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Ridley Scott
Josh Hartnett, Ewan McGregor, Tom Sizemore, Eric Bana, William Fichtner, Ewen Bremner, Sam Shepard
Ken Nolan, based on the book by Mark Bowden

Leave No Man Behind
Box Office:
Budget $95 million.
Opening weekend $274,347 million on 4 screens.
Domestic gross $108.638 million.
Rated R for intense, realistic, graphic war violence, and for language.

Academy Awards:
Won for Best Editing; Best Sound.
Nominated for Best Director-Ridley Scott; Best Cinematography.

Widescreen 2.35:1/16x9
English Dolby Digital 5.1
French Dolby Surround
English, French, Thai, Chinese

Runtime: 144 min.
Price: $27.95
Release Date: 6/11/2002

• “On the Set” Featurette
• Filmographies
• Theatrical Trailers
• Production Notes

Score soundtrack

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Black Hawk Down (2001)

Reviewed by Colin Jacobson

When Hollywood turns its focus toward war, it usually concentrates on one of two different conflicts: World War II or the Vietnam War. Partially due to the fact it ended a couple of decades before the US entered Vietnam, WWII fills more cinematic slots, but the later war nonetheless has certainly received plenty of attention. Actually, Vietnam was the subject of many of the best-regard war films ever, with pictures like Platoon and Apocalypse Now, and both conflicts continue to pop up on screens from time to time.

Nonetheless, one can understand if filmmakers would like to expand to other arenas. For some, that means a look back in time, such as 2000’s examination of the Revolutionary War via The Patriot. More modern battles have been tougher to find. 1999’s Three Kings examined the Gulf War, but that issue hasn’t generated much cinematic interest.

For 2001’s Black Hawk Down, director Ridley Scott looked at a war that wasn’t officially a war, at least not for the participants on whom he focused. In the early Nineties, Somalia went through a civil war, and as a result, the country suffered from a famine; warring parties would seize food shipments and not divert them to the citizens. United Nations forces intervened to attempt to occupy the country and re-establish a more democratic form of government.

Much of their efforts went toward the capture of Somali leader Mohamed Farah Aideed. On October 3, 1993, US Army Rangers sought to snag two of Aideed’s top leaders. Black Hawk Down offers coverage of those events. We meet many of the Rangers involved and watch as the actions unfold. Initially, the forces believe the intervention will take only an hour or so, but when they encounter stiff resistance, problems develop. One Army helicopter - a Black Hawk, hence the movie’s title - gets shot down, and behind their motto that “no one gets left behind”, the other soldiers do their best to retrieve all of their fallen comrades.

Unfortunately, this doesn’t go well. The planned brief action takes hours as the Somali resistance injures more and more men. The vast majority of Hawk concentrates on these actions, as we watch the grim tale unfold.

Hawk enjoys a solid pedigree. In addition to the talent of Scott behind the camera, mega-successful producer Jerry Bruckheimer works his magic on it as well. The movie also provides a slew of fine actors, as we find folks such as Tom Sizemore, Ewan McGregor, Sam Shepard, and Josh Hartnett, among many others.

Too many others, to be honest, as Hawk suffers from such a large cast that it loses much focus. I often assert that war stories are best told when they focus on a small number of participants. These tales take on greater power when we more fully feel the loss and the pain. With a huge roster of folks, we can see the scope of the conflict more clearly, but conversely, we experience less of the human anguish.

Hawk definitely spreads itself too thin. The movie doesn’t attempt to cover all of the 100-plus US soldiers involved, of course, but it still concentrates on far too many of them. The film includes scads of semi-significant roles, and as a result, almost none of them stand out from the crowd. Even though the soldiers’ names were written on their helmets, I still couldn’t really keep track of them. I often could only recall characters if I recognized the actor; if I didn’t already know the performer, I usually lost track of the personality. Actually, that’s not totally true, for a couple of guys - Ranger Specialist Shawn Nelson (Ewen Bremner) and Sgt. First Class Norm "Hoot" Hooten (Eric Bana) - stood out to me even though I didn’t recognize the actors. Nonetheless, they were exceptions to the rule.

Speaking of the cast, Hawk includes a surprisingly high number of non-US actors playing Americans. Bana, Bremner, Ewan McGregor, Jason Isaacs and others all come from across various ponds. Interestingly, Bremner also shared screentime with some of the cast in earlier films. He appeared in Trainspotting with McGregor, and he also showed up in 2001’s Pearl Harbor with Hartnett. Incredibly, the latter actor featured in six movies that hit screens in 2001!

Enough cast trivia - back to the movie! While the lack of real character development bothers me, I wouldn’t say it causes the heaviest problems with Hawk. Instead, the movie’s odd ambivalence creates the most concerns. When people see Bruckheimer’s name attached to a project, they assume it’ll be a rah-rah popcorn flick. I think Bruckheimer’s material offers greater subtlety than some believe, but I can’t offer much of an argument against that consensus.

And that’s fine with me. When you see the Bruckheimer stamp on a film, you generally know what you’ll get. Some of his flicks are better than others, but there’s usually a reasonable guarantee of a certain level of quality. Whether this is good or bad remains for individual viewers to decide; while I don’t like the vague sameness found in his films, I do at least appreciate the fact that most offer a reasonably exciting experience.

Hawk clearly is supposed to be a grittier and more serious piece than the usual Bruckheimer fluff flick, and that’s part of the problem. Neither Bruckheimer nor Scott really seems willing to go all the way. Of course, one could argue the same with Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan; even with all the film’s noted gore, it still suffered from some stereotypical Spielbergian sappiness at times.

Happily, Hawk dispenses with the jingoism often found in Bruckheimer productions, but it doesn’t seem quite able to take things to their appropriate extremes. Hawk wants to be gritty. Scott uses a semi-documentary style much of the time, and it exhibits occasional examples of graphic carnage, though it never approaches Ryan levels.

And that’s part of the problem. It feels like the filmmakers couldn’t decide if they wanted Hawk to be an “R” or a “PG-13” flick, and the tentative nature of the production harms it.

However, the issues don’t relate explicitly to the lack of significant buckets of blood. Instead, they come across more strongly via the film’s ambivalent take on its subject. Scott and Bruckheimer avoid the “hey hey, USA!” tone one might expect, but they also fail to provide any remote sense of balance between the conflict’s two sides. Only one sad little scene tries to explain the Somali point of view, as captured pilot Mike Durant (Ron Eldard) chats with his abductor. This segment really feels tacked-on and gratuitous, and it actually compounds the movie’s absence of counterpoint.

Clearly Black Hawk Down focuses on a compelling and worthwhile subject, and at times, the movie becomes compelling. However, as a whole I think it seems curiously unengaging. The movie kept me at a distance much of the time, and for a variety of reasons, I never really got involved in the story or the characters. Hawk can’t decide if it wants to be Apocalypse Now or The Rock, and the film suffers for it.

The DVD Grades: Picture A- / Audio A- / Bonus D+

Black Hawk Down appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 2.35:1 on this single-sided, double-layered DVD; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Despite the highly stylized photography evident throughout the movie, I found Hawk to offer a very solid picture.

Sharpness always appeared immaculate. Even during extreme wide shots, I found the image to remain nicely crisp and well defined. At no point did I discern any signs of softness or fuzziness in this tight picture. Some minor moiré effects cropped up when mesh netting appeared, but those were slight, and I detected no concerns related to jagged edges or edge enhancement. Print flaws also seemed absent. As part of the production design, some moderate grain showed up on occasion, but I thought this appeared insubstantial, and I didn’t feel it interfered with the presentation. Otherwise, the image seemed to be totally free of any defects such as grit, speckles, marks or other issues.

Hawk featured a very stylized palette. Most of the movie offered intense tans and greens, with an occasional splash of red or blue tossed in as well. Despite the inherently bland look of the film, I felt the DVD replicated the tones quite nicely. The colors appeared vivid and distinct at all times, as I saw no signs of bleeding, noise, or other concerns. Black levels also came across as dense and rich, while shadow detail was appropriately thick but not excessively heavy. Overall, Black Hawk Down provided a strong visual experience.

Also positive was the film’s Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack. While not on a par with something such as Saving Private Ryan, the audio did the job well for the most part. The soundfield presented an active affair that created a nice sense of the setting. All five channels received a good workout, as the mix featured fine stereo separation for the music and integrated effects material well. Material blended together neatly and smoothly, and the different elements seemed appropriately localized as well. The surrounds added a good sense of depth to the package, and they contributed quite a lot of unique audio during the battles. Since most of the movie consisted of fight scenes, this meant the rear speakers received a lot of work.

Audio quality appeared fine. Though much of it must have been looped, dialogue seemed clear and natural throughout the film. I heard no concerns related to intelligibility or edginess. Music was bright and distinct and showed nice fidelity; the mix of score and songs came across with robust and lively tones. Effects seemed crisp and concise. Even with all the loud action onscreen, I never heard any distortion, and the material appeared accurate and vivid. Low-end response came across quite well, as the movie presented tight and taut bass. Overall, Black Hawk Down provided a satisfying soundtrack.

This DVD release of Black Hawk Down includes only a few extras. Most significant is a featurette called On the Set. The 24-minute show includes the standard mix of shots from the set, film clips, and interviews with principals. In the latter regard, we hear from director Ridley Scott, producer Jerry Bruckheimer, author Mark Bowden, co-military advisors Colonel Lee Van Arsdale and Colonel Thomas Matthews, production designer Arthur Max, associate producer/military advisor Harry Humphries, operations officer, 160th SOAR Major Brian Bean, task force commander, 160th SOAR Lt. Colonel Kirk Potts, and actors Josh Hartnett, Eric Bana, Jason Isaacs, William Fichtner, Ewan McGregor, Tom Sizemore, Sam Shepard, Orlando Bloom, Michael Roof, Hugh Dancy, Brian Van Holt, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, and Ron Eldard. The first half of the program offers little more than story and character background, but the second half provides some more compelling information. It briefly covers the locations, training the actors, and working with the military, among other topics. Overall, this remains a promotional piece that exists to sell the movie, but it seems a little stronger than most programs in that genre.

Other than “On the Set”, we don’t get much in the way of supplements. We discover Filmographies that split into two areas. Under “Crew” we find director Scott, producer Bruckheimer, composer Hans Zimmer, editor Pietro Scalia, production designer Arthur Max, director of photography Slawomir Idziak, author Mark Bowden, and screenwriter Ken Nolan. Within “Cast” we locate listings for actors Josh Hartnett, Eric Bana, Ewan McGregor, Tom Sizemore, William Fichtner, Sam Shepard, and Ron Eldard.

Lastly, in addition to some very perfunctory Production Notes inside the DVD’s booklet, we discover two trailers, neither of which touts Hawk. We get one for the box office smash Spider-Man and another for Jet Li’s The One. Both clips offer anamorphic 1.85:1 images with Dolby Digital 5.1 sound. (The Spidey clip looks absolutely fantastic and makes me salivate for the full DVD. When I saw the film theatrically, it looked weak, as the print showed flat colors and scads of grain - even though I watched it at a premium theater during opening weekend! I feared those problems were inherent to the movie’s photography, but based on the trailer, the DVD should provide spectacular colors!)

Many feel disappointed by the lack of substantial extras on this disc, but fear not, as Columbia already announced a more extensive special edition. I don’t believe a firm street date has been given, but they’ve promised it’s in the works; I’d guess it’ll be out by the end of 2002.

I look forward to that package - Ridley Scott gives good audio commentaries, and I expect the other pieces will be interesting as well - but I must admit that as a film, Black Hawk Down didn’t do much for me. The flick had its moments and seemed generally decent as a whole, but it never really came together and delivered the moving, visceral experience I expected. The DVD provides very solid picture and sound but only a smattering of extras.

If you’ve not already seen Black Hawk Down, I’d still recommend it for a rental. Obviously I don’t feel wild about it, but it does enough right to at least merit a look. I can’t support more than that sight-unseen, though. As for folks who already know they liked it, if you don’t care about supplements, go ahead and snag this version; it delivers top-notch picture and sound. However, if you dig extras, it should be worth the wait for the upcoming special edition.

Viewer Film Ratings: 4.3299 Stars Number of Votes: 197
10 3:
View Averages for all rated titles.