Saving Private Ryan opened the floodgates on war movies containing tense, realistic action sequences. Every director wants to live out his boyhood fantasies and blow stuff up, from Randall Wallace (We Were Soldiers) and John Woo (Windtalkers) to Terrence Malick’s more cerebral approach (Thin Red Line). Now Ridley Scott has joined the party with the ultimate expression of this genre.
I mean ultimate, not in the sense of greatest, but in the sense of the most war action it is possible to squeeze into a movie.
The movie is based on the true story of 123 elite US Rangers who are dropped in the middle of Somalia’s capital city, Mogadishu, during the height of the civil war in the early nineties, to try and capture an enemy warlord’s top advisors. During the mission two Black Hawk helicopters are shot down as the Somali’s put up heavier than expected resistance. The Ranger’s motto is “Leave No Man Behind” so they attempt to battle through the unfriendly city to try and rescue any survivors and bring back the dead. Unfortunately, they have an entire armed city intent on killing them, and as the film progresses things just go from bad to worse and then worse still.
In terms of plot, that’s pretty much it, and can be found in the first half hour of the film. The remainder of the movie is a long, relentless action sequence which must set some kind of unbeatable record for the amount of rounds fired during the course of a film. And this being post Saving Private Ryan, Scott doesn’t shy away from presenting the viewer with the realistic and gory results of bullets and explosions.
The film grips with the same kind of tension and fear as the battle scenes in Saving Private Ryan, but above the noise and bloodshed, it’s interesting to compare the two films further.
Superficially, Speilberg created an authentic feel to his film with documentary-style hand held camera, desaturated colours and often shooting at 12 frames per second, while Scott has taken a much more Rock and Roll approach. Although he tips his hat to the dynamism of Spielberg’s techniques, Scott also borrows from the look and feel of Apocalypse now, even using Jimi Hendrix as the score. The result is a slightly less gritty film, and one in which Scott can’t help himself from framing almost beautiful scenes of destruction.
Speilberg spent much of his film developing the characters, making the viewer emotionally attached and involved. But Scott has no time for this and beyond an early, cursory journey around a mess tent where each character has about twenty seconds to establish themselves, we’re given very little backstory and no character development. In the end, the name of the game is survival, and as the Ranger’s mission begins to unravel, wide eyed panic begins to set in and character traits are dropped by the wayside.
What both films share is a sense of It’s-a-dirty-job-but-someone-has-to-do-it, a grudging acceptance that this is how the situation is. Scott has described the film as an anti-war movie, but to my mind it is less so than Saving Private Ryan. Sure, the US Rangers, get decimated, but they have enough gung-ho, strength under adversity to make this an almost patriotic, flag waving film. The Somalis are not humanised enough and the situation not explained enough for this to seem like an even handed fight: they are simply a relentless wave of AK-47 waving cannon fodder. It’s almost like a video game: no matter how many Somali’s are killed, there always seem to be more around the corner.
All the actors turn in reasonable performances, Ewen McGregor’s terrible American accent excepted, with only Ewen Bremner’s comedic turn as the deafened Nelson rising above the chaos. Josh Hartnett is adequate for the earnest Staff Sergeant Matt Eversmann and Tom Sizemore simply reprises his Saving Private Ryan role, albeit with a higher rank.
But despite some of these shortcomings, Scott has created a gripping film which truly gives a sense of what the situation must have been like for the US troops on the ground. The audience stumbled out of the movie theatre slightly shell shocked themselves and letting out audible gasps of relief.