Director Ridley Scott turns from the epic sprawl of the blockbuster Gladiator to modern-day carnage on almost as large a scale with Black Hawk Down. Based on a best-selling nonfiction book, it shows how a mission by American forces to 'extract' rebel Somalian leaders from their stronghold in the heart of Mogadishu turned into a disaster. At the very least a masterpiece of production logistics, the film tells an ugly, complicated story in remarkably clear terms. Since it is almost entirely free of the high-minded sentimentality that often infects big-budget war movies, mainstream audiences may find Black Hawk Down too relentlessly grim.

Opening titles provide telling details: 300,000 Somalis dead from starvation, a civil war started by rebel strongman Mohammed Farrah Aidid, UN troops ambushed and killed. On Oct. 2, 1993, General William Garrison (Sam Shepard) orders a mission to capture Aidid's top aides, who are meeting in Mogadishu's Bakara marketplace, a hostile rebel stronghold.

Delta Force troops and Army Rangers lead the operation. They encounter trouble almost at once. A Ranger falls 60 feet from a helicopter to the street. While soldiers attempt to rescue him, a chopper is shot down by Somalis armed with missiles. Another chopper crashes moments later. A convoy of Humvees led by Lt. Col. Danny McKnight (Tom Sizemore) faces withering fire from deadly roadblocks on the narrow streets of Mogadishu.

As angry mobs converge on the downed copters, Sergeant Matt Eversmann (Josh Hartnett) is ordered to defend them. His Rangers are helped by 'Hoot' Gibson (Eric Bana) and Jeff Sanderson (William Fichtner), two seasoned Delta officers, and their men. Wounded, their supplies and ammunition running low, the soldiers dig in and wait for help. As the disasters escalate, Garrison tries to orchestrate relief squads. But it will be another 12 hours before United Nations forces can reach the survivors and escort them to a safe zone.

Scott stages the battle scenes with a combination of fury and chaos that has rarely been equaled on screen. As the fighting rages from block to block, the scale of the production becomes breathtaking. In fact, there's so much action that it's hard for the cast to flesh out the characters. Some still stand out, in particular Tom Sizemore's unflappable Ranger. The script at times resorts to easy clichs, especially during the preparations for the mission. But at other points, such as a gruesome medical procedure improvised on the battlefield, the writing exposes just how weak and hollow film clichs can be.

What's most gratifying about Black Hawk Down is the filmmakers' refusal to sensationalize the material. The movie seems at all times to be an honest, even-handed version of a terrible incident. That alone places Black Hawk Down among the very best war movies.

--Daniel Eagan