A DVD REVIEW: BLACK HAWK DOWN - SUPERBIT EDITION (Columbia/TriStar) [Archive] - Audio & Video Forums



08-26-2005, 10:25 AM

In the midst of this "Superbit sale discussion madness," I took this first title I ever purchased in Superbit flavor off the shelf last night to revisit and review. Some say this is Ridley Scott's finest hour next to Gladiator and I would have to agree. The real events which inspired the book and film which Scott eventually crafted are so fascinating and laced with so much detail and horrifying realism that Columbia/TriStar released a three-disc Deluxe Edition of this title after the bare-bones edition was pressed, which is often considered one of the most exhaustive, complete "special edition" packages in the HISTORY of DVD. This Deluxe Edition of Scott's Black Hawk Down, rather than this Superbit edition, I would have to say IS the definitive version of the film if you're a fan simply because of the degree of information that's included on that three disc version regarding what really happened during this military blunder. What you're sacrificing on that Deluxe Edition is the Superbit's DTS mix, which is, as I will report, STELLAR compared to the bare bones edition's Dolby Digital 5.1 mix --- but, considering the extras you are getting on that Deluxe Edition, and if you are a history buff and are really interested in the facts behind this story, that Dolby Digital track will pack the necessary punch for you; in MY case, it was simply the AUDIO experience I was after, as this disc --- the SUPERBIT version that is --- continues to appear in Home Theater magazine's top discs for audio lists issue after issue of which I contribute my vote for it each time as part of their editorial staff. I was living with the bare bones original edition of this flick for awhile, feeling the Deluxe Edition was just way too expensive at all the places I was shopping and I just felt that the price did not justify --- for me personally --- my unnecessary need for those two extras-packed discs (as DreamWorks is NOT going to get my money for this new extended three disc set of Gladiator that's out now). BUT, that is NOT to take away from the fact that the DELUXE EDITION does indeed include fascinating real looks at what happened in Somalia that October 1993, interviewing real soldiers involved in the fight, documentaries and all kinds of features that border on the side of fascinating, and I'm not one for tons of extras as I feel they "ruin the magic" of that cinema you're watching up there on the screen.

Ridley Scott's cinematic version of what occurred to our elite U.S. military forces that October afternoon --- or what was supposed to be an afternoon but spilled into the next day --- is captured in a very un-Hollywood like fashion and that's the appeal of the film; almost from start to finish this film is loaded with nonstop gunfire and battle sequences, and if you thought Saving Private Ryan left you exhausted mentally after sitting through that Omaha Beach sequence, wait until you sit through the gun battles in Black Hawk Down; its gritty realism makes it a difficult film to watch over and over again --- and yet, at the same time, it boasts a roster of top tier actors (there are no female actresses in this film at all) including Josh Harnett, Ewan McGregor, Tom Sizemore, Eric Bana, William Fichtner and Sam Shepard.

What exactly happened there in the streets of Mogadishu to our soldiers? What was the objective of the mission? Why did it seem so insignificant at the time amongst other world affairs? Ridley Scott seems to answer all these questions through his film and indeed suggests that this was an important, often overlooked blunder in the history of America's military strategies, perhaps along the lines of Vietnam. The film opens telling the story amidst the backdrop of a haunting, ethnic Gladiator-like score by Hans Zimmer; a violent warlord, Mohammed Farrid Adid, has taken control of his "territory," has begun starving his own people committing genocide and thus begins robbing the food being dropped by the U.S. and Red Cross who are called in to assist. The entire incident leads to Adid declaring war on marines who are eventually called in to restore order. President Clinton ordered General William Garrison (Sam Shepard) to take Adid out and free the hostages he has taken --- a mission that was supposed to take hours but because of the U.S. military's intelligence not really being up to snuff, turned into a bloodbath wherein Somali militia completely outnumbered and outgunned the U.S. and U.N. forces sent in for the mission.....to make matters worse, these were Delta, Ranger and other special forces teams sent in for the mission which ultimately failed from a military point of view......it was a mission which Clinton received terrible backlash for and which caused the resignation of the real General Garrison after he took full responsibility for the failure of the mission.

From the moment the film opens, Scott brilliantly draws us into the world of these special Delta and Ranger teams being sent into Somalia to battle Adid --- there is a sense of hope and almost arrogance amongst the young soldiers, believing this is going to be an easy, routine mission. When they arrive for a "sneak attack" in Mogadishu to look for Adid and release his prisoners, the "feelings" of these soldiers are relayed to us in a completely different way, as they are taken off guard and are unprepared for Adid's militia, causing panic and downright terror amongst the U.S. troops. Josh Harnett is in charge of one of the groups sent in by helicopter ("Black Hawks" as these are known) while Tom Sizemore, along with Jason Isaacs (The Patriot, Armageddon), is in charge of a squad sent in by Humvee trucks. What transpires is wall to wall combat action, with Somali militia firing shoulder rockets at the U.S. troops from every angle, machine gun shootouts and absolute mayhem erupting.....something the American soldiers weren't quite prepared for.

Scott also uses another effective technique, constantly reminding us of the date and time at the bottom of the screen as the film progresses --- suggesting just how much mayhem, warfare and chaos transpired in such a little amount of time. This "timeline technique" begins from almost the opening titles to the very end, which, just before the end credits, reminds us how many Somalis and Americans were killed in this raid, and even lists the names of the American soldiers who died during this attempt to capture the warlord Adid.

Befitting the title of the picture (and the book of the same name), the Somali soldiers end up shooting down two Black Hawk helicopters, one of which is attacked by thousands of angry, armed Somalis who carry an dead pilot's body like it was a trophy --- something highlighted by Scott but was a true clipping of news when this happened in October of '93. Another pilot, Mike Durant, ends up being captured by Adid's militia, creating the mantra for this mission which was "Leave No Man Behind." Scott has shot Black Hawk Down with an intentional grittiness which intensifies, for us, the environment of the soldiers trapped in this nightmare, and his shooting style becomes fascinating after awhile, switching from dirt and debris blowing up into the camera from missile fire to close-up shots of General Garrison in the Joint Operations Center office watching helplessly as his men get chewed up. But for the most part, this is a combat sequence --- from almost beginning to finish, with simply nonstop gunfire, making it, from my experience, not a film very popular amongst female audiences......it's really a "guy flick," as aside from the absence of female actresses there's just a hell of a lot of blood, body parts coming off and shots of half-torsos lying around. The essence Scott was trying to convey here was that our military was completely unprepared for what they experienced during that raid --- the ending sequence which depicts the U.S. soldiers running out of the city from machine gun-wielding Somalis just highlights all the mistakes and chaos that has come before it......and we get a real sense of loss for our military and one big question in our heads.....what did we accomplish there?

Columbia's three disc Deluxe Edition of Black Hawk Down can answer that a bit more effectively.

Scott opens the film brilliantly, as aforementioned, with a (Columbia logo-less) dirty, gritty shot of a sandstorm whipping across dead, starved Somalis while we are made aware, via words at the bottom of the screen, of exactly what the film is setting us up for, how long the mission was supposed to take, why the elite Delta and Ranger troops were sent in, who Adid was and what he was doing.....all before breaking into the title sequence and showing us Adid's men shooting down their own people who are attempting to take food delivered by the Red Cross off of trucks. Adid's militia was actually stealing this food being given to the starving people of this region, instantly causing the U.S. to be thrown into combat with Adid and his chain of command; we are introduced to Harnett's character, a young member of the Rangers squad who is put in charge of a squad of men after their leader is sent home because of a seizure problem. Early on in the film we are also introduced to Eric Bana's character, "Hoot," who is working on intelligence for the Army Rangers and Delta forces, following one of Adid's suppliers of weapons, who is eventually brought in and questioned by Sam Shepard's General Garrison character. Garrison warns Mr. Atto that the U.S. will indeed find Adid and he will pay for what he is doing to his own people as an evil warlord, but Atto advises Garrison that the U.S. has made a mistake by coming there and entering this country's civil war. Garrison doesn't flinch, but Atto ends up being right unfortunately.

As the first pre-battle scenes unravel, we are introduced to all the major players involved, character-wise, in this film and watch as the soldiers prepare for their journey into Adid's stronghold market area in downtown Somalia; Jason Isaacs plays a hard-ass Ranger leader who simply can't get along with the other Delta members whom he thinks his men are better than, and this is shown to us early on. Ewan McGregor portrays "Grimes," a soldier who is assigned to "typing" at the U.S. base in Somalia, as well as being known for his coffee making abilities, and who complains that he never got a chance to enter combat --- that is until one of the other men in the special forces unit, due to a "ping pong game accident" injures his hand and Grimes gets sent in his place. There is great concentration on this Grimes character by Scott throughout the film, as his inexperience on the battlefield is exploited and made obvious to all the men going out with him on this mission. Orlando Bloom even plays a small role here as a nervous rookie who never fired his weapon and who is under Harnett's new command; there is an overall sense of anxiousness which Scott builds during these pre-war sequences, letting us get to know the characters who are going to be fighting Adid and his militia --- but from a safe distance, making this a delightful departure from the typical sappy Hollywood "cry over every character that dies" epic, a la Pearl Harbor or Titanic. As this anxiousness and tension builds in the opening sequences, we feel the fear these young men are experiencing before being choppered into absolute hell --- and yet at the same time they are boasting a cockyness amongst themselves because in their minds, this was promised to be a routine mission --- even though Garrison prepares the men in a pre-mission briefing that the market area they are being dropped in (and the Humvees are driving into) is a completely hostile area and that they shouldn't "underestimate (the militia's) abilities." A Somali decoy "snitch" working for the U.S. signals the U.S. forces as to exactly where Adid's men are basically stationed and which building is housing the prisoners the U.S. are looking for --- and thus begins the nonstop, beginning to end gunfire and chaos which accompany this film. As the Black Hawk helicopters and "little birds" close in with the elite U.S. soldiers onboard to attack Adid's militia, it seems they are indeed ready and waiting --- as the helicopters touch down at 3:45 PM and Adid's militia has already been told about the American forces arrival.

The men end up discovering where Adid's prisoners are being held and free them, but because of bad intelligence and being simply unprepared for what they faced there that October afternoon, the American soldiers are suddenly put under tremendously heavy gunfire from almost every corner of every street they approach --- missles are fired at them, while thousands of armed Somalis fire machine guns at them from every angle and rooftop. From here, the mission becomes one of simple survival rather than finding and taking out Adid, as Garrison is concerned with getting his men out of that hostile Adid-controlled area alive. One by one, American soldiers are killed by enemy gunfire, grenades, rockets --- there is a plethora of carnage that is unleashed before our eyes as we are witness to men being blown in half and others losing an arm or a finger; it gets pretty greusome. And Scott doesn't let up on us for a second --- the constant gunfire standoffs continue and don't really wrap up until the very end of the picture. As day turns into night and eventually the next morning, General Garrison needs to turn to the United Nations stationed at Packistani Stadium for help because his men have become vastly outnumbered by the Somalis, two Black Hawk helicopters have been shot down, an American pilot, Michael Durant, has been taken prisoner by Adid's men and the entire mission is just going wrong --- as Garrison puts it "we have stirred up a hornet's nest here.....we're fighting the WHOLE city....."

Throughout the run of the film, you can lose sight of some plot lines as we can never tell exactly who is trapped where and what is going on amidst all the chaos and gunfire; Harnett's team is trapped in a gunfire shootout with a badly injured squad member, while Isaacs and his men are encountering heavy enemy resistance elsewhere in the city.....this confusion gets worse as we see U.S. military commanders hovering in helicopters above the war in the city below, trying to coordinate with these squad leaders, including the jeep-based unit run by Tom Sizemore, attempting to figure out who is where and who is injured and what the status of the mission below is; the whole thing gets absolutely mind numbing after awhile. While many men are injured, Garrison does not authorize sending in another medivac helicopter because of fear that it too will be shot down; it seems every helicopter that enters Somali airspace is a target for RPG missiles which eventually bring them down. One of Harnett's men is badly injured and during a GREUSOME scene where a medic is attempting to find an artery through the soldier's leg, Harnett's character becomes a window of guilt for what has happened here on this mission and for losing two of his men --- one which accidentally fell out of a Black Hawk at the beginning of the battle, and eventually, this soldier with the injury who ends up not making it --- Harnett's character's sympathy is backlashed by Eric Bana's character, Hoot, who tells him "It's not up to you, who dies and who doesn't......it's just war...." But Harnett is torn up about what he has been witness to. It's an interesting break from Scott in the middle of the nonstop gunfire battles.

But, Scott shows a different side of this "mission" towards the end --- a side of hope and relentlessness of the U.S. forces as night falls on Somalia, and the gun fights are still taking place, but with no sign of Adid or the U.S. capturning him anywhere.....using sensory night srobes and helicopter technology, the U.S. forces send in helicopters that bombard the Somali militia on rooftops, blowing them to pieces, showing us a glimpse of hope of somehow coming out on top of this mess.......but in the end, the U.S. simply accomplished nothing there, as Scott portrays the chasing of U.S. soldiers out of the city by armed militia and into the U.N. "safe zone" in Packastani Stadium, all the while being greeted by cheering and screaming Somalis that seemed grateful to the U.S. for trying to "free" them from this evil warlord......which never really happened. A massive sense of loss and overall dissapointment with regard to our armed forces is portrayed here, the soldiers themselves displaying looks on their exhausted faces which would suggest that they, too, wondered what came of all of this. Believe it or not, more American soldiers seemed to have been left behind even at the very end of the film, as Eric Bana's character prepares to go back into the hostile war zone to rescue them along with other teams of soldiers, as Harnett looks on in horror.

Scott ends the film in an almost exact Gladiator-like fashion, with Harnett speaking to the dead soldier who lost his life under his command and was badly injured, saying to him "People ask me.....y'all think you're heroes? And I would say no......it just sometimes turns out that way....." while promising to speak to the soldier's parents upon his return to the States; it's a tearjerking moment welcomed a bit more easily here because of the non stop war sequences as opposed to the ninety minutes of sappy love story **** we had to sit though in Michael Bay's Pearl Harbor. The end Hans Zimmer score is extremely Gladiator-like and concludes the film, accompanying a pre-cast list of the real names of the American soldiers who lost their lives during this raid, the announcement of General Garrison's resignation and what happened to warlord Adid.

The original pressing of this title was virtually similar, video-wise, to this Superbit version but both are very difficult to analyze because of the intentions Scott had with regard to throwing a load of grain, noise and dirt into the picture for effect --- there is an obvious lack of color and the whole presentation is drenched in an olive/beige look also for effect, but I'll get into that in more detail in the video portion of the roundup. Let's just say I upgraded from the bare bones release of this title to the Superbit as soon as I heard of its release, and it is one of the more obvious upgrades, audio-wise anyway, in the Columbia Superbit/non-Superbit stable. It contains a DTS track that is VERY necessary in order to draw you into this film.


As I have been repeating, there is an intentional look to this film ---- and it ain't that pretty. But that's okay, because it's not supposed to be pretty, and that was Scott's point. Don't confuse the dirt and grain in certain places for problems with Columbia's transfer --- the same "drab" look from the other versions of this title carry over to the Superbit, albeit with "smoother" overall results.....if that makes any sense. As I mentioned, the film is painted in an olive/beige sort of look, highlighting the dry, dirty Mogadishu environment the soldiers are subjected to. Overall, the transfer gets the job done and portrays what needs to be portrayed in terms of mood and feel. Letterboxing was correct at 2:40:1 and this is the best Black Hawk Down will currently look --- and don't be afraid to buy that three disc Deluxe Edition if you really want those extras because the transfer on that version isn't too far behind what we see here.


Of course, being a Superbit title, onboard were Dolby Digital and DTS audio tracks without any extras to leave room for video and audio characteristics to breathe --- and in the audio department, boy does this DTS track breathe. Coming straight off selling my bare bones version of this DVD which contained only the Dolby 5.1 track once I bought this Superbit version, the difference was immediately noticeable. Everything here comes through with so much force, it's frighteningly real in certain places (not that the Dolby track did not, but the DTS mix definitely kicks the fun up a couple of notches here, hence the reason this disc continues to find its way onto home theater hobbyist publications' reference discs). From the opening ethnic score by Zimmer which booms from the front soundstage, crank this one up and you'll be immersed in a world of war --- surprisingly, a great deal of information remains up front but the surrounds are used perfectly for bullet and gunfire echo, shoulder firing rockets that BOOM into the surrounds at times on this DTS track, and other ambient cues. Explosions from the Black Hawk helicopters crashing and missiles blowing up buildings in almost every scene are accompanied by a nice, tight (but not overdone) touch of LFE. There were no problems with dialogue.....heck, there were no problems anywhere on this mix. It's alive, from scene to scene, and sure it can get quiet when the gunfire simmers down, but as soon as another rocket is launched or machine gun fire comes downright STORMING out of the center channel area, hang on --- this one's gonna make you sit up and take notice in that sweet spot you must be in.

Housed in the typical flashy aluminum-look slipcase which all Superbits are housed in, I can honestly recommend this version of Ridley Scott's Black Hawk Down if just for the audio track alone as it REALLY draws you into this film and makes the experience --- but, for the absolute DEFINITIVE version of the film, I cannot recommend against going with the awesome Deluxe Edition which sure, sacrifices the DTS track for the Dolby variant (not a BAD tradeoff), but adds an eye popping amount of supplements and information on what really happened in Somalia that October, 1993.