This week, Joe McCulloch brings to you his long-awaited thoughts about American movies with George Clooney in them, and Tucker goes on and on and on about The Mechanic, White Line Fever, Defiance, The Outfit and Rolling Thunder.
Oh, I guess there’s a political aspect too, 2010
This is an okay, quiet, methodical super-assassin suspense picture concerned with struggles between the earthly and the divine; it is considerably better at evoking the former. Beginning in dead silence, closing in on a cabin in the woods and cutting inside to George Clooney sitting at one side of a woman’s naked body, the film quickly establishes a small library of tactile, bodily signifiers: ominous landscapes; hot-cold bedrooms; nude (female) flesh. Within minutes Clooney has shot the woman down, and sexual, human beauty is glazed over with paranoia - there will not be another character in this movie, least of all a lovely woman, who isn’t a potential betrayer of this Sensitive Man’s Golgo 13.
Or, really, Clooney is the weapons dealer G13 pops in on in ‘79 en route to popping skulls in Iran, the guy Studio Assistant B4 bedecks with fat sweat droplets to contrast him with Our Man. There actually is a cooler, meaner assassin in this movie - a gorgeous, vaguely flirtatious woman, of course, tapping into a little old fashioned Catholic temptation appropriate to all that lush Italian scenery. But Clooney’s a crack shot too, nervous as he might be; we hear every drop of a stone, we jump along with each backfiring scooter, and we sit along in some limited state of grace as a mighty customized gun is slowly built, metal lusciously rolling and clacking into an efficient whole. These are the sounds of Clooney’s human life, his fallen, ruined life. His boredom kissed with horror. Inevitably, the scooter’s presence recurs at a moment of real gunfire - this livin’ stuff’ll kill ya!
Still, as nice as it is with Earth -- or Hell, as an obligatory conversation with a local priest portentously establishes -- the movie can’t escape the altogether more mawkish temptation of Heavenly aesthetics. Of course Clooney finds a secret forest with a lovely pond! Yes, his bullets -- the sour seeds of his material life! -- despoil this Eden, and do check how a shell casing spent in an encounter with the Cool Hitwoman comes back to cut the flesh of the Good Lady our Clooney yearns to romance (a prostitute, because aren’t we all despoiled in this tangible realm?), foreshadowing which of the ladies is truthful and right. A statue of the Virgin Mother is hauled out for the pulse-pounding-climax-set-in-a-crowded-place, and Clooney balefully glares at the priest as his violent nature is revealed; it’s less revelatory than presumed, frankly just more metal parts snapping into place. It’s the kind of movie where the opening titles are preceded by the brooding hero driving through a dark corridor and the whole screen slooowly fading to pure white.
Like I said, I was okay with this thing -- the action bits are short and harsh, the observational scenes occasionally hypnotic, and the sound design is stellar -- but given its propensity for ham-fisted shorthand- of-divinity, the finale can perhaps only feature assassins pulling the trigger on various targets and director Anton Corbijin pulling the trigger on a fluttering butterfly symbolizing the escape of the human soul, soaring through the Garden as blood and tears flow below, and literally ascending to the top of the frame. That’s the image we’re left with, which is no surprise, as it’s all a film can do then to roll over and die.
Charles Bronson Used To Walk Around On The Same Planet As You, 1972
They're remaking this one, with Jason Statham and Ben Foster. It's kind of an odd choice for the remake mill--The Mechanic's plot isn't markedly different from most of the "hitman near the end" stories you've ever seen--but that's a pretty solid cast, and Ben Foster is rapidly turning into someone I really enjoy watching. I suspect, Prop 8 notwithstanding, that the remake will scrub clean the glorious homoeroticism that laces the relationship between Chuck Bronson and Jan-Michael Vincent. If there's one thing that today's filmmakers have forgotten, it's the ballsy willingness to say "we'll do what we like" to everybody that the 70's paranoia classics had in spades. I'm happy to be wrong, but something tells me that Foster's character won't be introduced the way Vincent's is above, with a saucy focus on that stainless steel ass.
At the same time, another take of this thing might not be such a bad idea--its loose, a bit slow going in the middle, and its one of those old school movies where the star forced the producers to give his current squeeze a tacked-on scene that's embarrassing to watch. But the beginning of the film is as legendary as you might have heard, with 15 dialog free minutes in study of Bronson's assassination of a target, a man that Chuck dispenses with by destroying an entire floor of urban real estate without ever showing the slightest tinge of emotion. While the "men at work" tone is similar to something you might see in Michael Mann's heist movies (Heat or Thief especially), Bronson's initial scenes won't be mistaken for the sexed up clean lines of suits and color-coded hockey masks. The Mechanic, despite the tawdry suds between youthful ambition and lecherous need, isn't a very sexy movie. In keeping with the times that produced it, it's cynical, angry work, the study of a man who expends his life expending the lives of others, only to end up in a place where his storied efficiency becomes the ticket that others have to punch. Take away the guns, the glory, and the violence, and you're right back here: another American man, humiliated when his power leaves him and the cost of decades comes due.
White Line Fever
Jan-Michael Vincent Rode The Devil Down, 1975
(part of the William Lustig Presents series)
"You don't need to think for this one", Lustig said, "This is a total popcorn movie."
White Line Fever opens with a faked newscast, where what seems to be a real news anchor interviews what the credits make clear is a real non-union trucker. While the conflict that he describes won't actually come up until late in the film's final minutes, it pretty much sets up the exact theme of what you're about to see, sans the action: a movie about men so obsessed with their independence that they prioritize it far beyond their self-preservation. Like some kind of military cliche, these characters--stock stereotypes the lot, some offensively so--will die, horribly, before they let any motherfucker tell them what to do. They will also kill you, or at the very least beat the shit out of you, if you don't allow them the freedom to do so.
As the lead, Jan-Michael's character plays about fifteen different roles, some better than others. At one point or another, he's the suffering beacon of integrity who refuses to sneak cigarettes across state lines (and is beaten and rolled in manure because of it), he's the lionhearted bridge of racial tolerance that re-unites the black and white truckers through the power of his smile and a shared thirst for violence, he's the martyr for a thousand man movement towards self-determination, and, because the seats that are filled must stay filled, he's a tight-jawed, dick-swinging force for revenge.
It's that last one that you stick around for. Sure, it's nice to get a little taste of 70's trucker history, but it's the moment after they burn down Jan's house with him and his pregnant wife inside it, that moment after the buckets of tears, snot and blood are cleaned off his face just so the doctor can tell him that she lost the baby, where you feel yourself silently promising that you'll piss down your leg before you stop to take a break. There's killing to do, and a giant truck called the "Blue Mule" to do it with. Slick hucksters with baggy silk shirts and caterpillar crawling mustaches take heed: danger's on the way.
Danny Aiello Has Always Been That Irritating, 1980
*Number Three In John Flynn's Revenge Trilogy
(part of the William Lustig Presents series, there was a Jan-Michael focus)
And then there's this, and yes, it's dated in a way that the rest of these films can't touch: the one that has that American film staple, the multi-cultural New York City gang. The Hispanic guys with ornate cross necklaces and a taste for raping! The white guys with bandanna and jean jackets who can't get enough of beating on children! The slick, leather-jacketed black guys who never found a night that clashed with the sunglasses they must always wear!
Of course, that's not all you've got here. You've also got Jan-Michael preparing to finish out the peak of his physical prowess, one of the last films he made where he still wore the musclebound chassis that cocaine and alcohol eventually absconded with, you've got the Soprano's Paulie Walnuts without a single grey streak, and you've got violence, lots of it. Everybody faces a fresher, meaner hell this time out. The bingo game is robbed. The nice old man who stands up for truth gets his face turned into pizza. Lenny Montana (the Godfather's Luca Brasi) helps the bad guys figure out the answer to a thought experiment regarding the results of chucking fat people off of rooftops. And eventually, long after they've beaten him senseless in one of those thankfully extinct subway bathrooms, after they've destroyed his home and broken the local waif's arm, Jan-Michael decides to bring the fight home. While everything plays out the way one would expect, there's enough of John Flynn's fevered commitment to making you feel the heat to make this one canonical. While it's nowhere near Rolling Thunder's diamondlike perfection and it lacks the wit of the Outfit, the final multiple staircase fistfight between Vincent and Rudy Ramos predates the deceptive "this is how a fight feels" choreography of Greengrass by 25 years, and its refusal to give either actors a clear upper hand is thrilling. For three odd minutes that feels like forever, two men try as hard as they can to hurt the other, and as their breath goes ragged and their clawing hands slide across bloodied faces, the outcome remains forever in doubt, until Flynn's final hammer drops: left to their own devices, two men can kill each other forever.
That Ain't My Parker, 1973
*Number One In John Flynn's Revenge Trilogy
Whereas Point Blank was too artsy for the Westlake name, the Outfit is just too damn emotional: if you love the books, and you can't stomach the changes, wait for Darwyn Cooke. But if you just want to watch Robert Duvall drive around and threaten people, beat people up, and eventually decide to shoot some of them in the head, then you'll be just fine. Flynn doesn't go as far with the bloodshed as he does in his later installments in this made up by me trilogy, but the threat always hangs. Watching Joe Don Baker (who actually does perfectly embody Westlake's Handy McKay character) dangle a gigantic knife in his meathook hand while responding to death threats with wisecracks, one holds their breath the entire time: he's going to kill them all, isn't he?
He doesn't, or at least, he doesn't at that moment, and that's the way the Outfit works: bargaining, sidestepping, but always plowing forward, towards the moment when Robert Ryan stands in his bedroom and tries to bargain his way out, only to find out that there's some people you should never, ever cross.
And Ammunition Shall Show Their True Face, 1977
*Number Two in John Flynn's Revenge Trilogy
Rolling Thunder was written by Paul Schrader, directed by John Flynn, and pawned off on the grindhouse circuit due to the producer's disgust for its blood-soaked conclusion. Like the other two John Flynn movies described above, it has never received an American DVD release, is only played on television occasionally, and is currently only purchasable as a used VHS copy, a Spanish DVD, or a DVD-R rip from underground movie websites. It's not an unseen film, like the original cut of All The Pretty Horses or Erich Von Stroheim's Greed--Quentin Tarantino went so far as to name his cult redistribution line after it, thus ensuring a geek cred demand that rises and falls on his fortunes--but it is a film that survives more as footnote than fulcrum.
It is extraordinary.
There are lots and lots and lots and lots of movies about badass men who don't talk very often and express emotions even less, and quite a few of those movies feature those characters going out to get revenge against one-note stereotypes.
This is one of those movies.
It is about a guy who comes home after spending seven years in a Vietnamese POW camp, where he was tortured every single day, and who finds himself without a family or a right hand within a few days. It ends with him and one of his fellow ex-POWs killing lots of people, some of whom had nothing to do with the hand/family thing. It's a pure, uncut form of vigilante exploitation, the kind of movie that asks you to think and care about the fact that this guy suffered an impossible amount of pain, but also making it clear that all that pain is awesome, because it made him a hardcore motherfucker. It's a movie that needs you to shrug your shoulders and pretend you give a shit about the part where his wife and son are shot in the face, even though it's blatantly obvious that he was starting to think of killing them himself, because the movie needs a reason for him to kill for it to exist.
The way I see it, the main difference between the way they make these sorts of Badass Ice Cold Killer movies now, and the way they made them in the 70's, is that nowadays, the filmmakers seem to have decided that everybody wants to be these guys. It's part of the fallout of switching from Predator to Die Hard--except for a bare minimum, few people watched an Arnold movie and said "that could be me, and I wish it was", but that's exactly what happened after John McClane. First it was "he's just like you, but more determined", and now it's "if you have the money to buy expensive clothes and can hide your gut within them, you can probably be just like these guys."
But when you watch old 70's violence--even quiet stuff, like The Conversation--it's always about how fucked up and horrible everything is, and how the main characters are pretty fucked up and horrible as well, which is why they can only relate to the world around them by marching right through its degradation and creating some havoc of their own. It's about killing people immediately, without an ironic quip, it's about hurting people and laying waste. It's about not having a future, or hope, or even fantasy. And unless you're completely fucking batshit crazy, you don't watch Tommy Lee Jones in Rolling Thunder smiling like a maniac while he guns down every single person he can find and think to yourself "this is so cool, I wish I dressed like that and could move like that and had that haircut", and yet those cravings are an actual foundation of Matt Damon's physical appearance in the Bourne movies. You watch Tommy Lee and think "this is probably what Dylan Klebold looked like", and that's not cool, it isn't sexy. But compare it to that moment in Heat when Val Kilmer leaps over a chair and makes the threat of spousal abuse a sexual come-on, and ask yourself: which makes more sense?
The mistake here would be to argue that all this nihilism makes Rolling Thunder more honest a film, which it doesn't. (But if you're interested in "honest films", than you really pretty much have to give up on action entirely, because honest is never their point.) Rolling Thunder is a Paul Schrader movie, which means it's a film that does have a point, but that point is going to be buried under so much nastiness and rage that you have to really dig to get at it, and even then, the nastiness will probably overpower the experience anyway. All of what it's doing--being ugly, being scary, being about fucked up horrorshow people--is his method of screaming at America for the way it expects conversation to replicate understanding, the way it tries to sublimate the individual experience in bullshit uniform terminology, the way it says "well, we're establishing a dialog" and considers things on the road to solution. Throughout Rolling Thunder, all of the secondary characters--except Tommy Lee Jones--try to convince William Devane that they understand what he's going through, even though not a single one of them has a single fucking clue, and none of these characters think they're lying. His wife really believes that three weeks of struggling to pick out which haircut works for his welcome home party is a comparable form of suffering to the six months he spent rationing a piece of candy. The man who has taken his place as father to his son (and lover to his wife) truly thinks that "having a beer together" and asking about "the torture" honestly thinks that this will somehow help them establish a rapport. The lover whose incessant come-ons are eventually acquiesced to constantly compares his lack of conversational skills with the drunk ex-boyfriends she's had, consistently failing to acknowledge his blunt explanation that he no longer considers himself to be a living human being, that everything inside him "is gone". His hometown rewards him with applause and the high school band. Degenerate criminals reward him with a half-ass version of torture and empty threats. Everywhere he turns, people scream that they know him, that he's something they can understand. After his years of suffering, they demand he return to them relatively unchanged. He lies to them so they can sleep comfortably, saying that he bore what he did to make him a "better American", and they still won't let it go, sneering that he live up to a bullshit story, fabricated for their comfort.
Eventually, to all of them, he offers silence. And after they finally walk away, a response is formulated. At first, his attempt to get some revenge is blunted and scattershot--he relies on a girl he barely knows and a location he doesn't understand, and he's almost killed as a result. Then, realizing what he must do, he collects Tommy Lee (in what has now become the most famous scene in the film) and the two of them go out to "clean 'em up".
Viewed under the contemporary lens, the final scene of Rolling Thunder--and by final, I mean that the credits begin rolling over the survivors of the whorehouse massacre the second it ends--is more reminiscent of Gus Van Sant's mostly horrible Elephant than it is the Tarantino violence its claimed to inspire. Even more so than the faux "artless" executions that conclude Taxi Driver, the massacre consists almost completely of two men walking around and shooting everyone they can find, and the only moment that recalls a Peckinpah showdown is when they sit reloading at the top of a staircase. It's that moment when Tommy Lee Jones makes clear the hand that the film has subtly implied throughout.
He loves only this. He craves it, this violence, as he has nothing left inside him; so exhausted and empty of any sliver of humanity--and he is here not because of brotherly connection, not out of obligation, but because all that made him whole is long dead, extinguished, and only the horror remains. Unlike Devane, who treats revenge as a defined justice-in-action, Jones is here because this is what he would have eventually done to the family that is trying to contain him with nonsensical discussions of patriotism and home-cooked meals. It's Schrader beating Michael Haneke to the point long before, and saying to the audience that this--unboiled, unvarnished and dead-eyed--is what it would take to give movie violence a true reality. At the brutal core, Rolling Thunder was Schrader's primal scream for what Vietnam did to us--to those it destroyed, yes, but to the rest of us as well, embittered to the point where we jeered at the bones of sorrow it returned. Under the cloak of sleaze, with Flynn's conciseness as his weapon, Rolling Thunder was his epic poem: the last great roar for the tomb we decided to ignore.
-Joe McCulloch & Tucker Stone, 2010