Friday, March 18, 2011

"Battle for Los Angeles" It's a GREAT ride!

‘I wonder if there’s a new movie at the theater yet.’

That’s what I was thinking as I went online to the Robinsons Angeles Theater “Now Showing” page. And, indeed, a brand new one was on tap—World Invasion: Battle Los Angeles. The synopsis: “A Marine platoon faces off against an alien invasion in LA.”

I called out to the wife, “Hey, you want to go check out this new flick? It sounds hokey, but maybe the special effects will be cool. Anyway, Hollywood almost always messes up movies about marines. I’ll give you the lowdown on how bad they get it. Whadya say? Let’s go?”

So, our expectations were low, but you know what, it was a pretty darn good flick. In fact, it bordered on awesome. A big surprise to me was the draw. It seems that Filipinos are attracted to alien invasion movies; or maybe it had something to do with the idea of LA being attacked; or it could have been the mystique of American marines. Stretching my arms high before standing up as the closing credits rolled, I was shocked to see the mezzanine behind me almost completely packed.

I asked my wife, ‘Whoa! Where did all those people come from? I didn’t even know they were there.” When we had come in it was the three of us, including my daughter, and maybe two or three other theater goers.

“They came in during the movie,” she answered.

I faked incredulity, “No way. Why would anyone want to see the end of a movie and THEN watch the beginning?” I chuckled as I kidded her once again with my unending rhetorical questions about her fellow citizens that I ALWAYS find SO puzzling.

“Eh! There you go again. Why do you always do that… American!” She gave me a playful poke in the ribs.

“Hey, its academic; you don’t have to actually ANSWER, ya know!” My poor wife, I can’t pull all these strangers’ legs so I settle for hers instead.

The movie was brilliant as far as I’m concerned. Right off the bat I completely identified with Aaron Eckhart’s character, Staff Sergeant (SSgt) Nantz. At the outset we find the 20 year marine doing a morning PT run on a sunny Camp Pendleton beach. He’s running hard, straining to keep a good stride going, only to have a bunch of much younger marines easily pass him by, each with a hearty, “Good morning staff sergeant!” “Good morning staff sergeant!” “Good morning staff sergeant!” As they zip effortlessly past him.

After the sixth youthful marine sprints by Nantz like he’s standing still he gives up, slows to a trot, and towels off. We find out soon that the Silver Star awardee has had enough of the combat, death and mayhem and is going to retire from the Corps. I silently agree with him as he speaks the truth to one of his superiors who tries to talk him out of getting out, “Top, you know as well as I do that all marines have a limited shelf life and my date has expired.”

Of course his retirement plans go out the window once the aliens invade and begin decimating the human civilian population of Los Angeles and at several other big cities throughout the world. SSgt Nantz is immediately pulled from his job training young marines for combat and placed in charge of an infantry detail assigned to make their way to an LA police station overrun by aliens. Once there, they are to secure it and call for air evacuation back to comparative safety of their own lines. All this has to be done at the double quick though because the Air Force is going to drop everything they have forward of those lines. If they don’t get out in time they’ll be caught in a murderous kill zone.

That scenario sets up the hair-raising adventures that follow. From start to finish I was mostly happy with the film makers’ portrayal of the American fighting man (and woman). The fighting woman is played by Michelle Rodriguez who depicts an Air Force intelligence NCO attached to an army unit. She and several of the army troopers end up with the marines after they were forced to retreat when the aliens wiped out the rest of their outfit. And as she tends to do in most of her past film roles, boy oh boy does she fight!

I read that Aaron Eckhart and the rest of the cast of “marines” went through several weeks of a Hollywood “boot camp” to give them the feel of how to portray Marines. For the most part they did a credible job. They got the marine bravado down pretty well and they carried themselves like actual marines would I think. They must have had real marine advisors on set because they got the haircuts right as well as the uniforms. I don’t know how many movies I’ve seen that have been completely ruined for me because of some actor with blocked hair on the sides, or with a uniform article improperly worn. Believe me, that kind of detail is bread and butter to the marines. When that “easy stuff” is not right, we notice it.

The only thing they evidently weren’t able to instill in any of them is how to produce an authentic Marine yell. Why, I don’t know; it’s not that difficult. “The yell” comes from the diaphragm when done loudly and from the back of the throat when done in conversation. The army says “huwah,” navy seals say “hoorah,” and the marines make the very unique “AuRah.” I heard one of the actors come the closest when he uttered a desultory “AruGah!” Groaning I leaned over to Divine shaking my head.

“Come on guys, it really is NOT that hard to do!” I muttered under my breath. Divine heard me and laughed at my disgust.

On that note, a few days ago one of the young Filipino instructors at the gym asked me for training advice based on how the marines do it. He is fascinated like a lot of people all over the world by how hard the training to become a marine must be, wondering if he could do it or not.

Rather than just give him a simple answer I told him, “Look, if you’re talking about initial “training,” like in bootcamp (he nodded yes), well, it’s not about getting in shape, it’s much more than that. Training is something marines do ALL the time, but bootcamp isn’t all that much about training the body, it’s more about reshaping what’s in HERE!” I pointed at his heart.

I continued. “It’s about learning—learning how far you can physically go and then going further. So sure, you do pushups forever, and you run till you puke, but THAT is not really what they are trying to accomplish. That’s just a means to an end. What they do is break you down, break you up, until all the weak-willed crybaby civilian stuff has been squeezed out. And then, what’s left is molded into a marine. If anything, to simplify it, to boil it down, it’s learning this: Marines don’t quit! Because if they do, they’re letting down their fellow marines and all the marines who ever served going back to 1775! It SOUNDS sappy right? But THAT is what it’s all about my friend.”

By the time I’d finished my little lecture he was weakly smiling, probably feeling a little embarrassed for me and looking for a way to gracefully get away. Laughing at my own unexpected intensity I slapped him on the shoulder and sent him on his way.

Coincidentally, during a very poignant scene in the movie, SSgt Nantz is trying to comfort a little boy grieving over the death of his father. In trying to buck up the poor little lad Nantz utters those very words to him as he bestows honorary marine status to him, “… just remember buddy, Marines never quit!” Throughout the movie Nantz and his marines prove that again and again.

I have to admit, I really got fired up watching the combat scenes—marines vs. aliens. It sounds really schmaltzy but Aaron Eckhart, Michelle Rodriguez, Ramon Rodriguez, and all the others really do well in making the viewer feel the action. With every trigger pull they make you WANT them to succeed, to KILL those damn alien things. And I noticed that Divine was every bit as caught up in the action as I was.

Throughout the movie several other past “War of the Worlds” type flicks came to mind: “Independence Day” for one, which also shows a marine, Will Smith, fighting aliens, only “Battle LA” does it without the humor, which I prefer. In “Battle LA” the combat scenes are filmed exactly like in “Cloverfield” and “Saving Private Ryan,” where the footage is grainy and jouncing as if the camera is being held realistically by a combat cameraman right in the thick of the action. “Battle LA” also reminds me of the recent movie “Skyline,” only that miserable flick shows WAY too much gore and the ending is WAY too unsatisfactory. I mean, why would anyone want to watch a movie about the aliens winning? No way! I hated that flick. I left the theater that day feeling downright cheated.

Getting back to the marine aspect of the movie, one of my favorite parts is when one of the civilians, a female news reporter, asks SSgt Nantz what it means when he calls out “Retreat!” and the other marines yell back as one, “Hell!” He tells her that “Retreat Hell” is the motto of their unit, the 2/5, the second battalion of the fifth marine regiment, which happens to be the most decorated battalion in the Marine Corps. He quietly explains how a marine officer in WWI, just arrived in France with the 2/5, is hastily advised by a French officer that they must retreat from an overwhelming German attack. The young marine officer (Capt. Lloyd W. Williams) rejects the Frenchmen’s “suggestion” responding, “Retreat? Hell, we just got here!”

Why do I love that part of the film so much? Because it reminds me of how the Marine Corps is so effective in instilling esprit de corps in its troops. They do this by steeping every marine in “their” history and proud traditions. Starting from day 1 in recruit training, every marine becomes familiar with “the long green line,” all their unit battles and the deeds of many of the famous marines who made victory possible.

Presley O’bannon, Archibald Henderson, Dan Daley, Lloyd Williams, Chesty Puller, John Basilone, Holland “Howling Mad” Smith all come to mind. The things all these “greats” had in common were an indomitable spirit and an unwillingness to quit the fight no matter what. I knew I wanted to be one of them when as a teenager I read about the WWII Dec 1941 Battle for Wake Island. I was stunned at how these men fought the Japanese to the death. Many of these marines were shot through repeatedly while also sustaining multiple bayonet stab wounds and STILL they fought like wildcats until the moment they bled out and stopped breathing. Slowly turning the pages, struggling to read through eyes blurred by tears of pride, I remember thinking, ‘I want to be one of THOSE guys.’

Anyway, watching the portrayal of selfless bravery by young marines, soldiers and an airman, it brought back all those proud feelings. I could tell that many of the scenes are of actual footage of real marines, such as the shots of infantry on the run loading up and dismounting from CH-46 helicopters. In fact, there must have been a LOT of Marine Corps cooperation in this cinematic gem because much of what I saw in the movie was at least halfway credible. Anyway, aside from the inability of the actors to voice an accurate marine yell, the only other problems I saw were in some of the infantry tactics and unit movements (much of the time they were bunched up way too close). Still minor stuff compared to the problems I had when I first saw “Saving Private Ryan,” where this tiny detail of Rangers go traipsing along without regard for cover and concealment behind enemy lines while nonchalantly smoking cigarettes, and telling each other their life stories. Geez, what a crock that was.

So, do I recommend “Battle LA?” Well, of course; it was a hell of a ride from start to finish. And it’s always great when the good guys win at the end, and even better when not all the good guys get killed in doing it. So does SSgt Nantz, the very likeable Aaron Eckhart, survive all his old guy heroics to the end of the movie? Watch it and find out! I will say that MOST of that original Marine detail dies. As far as the protagonist Nantz; well, I’m not saying.

As we ambled out of the theater leaving all those nutty people to watch the beginning of a movie that they already KNEW how was going to end, I could not contain myself. Just before we passed from view down the ramp to exit the doors I did a vintage Marine yell for the crowd at less than half volume, “Aaa-u-RAH!” It felt good. There must have been at least one other marine as well because I was rewarded with a very passable yell in response. Nice! Divine and Jen were absolutely thrilled, proud of "their" marine.

Go see this movie in a theater—you won’t be sorry.

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