Whereas a film like Saving Private Ryan is rightly described as a war drama, Black Hawk Down is simply a straight up action flick with a wartime backdrop. Its trailers may play up the "leave no man behind" theme, but human drama is really a minor part of this Ridley Scott film. Once the action begins, it's a non-stop buffet of patriotic carnage with enough enemy carcasses to plug a landfill.
The year is 1993, and the hellhole is Somalia. When a ruthless tyrant prevents his people from receiving food from the United Nations, the United States intervenes and becomes embroiled in a foreign civil war. To end the conflict, an elite force of U.S. Rangers is sent to capture key leaders responsible for the country's suffering. But their mission goes awry when the local militia shoots down two Black Hawk helicopters and corners the Rangers in the streets.
Black Hawk Down's strongest asset is its ability to stir up pro-America feelings (provided, of course, you don't side with the chumps getting gunned down). I can't count the times I wanted to jump from my seat and cheer as the U.S. Rangers took out the rag-tag militia of Somalia. "Don't screw with the United States of America" is the core theme felt throughout the movie, and it's easy to get caught up in the sentiment. Terrorist thugs pull guns on U.S. troops and are promptly shot to hell.
Adding to the easy-to-digest patriotism is the militia being portrayed as completely despicable: they never rise above the roles of mercenaries for hire; they're greedy and opportunistic; they live like peasants, yet somehow afford assault rifles and rocket launchers; they rummage through the remains of downed U.S. choppers like scavengers; and, above all, they have the audacity to attack America, the country working to bring them food and freedom.
Even when the movie tries to show both sides of the story, it's hard not to side with the U.S. In one scene, an old man and a young boy are waiting to ambush an American solider. In the ensuing firefight, the boy shoots the old man (possibly his father), and yet it's impossible to feel sympathy for him. The immediate reaction is, "Yeah, that's what you get when you pull a gun on America, punk." In another scene, a native woman picks up a rifle and points it at a Ranger despite his warnings, so he's forced to shoot her. Again, no sympathy. And again, an immediate reaction: "Yeah, that's what you get you pull a gun on America, bitch."
There's a spectacular amount of violence in Black Hawk Down. Steaming bullet shells rain down as U.S. choppers unload impressive amounts of ammo into vigilantes, and brutal wounds aren't edited for cleanliness: a blinded driver gets a face full of broken glass and blood; a man gets cut in half like Bishop in Aliens; and a soldier has to perform hack-and-slash surgery on a colleague by sticking his hand into an open wound and digging around for a major artery.
Noticeably lost in the constant exchange of gunfire is a clear story: the Rangers' objective is out of focus for the better part of the movie. Once the first helicopter is downed and the situation becomes dire, the original mission of capturing the leaders of Somalia is thrown out the window. The campaign is put aside in favor of evacuating the American soldiers from the volatile situation. But it's not clear why the retreat is so difficult, especially since a colonel and his group fall back with little trouble. These details aren't terribly confusing, though--just a little vague. And the action could have been better served with a crystal clear objective of what people were fighting for at every stage.
In the ten minutes the movie actually tries to develop a storyline, the time is squandered on presenting basic stereotypes instead of individuals: the green enlistee so eager for combat that you know he's going to be the first to die; the team leader who doesn't give up no matter the odds; the quirky guy who adds comic relief (in this case, Ewan McGregor as a desk jockey who has a thing for brewing fresh coffee, even on the battlefield). Mercifully, though, there are no cheesy theatrics of heroism typical of big Bruckheimer productions like Armageddon and Pearl Harbor.
Black Hawk Down may not give any insight into the politics of 1993's Somalia, but it delivers an entertaining overdose of graphic action. There's only one gnawing question left unanswered: why is the stupid jogging suit so popular with mid-level militia leaders in modern war movies?
Rating: 7 out of 10 (0=Abysmal, 5=Average, 10=Excellent)