Scott's Black Hawk Down pays grim, gritty homage to real-life warriors.

Hell and Back 

Scott's Black Hawk Down pays grim, gritty homage to real-life warriors.

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 pump cinematic adrenaline. The shock is that it actually succeeds on both counts -- Bruckheimer's track record has been feeble 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 2001's wretched and overrated Gladiator.

Perhaps the big difference is that Scott is 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 recent war movie -- you know, the other one with 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 Vaseline smeared on the edges of the lens to mask the gore and secure a PG-13 rating.

Yes, those who expect an absolutely true-to-life account of the Somalia mission -- complete with a full picture of all the politics involved, as depicted in Bowden's book -- will be disappointed. This is, after all, a collaboration between a very visual director and a sensationalist producer. And you could argue that it might be disrespectful to push an account of real men who died as action entertainment, but what was the book if not a nonfiction thriller?

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 who still have to drive and soldiers digging deep into a buddy's pelvic wound to pull his pulmonary artery out. Leavening the ugliness slightly are unusual details, such as warthogs galloping through marshes and a donkey that somehow manages to survive intense combat crossfire with little effort. You know if 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 makes Black Hawk Down far and away the action movie of the year.

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