Global terror turns strikingly personal in Ridley Scott’s problematic but fascinating international thriller Body of Lies. For a movie almost overrun by plot twists and locales, Scott manages to infuse Body of Lies with a dire sense of personal loss and strife, felt almost entirely by Leonardo DiCaprio’s young superstar C.I.A. field agent hopping from one Middle East hot spot to the next. Russell Crowe’s homeland puppeteer double crosses whenever necessary, coming to represent an aloof eye in the sky completely adrift from his own people’s loyalties and ideologies. In the end, national pride gives way to serious cynicism, a departure of sorts for Scott who’s sported a more simplistic message of hope in films like Black Hawk Down. As the bodies and limbs pile up in Body of Lies, the film sees the brightest young American standouts of this current war get burnt out over indifference and betrayal, something that’s never supposed to happen to homegrown talent on the silver screen.
My recent thoughts on Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down can be found here, and I still stand by them. But I want to expand the discussion by addressing the impact HD quality has on the film’s strengths. First, this is the perfect film for highlighting the advantages of Blu-ray, namely the incredible picture and audio quality.
Watching this intense and densely layered war film on Blu-ray opens up the action scenes for more analysis, turning what was once obscured and jumbled on Standard Def into harrowing and precise explorations of modern day warfare. Sure, Scott can’t help but button up certain emotion-driven scenes, but for the most part his direction is more restrained than usual (that’s a compliment). Scott’s patriotism still feels a bit on the nose, but the engaging experience speaks for itself, integrating the viewer into a crumbling war-torn mise-en-scene with vibrant explosions and wrenching gore, something you won’t soon forget.
Ridley Scott’s no-nonsense phase of filmmaking includes a variety of focused genre films dealing with the mixing and meshing of conventions (The Duelists, Blade Runner, and Alien), easily outclassing almost every project he’s done since. Nowadays, Scott is known more for his blatant prestige pictures like Gladiator, Black Hawk Down, and Thelma and Louise, bloated projects aided by all the cinematic trimmings with the sole purpose of zeroing in on Oscars. Alien might be the standout of the aforementioned early group, engaging Science Fiction and Horror on a primal level, where survival becomes the only necessary aesthetic. Watching this film again it’s clear the screenplay, with its toned dialogue and tight pacing, is utterly confident with character and plot, letting Scott focus almost entirely on exploring the dark, slimy mise-en-scene. The cramped interiors of the spaceship Nostromo have become the standard for creepy space movies and Scott utilizes his set design expertly. Alien doesn’t rely on cheap scare tactics to produce the glaring emotional response it’s looking for. No, the unseen acid monster stirring in the cavernous interiors of space speaks for itself.
Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner isn’t meant to be a character piece (it’s definitely hollow on purpose), but the film’s complete emphasis on stunning visual and audio design still surprises me. Having not seen the film in over a decade, watching the “Final Cut” and it’s additional changes really didn’t make or break the experience, since it was all gravy watching it on the big screen for the first time. I’m no fan of Scott and his current style of Hollywood cheese posing as serious drama. However, when Scott turns purely to the image, as in Blade Runner and later in Black Hawk Down, his films resonate with a unmatched craftsmanship and poetic beauty. This melding of science fiction and Film Noir seems to be the perfect compliment for such a vision.
Few recent films can match the visual and audible mastery of Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down. From a spatial standpoint, it’s directed perfectly, Scott’s camera fluidly roving through the hyper realized streets of Mogadishu, Somalia with a clear sense of purpose and craftsmanship. As the large team of Army Rangers and Delta ascend on the war torn city, Scott’s hypnotic images of helicopters drifting through the smoke-filled air produce a feverish reaction flushed with horrific excitement, as if you were going into battle with them. When the RPG’s start exploding and the rapid gunfire etches a presence on every wall in sight, the film never wavers in it’s dedication to the conflicted American soldiers at it’s core, establishing a swift pace even in the down time usually reserved for the audience to catch their breath. Black Hawk Down never lets up, pushing for a sense of realism and grit which can be felt with every casualty (and there are a lot of them), and failing miserably when it attempts to sneak in elements of War film cliches in between the carnage. Some of the action scenes have so much going on it takes multiple viewings to get a sense of the layering involved. But Scott almost completely dismisses Mark Bowden’s source material when it comes to the Somalian perspective, throwing in a few scenes of political banter between a captured helicopter pilot and a Somali militiaman to appease those wishing for a dimensional native presence. This phony attempt at showing both sides doesn’t work, a grave misgiving which taints an otherwise fascinating and expertly directed film. Black Hawk Down could have been a masterpiece of American sacrifice and third world plight and how the two are often tragically intwined, but instead it settles for a beautiful, haunting look at the familiarities of modern warfare, no matter the cost.
Who knew an American crime saga brimming with potential political undertones and timely themes could be so bland? For all the hype, prestige, and studio backing involved in a project like American Gangster, one would expect some immediacy, or even tension. But for most of Ridley Scott’s epic tale of corruption and drugs the lead characters, honest cop Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe) and big time Harlem hoodlum Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington), move inconsequentially through a disintegrating world like titans amongst imbeciles. The Vietnam War, Watergate, or the upcoming mass inflation; all get noticed via the television, but none makes a meaningful impact on Lucas or Roberts’ lives. To make matters worse, the supporting players, everyone from Roberts’ special narcotics unit (their police work consists of taking pictures and arguing over sports) to Lucas’ threatening (or not) brethren, only respond from the direction of their superiors and in such inane ways it’s both distracting and frustrating. Roberts and Lucas aren’t challenged until the brief but exciting shootout finale, which comes far too late in a dreadfully lame line-up of cop genre caricatures and flashy cutting. Ridley, where’s the sharp menace of Alien and Blade Runner? While mildly entertaining, mainly due to Crowe and Washington’s mere presence, American Gangster flounders as a anything more than a mild diversion, Scott choosing to piece-mail arduous montages with phony sentiment and devotion for historical references, This films does not have the political situation in Vietnam or the harsh realities of drug abuse on it’s mind, nor is it an indictment of the American military for helping to ship Lucas’ drugs hidden in the coffins of G.I.’s. American Gangster revels in past cliche, hoping Oscar voters and audiences will fall in line (much like Roger Ebert has – come on four stars!) due to the marquee names behind it. However, American Gangster represents an all to familiar example of Hollywood’s conveyor belt methodology at it’s most benign, mixing hot commodities and money for a quick and profitable result, inevitably churning out a glossy, dull, and ambivalent product. Frank Lucas might think after watching the mainstream version of his life, the demand remains high for a quality fix.