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MOVIE REVIEW

Battle: Los Angeles

The sands of Santa Monica: ‘Los Angeles’ is viscerally gripping, if full of war-movie cliches

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By Ty Burr
Globe Staff / March 11, 2011

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How do you pull off a combat movie in 2011 without offending one constituency or another? That’s easy: Make aliens the enemy — faceless marauders from another planet who can be shot, maimed, and blowed up good without anyone feeling their humanity is being misrepresented. They have no humanity, so git them boogers.

“Battle: Los Angeles’’ takes this notion and runs like hell, dodging and weaving through as much extraterrestrial incoming as digital effects will allow while joyfully embracing every war-movie cliché known to man. Written by Chris Bertolini (“The General’s Daughter’’) and directed by Jonathan Liebesman, it’s a loud, frenetic, viscerally gripping two-hour tour of duty that mostly plays fair by the rules of the genre and mostly avoids macho posturing. This is what a grunt’s-eye-view of alien invasion looks like.

So much so that the hero’s a Marine staff sergeant, Nantz, played by Aaron Eckhart with the bone-deep weariness of a man who has lost too many men in Iraq. Aside from its basic premise — alien warships are plummeting to Earth and attacking 23 major cities with maximum firepower right now! — “Battle: Los Angeles’’ takes place in a recognizable post-9/11 military culture. Losses have hit home, and exhaustion is physical, psychological, moral. The movie then proceeds to people that landscape with characters straight out of a World War II movie.

There’s the Kid, of course, a downy-cheeked sharpshooter named Lenihan (Noel Fisher). There’s Brooklyn, although he’s called Stavrou (Gino Anthony Pesi) and he’s from New Jersey; no matter, he can hot-wire a bus in seconds. There’s the Hispanic class clown (Neil Brown Jr.), the scaredy-cat (R&B singer Ne-Yo), the brooder (Cory Hardrict) who can’t forgive the sergeant for losing his brother overseas. Doc? Check, a Nigerian medical corpsman played by Adetokumboh M’Cormack. The callow second lieutenant (Ramon Rodriguez) fresh from Officer Training School and in over his head? He’s here. Tex? Yep, a lance corporal (Taylor Handley) who’s the soft-spoken backbone of the team. All present and accounted for.

This being the modern military, there has to be a ballsy female soldier, and this being a modern war movie, she has to be played by Michelle Rodriguez, re-upping for a post-“Avatar’’ tour as the tech sergeant the squadron comes across while struggling to get to a Santa Monica police station where civilians are holed up. (So, yes, there’s a bit of “Assault on Precinct 13’’ in this movie’s DNA, too. Not that that’s a bad thing.) One of those civilians is the capable Michele (Bridget Moynahan), and one of the few unintentional laughs in “Battle: Los Angeles’’ comes when the Marines have to quickly autopsy a fallen alien and she volunteers her services — as a veterinarian.

Mostly the movie moves too fast for comedy or character drama, although there are flickers of a romantic bond between the staff sergeant and the lady vet, and the moment comes, as it must, when the grizzled Nantz has to pull his squadron together with an inspirational battlefield speech. At the movie’s weakest, you sense the filmmakers standing just off-camera with a punch list and a map. Which way to Pork Chop Hill?

When the film is at its strongest, you get caught up in an elemental game of strategy and survival, abetted by frighteningly believable digital effects and a hectic, street-level realism. “Battle: Los Angeles’’ toys with audiences’ fears of It Happening Here and splits the difference between unthinkable collateral damage (“We’re leveling Santa Monica!’’ Nantz is warned early on) and reassuring John Wayne-style heroics. The Duke is not only name-checked in passing, but Eckhart (who’s excellent) even bears a squinty resemblance by the final scenes.

In all, it’s a solid B movie with A-level ordnance. “Battle: Los Angeles’’ only oversteps its bounds when you sense it trying to be the “Saving Private Ryan’’ of alien invasion flicks: the opening assault on the beaches (this time we’re playing defense), a squadron crossing the killing fields on a rescue mission, the dwindling number of men. The very notion of a film that honored real struggle and sacrifice getting remulched for fantasy-combat purposes sticks in one’s craw, and the further back you stand the more “Battle: Los Angeles’’ looks like winnable boo-ya make-believe for audiences worn out by unending current events. Enjoy it for what it is but don’t forget: Any war movie that comes with a PG-13 rating is lying to you.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com. For more on movies, go to www.boston.com/movienation.

BATTLE: LOS ANGELES

Directed by: Jonathan Liebesman

Written by: Chris Bertolini

Starring: Aaron Eckhart, Michelle Rodriguez, Ne-Yo, Bridget Moynahan, Michael Peña

At: Boston Common, Fenway, suburbs

Running time: 116 minutes

Rated: PG-13 (sustained and intense sequences of war violence and destruction; language)

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