Wednesday, June 29, 2011

A Child of Walter Hill: Jonathan Liebesman's Battle: Los Angeles (2011)

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, director Walter Hill made a trio of pictures that examined how men (and sometimes women) functioned when they are trapped, for lack of a better term, behind enemy lines. Those pictures were: The Warriors (1979), about a gang in New York, with dozens of other gangs between them and their home turf; The Long Riders (1980), which looked at the James-Younger gang during the planning and execution of their disastrous attempted robbery in 1876 Missouri; and Southern Comfort (1981), which followed a group of National Guardsmen on a training exercise in Louisiana's bayou that gets lost and then are pursued by a group of angry Cajuns. These are three of the greatest action films to be released during that era. Hill’s instincts in all three films could not have been better. He presented the characters in all their strengths and flaws without descending to clichés. Jonathan Liebesman's science fiction action film Battle: Los Angeles (recently released on DVD) is not without flaws, but its greatest strength is that the filmmakers clearly understand Hill's pictures, because this film has many of those three movies' virtues.

Liebesman's film is as simple as its title; it’s an almost non-stop battle. In the near future, a meteor shower hits the earth with meteors landing in the water off the coast of 12 major cities around the world. At first, this is thought to be a benign event. There's one problem: the meteors actually slowed down as they approached the water, plus within each meteor was some sort of metallic object. Before you can say “we come in peace,” marines are dispatched to the area outside of Los Angeles to determine just what exactly is going on. All hell breaks loose as they are set on by strange looking aliens. The marines, led by a green lieutenant (Ramon Rodriguez), get attacked just when they are sent into the centre of LA to rescue a group of civilians trapped in a police station. Second in command is Staff Sergeant Michael Nantz (Aaron Eckhart). Earlier in the day, Nantz had handed in his papers after serving for many years. He is a haunted man who supposedly caused the death of the troops under his command during action in Iraq. His reputation follows him as the rest of the grunts wonder if he will get them killed too. 

Aaron Eckhart
Shortly after they find the civilians (including Bridget Moynahan and Michael Peña) at the police station, the troop is attacked. Outnumbered, outgunned and out-manoeuvred, they begin the arduous journey through a blasted landscape towards what they've been told is a safe zone. It could be very easy to dismiss the rest of the film as one massive shoot 'em up (and yes it is), but there's a lot more going on here than that. 

First, it's the way it was filmed. For the first five minutes I thought we were in for a queasy old time (especially with the currently overused shaky cam and super-tight close-ups-on action-scenes technique which would have made the film virtually unwatchable). Thankfully, although Liebesman’s camera stays shaky, after the first few minutes, he pulls it back so that we can see what is going on. His decision to shoot the entire film from the point of view, cinéma vérité style, of this troop (as they try to figure out just exactly what is going on and what is attacking them) is a wise one. At the same time, they are piecing together what's happening, so are we. As they gradually come to see what the aliens look like, what crafts they have and how can they possibly defeat them, so do we. Unlike so many other action filmmakers today, Liebesman is perfectly willing to let us into the mindset of the fighting men so we understand their actions, their thinking processes and their esprit de corps. (The picture is basically centre-right, but without letting the politics get in the way.)

Aliens in Battle: Los Angeles

Since we are seeing everything through the eyes of the grunts, we, like them, are only given bits of detail about the nature of the invasion and what the invaders' intentions are. As one talking head on a half-working TV says, “this is classic colonization technique: kill the indigenous peoples before you move in.” The filmmakers even give a plausible explanation for the attack when on another barely functioning TV a scientist explains that “they are here for the water which they can and do use as fuel for their armada.”

The marine clichés are here and dealt with a mostly capable hand. Eckhart is a hard-ass who just wants out and doesn't desire command no matter how many times the nervous lieutenant tries to give it to him. Yet, thankfully, these scenes are generally handled without too many cringe-worthy bits. It's a nice moment that after a few false starts the lieutenant ends up being a uncomfortable, but reasonably capable leader. Another nice moment is the way Eckhart's hands shake from nerves as he tries to comprehend what's going on. Sure, we don't learn much beyond the broad brush strokes about these characters, but there are moments littered throughout this fine action flick that make it worth your attention. And considering the budget wasn't huge by today's standards, the aliens are rather unique and their drone fighters are truly unnerving.

Jonathan Liebesman
But it doesn't all work. There's a scene where Eckhart talks to a kid about being brave that had my gorge rising; Moynahan, though good in her few scenes, isn't given much to do; Michelle Rodriguez (Lost) appears for the umpteenth time as a tough broad marine who essentially sneers, swears and fires her weapon; and several of the marines are set up for early death so obviously that you literally wave bye-bye to them almost as soon as you see them.

And finally, the highest praise I can give Liebesman (whose previous works were turgid pix like Darkness Falls and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning) was that even though he shot the film completely hand-held, at almost all times I could tell what was going on, who was who (not necessarily easy since they were all under heavy combat gear) and where we were in a geographic sense most of the time. In an era when filmmakers don't seem to know these basic crafts, this is high praise indeed.

I have no clue whether Liebesman's next flick will continue this upswing (I have my doubts; it's Clash of the Titans 2), but since I had zero expectations, this picture was a pleasant, somewhat noisy surprise. I think that Walter Hill would be proud of what his 'child' has wrought.

David Churchill is a film critic and author of the novel The Empire of Death. You can read an excerpt here. Or go to for more information.

No comments:

Post a Comment