The Quick and the Dead

Most movie buffs are familiar with the old adage about the difference between American movies and those films that hail from across the pond. It goes something like this: Hollywood, fast. Europe, slow.

Like most cliches, this one turns out to have a lot of truth in it. Many European films are slower, or at least deeper, more introspective. And by "European" films, at this late stage of the game, we're including the other Americas (Central, South), U.S. indies, the Far, Near and Middle East, and pretty much anything, anywhere, that smacks of art or goes against the norm.

Now here's where the picture starts getting muddy. Even if we agree to agree that slower, deeper, more thoughtful is a good starting place, these qualities don't necessarily guarantee that some deliberately paced, auteur-ist creation will be any better than its Hollywood counterpart. Sometimes fast is good. Sometimes slow is bad — as is the case with Campbell Scott's Final, which we'll get to shortly.

And sometimes a Hollywood movie is so much a Hollywood movie that it becomes something else entirely.

Had enough Zen riddles? Well, here comes one more: Consider Ridley Scott's new movie Black Hawk Down.

Besides being a Ridley Scott movie, Black Hawk Down bears the unmistakable imprint of producer Jerry Bruckheimer, a guy whose very name is synonymous with Hollywood's baser instincts, mega-action and a never-ending array of state-of-the-art explosions. It's the Bruckheimer connection that makes Black Hawk Down a particularly slithery can of worms to wade through; if ever there was a movie that knew the value of blowing something up real good, it's Black Hawk Down. Heck, the movie is almost nothing but explosions. It would be a major mistake, however, to assume that Black Hawk Down is about nothing but explosions. But let's cut to the chase before that Zen riddle thing starts taking over again.

If you're one of those people who thinks that the opening 20-plus minutes of Saving Private Ryan is the most horrific — and therefore best — simulation of wartime combat ever captured on screen, then prepare to have the bar raised again, big time. Black Hawk Down takes the opening sequence of Spielberg's modern war classic and basically extends it into a 135-minute movie, prolonging and amplifying the graphic intensity to the breaking point and, from time to time, even beyond. There are heroes and villains in this story, yes, characters with personalities and agendas, but once Scott's film gets cooking, less than a half hour in, everything blasts into a rush of sheer adrenaline and consummately crafted chaos. The cumulative effect, while not unprecedented, is unique in the unapologetic fury and consistency of its terrible vision.

For most of Black Hawk Down's running time, there is only noise, speed, fire, confusion and grimy bodies being blown apart. Unlike Saving Private Ryan, it would probably be a stretch to call Black Hawk Down a human drama, and it sure won't be most people's idea of a date movie. It's horrible and ugly and utterly undignified, and probably uncomfortably close to what it actually feels like being in the middle of a down-and-dirty shooting war in today's messy, treacherous and tragically hostile world.

Black Hawk Down couldn't be timelier. The film is based on an actual incident that took place in Somalia in 1993, but there are eerie and unsettling parallels with what's happening right now in Afghanistan and way too many other parts of the world. As much as it's about anything, Black Hawk Down is simply about the seething hornet's nest of anti-Americanism, and what happens when someone stirs it up. The film is basically just a breathless, running account of the last hours of a small group of American soldiers trapped deep within enemy territory. The Americans make a wrong move and then find themselves pinned down in a veritable labyrinth, brutally besieged by hordes of unseen enemies hell bent on making them bleed. Then we watch them bleed. That's about it.

The movie's real agenda is a purely visceral one, putting us squarely into the fray with these brave, disoriented, scared-shitless soldiers. The situation rapidly disintegrates into the total chaos of close-quarters fighting, and Scott films it all in a pumped-up but gritty, claustrophobic manner that seems to suck all the air out of the room.

While Scott and screenwriters Ken Noland and Steve Zaillian certainly don't expect anyone to find glory in the spectacle of hopelessly outnumbered Americans reduced to charred flesh, the movie saves itself from total nihilism by finding some sort of nobility in the no-win scenario of people with codes of honor and ethics up against an enemy who simply wants to win, at any cost. The Americans attempt to play by the rules, getting themselves into deeper and deeper shit by refusing to leave their fallen comrades behind. The Somalian homegrown assassins (Scott's likely stand-in for al-Qaida and, probably, much of the rest of the world) simply lurk in the shadows smirking and drooling at the smell of Yankee flesh. And then they pounce.

Brutal and messy, but also somehow elegant (as are all Ridley Scott films), Black Hawk Down is just too skillfully put together to feel fully convincing, but the movie is extremely good at what it does, a perpetual motion machine that's awful to look at but impossible to turn away from.

At the other end of the fast-slow spectrum, we have Campbell Scott's solo directorial debut, Final, an artsy little effort as drowsy and inert as Black Hawk Down is relentlessly mobile.

An actor himself, Scott (no relation to Ridley) gives his actors plenty of breathing room but not much good material in Final, which feels for all the world like a two-person play, and not a particularly good one. Dennis Leary plays Bill, a man who wakes up one day in a hospital room under the observation of a doctor named Ann (Hope Davis). Bill is disoriented and agitated and firmly convinced that he's the victim of a massive conspiracy in which people from the future are planning to kill him and harvest his organs. Ann listens patiently as Leary rants for most of the film's running time. The movie's last act is clearly meant to defy audience expectations, but feels utterly unsurprising and lacks much real dramatic impact. In any event, it's far too little too late.

Scott shot Final on digital video, probably a smart choice for relatively intimate, stagey material like this. Leary chews the carpet every chance he gets but isn't half bad, and Davis would probably be considered a solid, calm center for the film if it wasn't already so torpid that it was in danger of disappearing right before our eyes. Curiously enough, Campbell Scott has co-directed two films before this, including one quite good one (Big Night), but Final has the distinctly indistinct feel of an amateur, sluggish where it wants to be deliberate, and filled with great, gaping pockets of dead air. Lance Goldenberg can be reached at [email protected] or 813-248-8888, ext. 157.

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