Friday, March 11, 2011

Battle Los Angeles: Retreat, hell!

Battle: Los Angeles (2011) • View trailer for Battle: Los Angeles
Four stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, for action violence and profanity
By Derrick Bang 

You have to feel sorry for Los Angeles.

Invaded by Martians in 1953. Infested with giant ants in 1954. Flattened by an earthquake in 1974. Annihilated by a nuclear bomb in 1991. Assaulted by more outer space visitors in 1996. Buried beneath lava in 1997. Blasted to bits by freak storms in 2004. Destroyed by giants robots in 2007. Shaken to bits by gravitational forces in 2009 and — for good measure, that same year — overrun by ravenous zombies.
Staff Sgt. Nantz (Aaron Eckhart, center) contemplates a situation that has gone
from bad to worse, leaving his squad open and exposed to punishing enemy
fire, while Santos (Michelle Rodriguez, right rear) scans their surroundings
for the expected assault by overwhelming forces.

Honestly, the City of Angels can’t catch a break.

Things go kaflooey again in the rip-snortin’ Battle: Los Angeles, when the metropolis becomes one of several dozen world-wide beachheads for yet another alien invasion from space.

Director Jonathan Liebesman’s kick-ass action flick is a suspenseful, sci-fi echo of few-against-many classics as diverse as Rio Bravo, The Seven Samurai and Assault on Precinct 13 (John Carpenter’s version). This is an impressive step up for Leibesman, previously known only for low-grade horror flicks such as Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning and The Killing Room. He obviously apprenticed well, because Battle: Los Angeles hits the ground running and doesn’t let up, with a suspenseful first act that builds throughout to an exciting climax.

On top of which, this may be the best U.S. Marine recruitment film ever made.

Liebesman makes a few missteps, such as opening with a completely unnecessary flash-forward and then backing up 24 hours, to more leisurely introduce the story’s major players. This is the sort of panicky artistic decision made by somebody worried that we’ll not be interested in his movie, unless he overwhelms us immediately with some explosions.

He should have trusted Christopher Bertolini’s screenplay. And our intelligence.

Far better, in this case, to have started that one day ahead, thus allowing us to wonder — along with the cast — about the oddly organized “meteors” that suddenly enter Earth’s atmosphere and then plunge, in distinct patterns, into oceans directly off the coastlines of major cities.

Indeed, even when it becomes obvious that these objects are the initial phalanx of a full-blown planetary invasion, Liebesman teases us during the first act, before finally revealing what, precisely, has emerged from those spacecraft. He’s obviously adept at building nervous tension and suspense, and therefore should have done so from the top.

But no matter. Before all hell breaks loose, we meet our primary protagonist: Marine Staff Sgt. Michael Nantz (Aaron Eckhart), a member of Camp Pendleton’s Second Battalion, Fifth Marines, while reflecting on his 20-year service on the very day he hands in his papers. Sadly, his career has ended under a cloud of controversy; although he earned commendations for a final, unspecified mission, all the men under his command died. The catastrophe left him haunted — well conveyed in Eckhart’s frequently anguished gaze — and marked by enlisted men who regard him suspiciously.

Nantz expects a quiet final day. Instead, he’s tagged for an “evacuation mission” and assigned to a inexperienced second lieutenant — Ramon Rodriguez, as Martinez — who displays the youthful arrogance that we just know will cause problems later.

Their men, all unknown actors — and therefore unfamiliar faces, which adds to the story’s verisimilitude — include “Specs” Harris (R&B artist Ne-Yo), Lockett (Cory Hardrict), Grayston (Lucas Till), Guerrero (Neil Brown Jr.), Lenihan (Noel Fisher), Simmons (Taylor Handley), Mottola (James Hiroyuki Liao) and Stavrou (Gino Anthony Pesi). Adetokumboh M’Cormack plays Adukwu, a gentle medic who soon has cause to wish he were “back in Afghanistan.”

Their assignment is simple: Hit the ground in Santa Monica, rounding up any stray civilians, and recon at a police station that sent a distress call and then went silent. Then get the hell out of Dodge within three hours, before the entire area is carpet-bombed.

That’s when the situation’s gravity truly sinks in: Los Angeles has been overrun by an unknown force with unknown weaponry ... which very quickly begins to look far more powerful than anything we can throw back at them.

Following this pell-mell prologue, Liebesman’s focus remains on the ground with Nantz, Martinez and their men. Lukas Ettlin’s cinematography is energetic, claustrophobic, occasionally (but not overly) hand-held and of the moment: not quite documentary-verité — as with, say, Cloverfield or District 9 — but occasionally veering in that direction. Mostly, Ettlin crowds his cast, getting plenty of tight close-ups and heightening the nervous tension already building in Bertolini’s spooky first act.

The squad’s initial search of the streets is marvelously unsettling, the thick dust kicked up by massive explosions even worse that London’s infamous fog. We keep waiting for something to pop up out of the mist — not having any idea what that “something” might be, of course — and Liebesman teases and tortures us unmercifully with this uncertainty. And even once the battle is joined, we go a long while before getting anything approaching a good look at the invaders, further builds the story’s unsettling, goosebump atmosphere.

The cast soon is augmented by a few terrified civilians: Michele (Bridget Moynahan, currently on view on TV’s Blue Bloods), a veterinarian who was enjoying a quiet afternoon with her two young nieces when the attack hit; and Rincon (Michael Peña), a devoted father similarly trapped with his young son (Bryce Cass).

Lastly, they’re joined by an Air Force tech sergeant — Michelle Rodriguez, as Santos — who arrives bearing specialized knowledge that might prove vital, should she be able to get it to those who can make use of it. Rodriguez, always a something of a “lucky charm” in genre projects of this nature — consider her tough-chick role in Avatar — earned an enthusiastic murmur of delight from last night’s preview audience, when her character finally appeared. She doesn’t disappoint; Rodriguez’s Santos quickly bonds with Eckhart’s Nantz, in terms of holding our hearts and minds.

The group dynamic is spiced with just enough inter-personal tension to add a bit more drama. Lockett, whose brother was among the unfortunates under Nantz’s previous command, is disinclined to trust the staff sergeant now. Hardrict delivers this tension with just enough simmering rage: never openly disrespectful, but angry enough to make us worry.

Santos, being Air Force, is regarded initially with tolerant amusement by all the Marines, who dismiss her as a “pogue” (non-infantry). Being played by Rodriguez, of course, Santos quickly earns their respect.

Finally, Moynahan projects just the right amount of the overly protective concern we’d expect from an adult given the responsibility for somebody else's children. This makes Michele even more terrified on her nieces’ behalf, as she’s suddenly thrust into the role of a temporary guardian who must take responsibility for this precious cargo. (What remains mostly unspoken, of course, is the very real possibility that the girls’ parents are dead.)

Although often referencing the carnage taking place in the rest of the world — as seen, for example, on an occasional TV screen — Liebesman and Bertolini keep a tight focus on this little group. Their movements are divided into specific, compartmentalized assignments that we easily can follow: secure the streets, reach the police station, continue from there to the extraction point ... and then, well, let’s say that plans often change a bit on the fly. But the goal remains small, personal and accessible; we always understand what needs to be accomplished, even in the midst of a firefight.

I could carp about the invaders’ selective strengths, often a problem in stories of this nature. Considering the ease with which the aliens take out massive ground-based forces elsewhere, and the scary maneuverability of their weapons, it seems unlikely (for example) that our heroes would be able to ride a bus down otherwise deserted city streets without being noticed and getting blown to bits.

Bertolini tries to make such plot points as reasonable as possible, and there’s certainly much to be said for the stealthy capabilities of a small band that can creep up and wreak havoc, where a much larger group simply makes a bigger target.

On the other hand, it definitely feels like Bertolini swiped the concept of bio-mechanical weaponry “grafted” onto the aliens’ limbs from the similar scenario in District 9. That’s a foolish detail, particularly since it doesn’t amount to anything in this movie, and need not have been mentioned at all.

But this is small stuff. In every important respect, this is exciting, suspenseful filmmaking and slick entertainment: from Peter Wenham’s impressive production design to the well-used special effects; from Bryan Tyler’s ominous, unsettling score to Ettlin’s energized camerawork. And, most particularly, thanks to a solid, well modulated and thoroughly persuasive performance from Eckhart, who delivers just the right blend of angst and hard-bitten determination.

With nothing else this explosively dynamic due for another month or so, Battle: Los Angeles should clean up, thanks to plenty of repeat business.

Which it deserves.

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