Maybe it’s because I went to the last Den Of Geek quiz dressed in full combat fatigues, or perhaps it’s my ‘I Heart Guns’ badge, but either way I found myself on the receiving end of a phone call inviting me to take part in an army training boot camp day to celebrate the launch of Battle: Los Angeles on DVD and Blu-ray.
Having survived, nay thrived, on similar excursions (once dressing as a WWII Marine and another time as a Roman) I thought, “Yeah, bring it on. I’m the damn king of these sort of things. A quick dress up, breeze through some drills, play with a fake gun and then home for gin. Perfect.”
How wrong I was.
The first clue things were going to be different was the location, an abandoned warehouse complex somewhere south of London. A local taxi informed another journalist there that the place didn’t really exist anymore. Ominous. Once there we were met by men wearing a lot of body armour and stroking guns. Ushered inside into the crumbling factory, we saw yet more guns, and more heavily tooled up guys.
It quickly transpired that a lot of them were ex-military or law enforcement, and our lead trainer for the day would be an actual soldier, known only as Dan (as moonlighting for things like this is strictly frowned upon in the military). The aim of the day was to experience the exact boot camp conditions that the actors went through while preparing for the film. The timetable looked intense. Eight hours of becoming men (and one woman).
We would receive basic weapons training and instruction with the Airsoft guns. For those unfamiliar with Airsoft, I can reliably inform you it’s like an evil version of paintball, but instead of paint pellets, you fire gas-powered plastic ball bearings at each other.
This means the guns and tactical situations you can be placed in are a hell of a lot more realistic, and are one of the reasons the real deal army guys prefer it. The bastard pellets also hurt a hell of a lot if you get hit with one, and can do some real damage, as evidenced by the smashed teeth of one of the instructors.
It was at about this point I wondered if I could sneak out the back and run for safety.
However, the only running I seemed to be doing was back and forth during our firing exercises. To say these so-called easy warm-up exercises were hardcore would be understating it. Panting for breath after every move and fire, it was only the threat of being shot in the nuts that kept me moving. And yes, that was a real threat.
Gradually, though, our small team of foppish, mincing media types became well-drilled soldiers, able to respond to the slightest command in an instant, peeling right and left, move and covering, easy.
Having successfully bested basic training, we moved on to the more extreme special forces stuff, close quarters battle and dynamic entry. This involved working in our team of four to scout out a door to a potentially hostile room, then essentially breaking down the door and neutralising any threats inside. In real life this is an incredibly dangerous task, as the first person in is usually killed straight away by any hostiles inside.
To make the task as realistic as possible, the trainers posed as both hostages and terrorists, forcing us to either shoot them or rescue them, both usually with a degree of force. It also meant we got to legitimately kick in a door while waving a gun about and shouting, “Get down on the floor, motherfucker!” It’s the stuff childhood dreams are made of.
Once Dan the army man was suitably impressed at our CQB skills, and our ability to work as a team, we were allowed onto the more serious stuff. This meant putting away our protective mesh goggles and donning full face masks. We looked mean, but my elephant t-shirt somewhat spoilt the effect. Still, eco-warriors are dangerous, yeah?
Anyway, now it was time for what was scarily called pressure testing, where all our newfound killers skills would be put to the test under a pretty life-like scenario.
We had to rescue three hostages and escort them to safety, while potentially coming under attack. And without further ado, we were off, clearing rooms like we had learnt, one by one, until suddenly we were under attack! And these pellets really sting when they hit.
But, no matter. We’d found the hostages, shot the bad guys (eventually, I had a slight hesitation when I found one hostage having a gun pointed at his head. I genuinely thought, “Can I really pull the trigger and kill a man?”), and led our hostages out of there. Although not before telling one of them to “Drop the bomb or I’ll shoot you in the bollocks.” I believe the SAS would consider that unorthodox.
Thinking that we’d achieved our aims almost too easily, we led the hostages out to what we thought was safety, only to – boom – be nailed in an ambush. Smoke bombs and flash bangs went off, the team panicked and ran. None of us made the slightest bit of sense. (Genuinely. Due to adrenalin’s effect on the brain, your higher functions, including language, suffer and you talk gibberish. That’s how real this simulation felt.)
But somehow we muddled through and out the other side. But with only one hostage. The others had seemingly been killed in the mayhem. Oops.
As an insight into the film, a day like this is brilliant. Battle: Los Angeles won’t be winning any awards for its script, but there’s no doubting it’s a genuinely excellent visceral experience. There’s a school of thought which believes you should experience film with your body and respond to the on-screen action with physical reactions. When it comes to a movie like this, I would have to genuinely agree, and knowing what the actors went through to prepare and then shoot the film, it adds to the thrill of watching aliens blowing a lot of shit up.
The guys who organised our day did a great job at recreating the tension and excitement of a real combat situation, and I would highly recommend trying it out if you’ve ever had any impulse to play at war. However, be prepared for a tough day. After all that running about and diving to the floor I still can’t really move my legs.
Battle: Los Angeles is out on DVD and Blu-ray now.