Mogadishu, 1993. At war with a Somalian warlord, in the longest sustained ground battle since Vietnam, U.S. troops set out on a mission to capture his senior advisors. When two of their helicopters - the Black Hawks of the title - are shot down, the surviving troops are trapped in a terrifying firefight.
Would-be historians and contributors to the Daily Mail letters page, put your pens down now. Don't even think about it. Because for all its on-paper parallels - American troops in a real-life military conflict, Josh Hartnett looking a little forlorn - this is no Pearl Harbor 2. Better luck next time. Indeed, if it's gung-ho jingoism and overblown sentimentality you're after, you're pissing up entirely the wrong flagpole. On this evidence, at least, the dastardly Jerry Bruckheimer appears to have learnt his lesson.
That's not to say that he and Ridley Scott have scrimped any on the style - the spectacular helicopter footage, particularly the first seismic crash, almost lives up to Harbor's "bomb p.o.v." money shot. It's more the case that style and substance are here given equal billing. Yes, the Somali enemy has one sequence of particularly brutal savagery. And yes, their Muslim faith is highlighted with a shot of the call to prayer, which could - and no doubt will - be cited as containing a not-so-subliminal, post-September 11 poignancy. But, by and large, Scott abandons a black and white stance for an exposé of the unilateral tragedy of war.
In doing so, he subjects his audience to a barrage of uneasily believable horrors, a relentless assault on the senses that continually drums home the chaotic intensity of conflict. If his initial pitch was, "It's the opening 30 minutes of Saving Private Ryan - except for two hours," he's comfortably fulfilled his brief. Naysayers will claim that the net result is one of confusion, and to an extent they have a point. Arguably throwing his implausibly good-looking ensemble (at times it's as if the kids from the Gap ads have taken up arms) into the fray too soon, Scott never gives the viewer time to bond with his heroes.
There's a vague sense of pre-recognition. Bloom is the naive new recruit. McGregor struggles with an unlikely accent as the reluctant desk clerk. Bana (fully justifying his casting as The Hulk with the only standout turn on display) is a maverick tough-nut. And a better-than-usual Hartnett plays the recently promoted sergeant leading his men out for the first time. But these are merely sketched characters. Do we care when one of them bites the bullet? Not really. Can we sometimes not even make out exactly what's going on? This is fair comment. But then, just maybe, that's the point. You can forget cartoon action sequences; this is as honest a depiction of the heat of battle as you're likely to find.
It's an admirable move, casting aside standard war movie clichés in favour of gritty realism. Structurally, though, there's seldom a sense of narrative coherence. Act One's "men on a mission" segues into a claustrophobic, Zulu-esque Act Two, and then an, erm, claustrophobic, Zulu-esque Act Three. Fine, so real events may not have lent themselves to a traditional dramatic arc, but the lack of a discernible climax may leave some feeling shortchanged.Whether or not that includes the American Academy, who will possibly still lap up its "leave no man behind" moralising, remains to be seen.
Ambitious, sumptuously-framed and frenetic, Black Hawk Down occasionally errs on the confused, but is nonetheless a rare find of a war movie which dares to turn genre convention on its head. And besides, it's a damn sight better than Hannibal.