on the Mountain Dew Code Red this time around. And Bruckheimer may have learned his lesson from his other war movie of this year -- you know, the other one to star Josh Hartnett. Black Hawk Down plays like the sole memorable part of Pearl Harbor, the 45-minute attack sequence, stretched out to feature length without a PG-13 rating requiring Vaseline to be smeared on the edges of the lens to mask the gore. Pearl Harbor seemed so deliberately sanitized as to almost be nouveau war propaganda; Black Hawk Down may come to praise heroics, but it also wants to make very clear the horrors of war. Behind Enemy Lines this ain't.
Before gushing in earnest, however, the inevitable criticisms: Yes, it's sometimes hard to tell the principals apart, even though they're kind enough to write their names on their helmets. Frequent moviegoers, however, will recognizes faces familiar and eccentric: Sam Shepard as the commanding general, Ewan McGregor as the desk jockey turned combatant, Tom Sizemore as the glutton for punishment, Hulk-to-be Eric Bana as the redneck, Ewen Bremner as the funny deaf guy, Jeremy Piven as the wise-ass chopper pilot, comic monologist Danny Hoch as the goofball, The Patriot's villain Jason Isaacs as a born-again sergeant, Orlando Bloom (Lord of the Rings' Legolas) as the rookie, and Brendan Sexton III and Ioan Gruffudd thrown in there somewhere.
And yes, those who expect an absolute true-to-life account of the Somalia mission -- complete with a full picture of all the politics involved, as depicted in Bowden's straight-up journalistic book -- will be disappointed. This is, after all, a collaboration between a very visual director and a sensationalist producer, and though pains have been taken to represent as many of the real men as possible, some character traits have been amalgamated and one major character (McGregor's) has undergone a name change: He's now Ranger John Grimes, because Ranger John "Stebby" Stebbins is in the Fort Leavenworth military prison serving a 30-year term for rape and child molestation, and the Army demanded that his name not be used in the film.
You could certainly argue that it might be disrespectful to push an account of real men who died as action entertainment, but, frankly, what was the book if not a nonfiction thriller? The film gets going with images of starvation accompanied with text that essentially lets us know that Somalia is a truly unpleasant place to be, mainly because of territorial warlords who steal U.N. food supplies, the most notable being Mohammed Farah Aidid. Having backed down when the Marines came ashore, Aidid, like so many other international dictators with their own militias, took control again as soon as the Americans left. Army Rangers and Delta Force operators were sent in to take out two of his top lieutenants, but the military didn't count on Aidid's militia. What should have been a simple operation -- take over a building in the Wild West Bakara market of downtown Mogadishu, where Aidid's top warlords were scheduled to be, at least according to informants -- quickly turned into a nightmare when thousands of Somalis, armed with rifles and rocket launchers, downed one chopper and then another, leaving dozens of soldiers stranded in the middle of a hostile city where everyone seemed to have guns. Imagine a real-life game of Doom on the hardest level of difficulty, and you've pretty much got it.
Scott initially spares us long looks at gore, but things get progressively bloodier, until we finally get to guys whose eyes have been showered in glass yet still have to drive and soldiers digging deep into a buddy's pelvic wound to try pulling his pulmonary artery out. Leavening the ugliness slightly are some more unusual details, such as warthogs galloping through marshes and a donkey that somehow manages to survive intense combat crossfire with little effort. You know whether this sort of thing is for you or not. Though a subplot involving a soldier taken hostage is left irritatingly unresolved until the end titles, which simply explain it away, the nonstop battle for survival should leave guys with very little to complain about. Black Hawk Down is far and away the action movie of the year.