Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Reviews: Black Hawk Down, Centurion, Rango

Black Hawk Down

One reviewer famously concluded that Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down was “Saving Private Ryan without the slow parts”. Hyperbole aside, there is something to that. Black Hawk features as visceral battle scenes as any movie ever made, and there is little to no down time once they start. It’s an exhausting experience.

Black Hawk Down tells the story of the U.S. army’s disastrous excursion into Mogadishu in 1993, which ended up leading to the deaths of 18 Americans and well over a thousand Somalis. The Americans, who were initially supposed to be in the city for less then a half hour in an attempt to capture a warlord, got trapped in a very hostile city for more than twelve hours after two Black Hawk helicopters were shot down. The plot isn’t complex; the movie sets up the situation (including a touching introductory montage explaining why the U.S. is there in the first place) for about a half hour. After that, the soldiers are simply trying to survive and get the hell out of the city.

The cast is ludicrously loaded. Top billing went to Josh Hartnett and Tom Sizemore, but the number of recognizable faces and names is absurd. Many of the actors had not yet become famous when the movie came out, but have become well-known since, which helps account for the sheer number of familiar actors. Among others, Orlando Bloom, Eric Bana, Jeremy Piven, Ty Burrell, Nocolaj Coster-Waldau, Tom Hardy, and Ewan McGregor all show up at least briefly.

But this overloaded cast isn’t necessarily a good thing. The movie’s main fault, what really holds it back from being a great movie, is that there are too many characters. The movie tries to introduce us to all 18 of the soldiers who die (as well as many others who don’t), and, as a result, it’s hard to care too much about any one of them. The closest we come to a main character is Josh Hartnett, and he isn’t on screen for even 1/3 of the scenes. The only character name I can come up with three days after watching the movie is McGregor’s Grimes, and that's only from reading about the movie after the fact.

The Somalis get even shorter shrift. Only two are featured at all as individuals, and even then only one is sympathetic. For the most part, they are a bloodthirsty black mass, with only one or two short albeit effective sequences showing the human suffering that the raid (and response) brought to the civilians. This is even more unfortunate because of the dozens of American soldiers with speaking roles, only one is black. There probably wasn’t any getting around all this—it was pretty strictly based on a true story, after all—but it still comes off awkwardly.

The last thing I want to mention is the incredible verisimilitude that Scott shows. It seems like a touched-up documentary, and I mean that as a compliment. Mogadishu is realistically rendered, as is the military in all its courage and fallibility. The combat seems about as real as any I’ve ever seen, and Scott doesn’t bother trying to add more than small touches of “Hollywood” to a very brutal incident, which is the correct decision. It’s a stunning achievement, and makes already exciting action even more gripping.

7.5/10: Good/Very Good


I wouldn’t exactly call it a masterpiece, but Centurion deserves a little more attention than it got. A summer 2010 release, it passed out of theaters nearly as quickly as it entered them, and was less than an afterthought for most people that year. I suppose it isn’t hard to see why; it’s a good but not great movie that didn’t make much money (barely six figures in the U.S, and only a few million abroad) and doesn’t feature any particularly well-known stars. Still, it’s a bit of a shame.

Centurion purports to tell the story of the Roman 9th Legion which, at least according to legend, disappeared in northern Britannia sometime around 117 A.D. The movie begins when centurion Quintas Dias (Michael Fassbender) is captured by the Picts, who have been fighting a guerrilla insurrection against the Roman conquerors in Britain for years. Dias manages to escape, and meets up with the Ninth Legion, commanded by General Virilus (McNulty), which is on a mission to root out and destroy the pictish resistance. However, the legion is betrayed by its guide Etain (Olga Kurylenko) and slaughtered almost to a man. The survivors, lead by Dias, decide to attempt a rescue of the captured general, and then to somehow make it back to safety. It is a task that will prove very, very difficult.

The cast is largely up-and-comers, people who are just starting to make a name for themselves in Hollywood. A little starpower might have been nice—I’m of the opinion that actors usually become famous for a reason; acting ability, screen presence, or both—but with a budget of only $12 million that probably wasn’t possible. Still, the acting is never anything less than adequate. Fassbender (Magneto in the new X-Men movie) is a credible leading man, and Olga Kurlylenko glowers impressively. McNulty (technically, his real name is Dominic West) is a scene-stealer as the boisterous and charismatic General Virilus.

The standout element of Centurion is undoubtedly the breathtaking cinematography of northern Britain. The camerawork is gorgeous, and the movie even manages to incorporate the title sequences into the beautiful wilderness.

Other than the scenery, this is very much a movie that does nothing particularly poorly but also nothing memorably well. It’s good at everything and bad at nothing, but also great at nothing. Which is fine, really. That makes it better than a lot of what’s out there. I suppose if I had to choose a weakness, it would be a somewhat shoehorned-in romantic subplot between Dias and a Pictish woman named Arianne (Imogen Poots). But even this element isn’t bad, exactly, because Poots and Fassbender have chemistry and because the film’s resolution works better than it would have had that particular subplot been cut.

Centurion exemplifies a seven on my scale. I can recommend it without qualification, but I also never need to see it again. It’s a good movie. And that’s all it is.

7/10 Good


Rango is a strange, strange movie. It’s an animated homage to/parody of old-fashioned Westerns, starring, of course (and why not?) anthropomorphized talking animals. It’s impeccably animated, and clearly had a large budget, and I have to wonder what studio executive approved it. And where we can get more of them, because while I can’t say I unequivocally loved Rango, I did like how it tries to be something new.

Rango is the type of movie that defies easy summation, but I’ll do my best. It’s the tale of a lonely pet chameleon (the titular character, voiced by Johnny Depp) who finds himself in an old-west style town in the desert that seems heavily influenced by classical movie tropes. Rango, mostly through bluster and lies, finds himself the respected sheriff of the town as he must investigate nefarious plot that involves a nefarious real-estate scheme and a suspiciously prolonged drought.

If that sounds familiar, it’s probably because the plot is very, very clearly inspired by Chinatown. Which is only the most obvious of literally dozens of references to movies both young and old, including Star Wars, Dawn of the Dead, Toy Story, and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly among many, many others. The references are woven in seamlessly and often quite cleverly, and most are possible to miss if you aren’t paying attention. It’s a cleverly-written movie, and often quite funny. As an animated picture, it shares some DNA with Shrek.

Furthermore, the production values are off-the-charts fantastic. The CG might be the best we’ve seen from a non-pixar movie, and it sells the Western vibe despite the fact that major characters include a chameleon (Rango), a desert iguana named Beans (voiced by Isla Fisher), a cactus mouse named Priscilla (Abigail Breslin), Rattlesnake Jake (Bill Nighy), John the Tortoise (Ned Beatty), and a Greek chorus of sorts composed of Mariachi-playing burrowing owls. It’s bizarre, but it works.

And yet, despite all logical evidence to the contrary, there was actually something just a little bit stale to Rango. The premise is as unique as any, to be sure, but I think the fact that the story—which is the single most important part of any movie aside from an out-and-out comedy (which this is not)—is lifted almost intact from other movies ends up hurting it. It’s a song that has innovative lyrics but a too-familiar rhythm.

Rango is the “Ice Ice Baby” of movies.

7/10 Good.

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