It could have been so, so bad. A Jerry Bruckheimer-produced movie about 1993's Battle of Mogadishu, Somalia, the longest sustained ground scrap involving American troops since the Vietnam war (until events in Afghanistan knocked it off top spot). The trailer suggested it would be jingoistic, our-boys-kicking-foreign-arse rubbish; the bringing forward of the release date from March to January seemed to confirm it. A war movie on our screens so soon after 11 September? It just had to be blazing sunsets, billowing stars-and-stripes and boisterous high fives all round.
Not so. What Bruckheimer actually, make that Ridley Scott, because it's undoubtedly his film - has given us is a grubby, gritty, thoroughly gruelling war film. Yes, the US troops are full of valour and yes, they perform many heroic deeds, but it's always clear that they're out of their depth, desperately winging it and papping their pants. What's more, Scott and his screenwriters can't be accused of stamping EVIL ENEMY on the Somalis' foreheads, as they do try to show their suffering. Okay, it's a token effort and the film-makers clearly mourn more for one American death than 50 Somalis, but then 90% of the movie is shot from the viewpoint of the stranded US troops. We see what they see, hear what they hear and feel what they feel, so to balance the politics would be to cheat their story.
And what a story: Somalia, East Africa, 1993. A civil war is raging; 300,000 have died; warlord Mohamed Farrah Aidid is starving the population, cutting off food supplies in a bid to gain control; the US are providing aid. Unable to locate Aidid himself, Major General Garrison (Sam Shepard) opts to capture two of his most valued lieutenants, located in the Aidid's stronghold of Bakara market, Mogadishu.
The elite Delta Force go in, backed by US Rangers, and the targets are secured. In fact, everything's looking pretty goddamn rosy until a Black Hawk chopper is shot down. The troops already on the ground must go to help the downed crew and fight their way out of the city, now crawling with thousands of militant Somalis...
Though well-acted by a strong ensemble (Eric Bana is particulary impressive as an abrasive sergeant), who all share roughly equal screen time, this is the director's movie. Flitting between street level POVs, overhead helicopter shots and the grainy surveillance footage being watched by Garrison back in US Headquarters, Scott keeps things disorientating yet understandable, fractured yet coherent, exhilarating yet terrifying. Expressionistic techniques (freeze frame, slo-mo, shutter-effects) and subjective sound (distortion, muting) are brilliantly applied to thrust the viewer into the heart of the battle, and the odd moment of total silence amid the balls-to-the-wall cacophony is simply devastating.
A technical tour de force that shreds your nerves without ever resorting to pornographic violence a la Saving Private Ryan. Will be lurking in the wings comes Oscar time.