December 30, 2008

What Happens To An Action Hero When We Grow Up?

Depends on what we want from him.

I. Gran Torino

Gran Torino is a film about Walt Kowalski.  Walt is not a real person, of course.  This is fiction, and by fiction I mean Lifetime Original Movie fiction, every possible cliche you could want in a film, and then some.  Walt is an old, cranky, "these kids today with their rock music" Korean War vet.  He's a tough guy, in a time when toughness is a liability.  In other words-- to borrow a line from Dirty Harry-- he's a dinosaur.  Two empty, weak, vapid grown sons; a neighborhood changed from men with families, who work hard for a living to immigrant gangs, "gooks and slopes" and American is going to hell, back when I was young we had to...

What Walt still does cling to, what's important to him, is a car.  That's because he still believes in symbols of masculinity and all that nonsense.  I know, God, what a fool.  Just in case this point is too subtle for the crowd that once voted Titanic the best movie ever made, the producers plan to bash you over the skull with this point and name the movie after the car.   Get it?  This old fossil still doesn't understand that cars don't have any real meaning, they're just stupid hunks of metal that only serve as proxies for an identity you wish you had-- not like an iPhone or a barbed wire tattoo or a vote for Change, things that really signal individuality.

I'm not spoiling anything for anybody by saying that Walt's character evolves, "grows," and whenever you see "character" and "grows" in the same sentence it almost always means it's either Oscar season or it's 3pm on a Tuesday and you're watching an Afterschool Special.

Walt does grow-- he "meets them halfway," "learns that they're not all that different," etc-- in other words, cliche, cliche that would kill this movie in every other circumstance, except one: Walt is played by Clint Eastwood.

It would be a gross over-simplification to say that Eastwood saves the movie.  He is the movie.  Walt isn't played by Clint Eastwood, Walt is Clint Eastwood.  The reason the movie is watchable-- the reason such an otherwise trite and predictable movie doesn't go straight to video but instead gets a review in The New Yorker is because people want to see this transformation, this "growing" happen to Eastwood.  Or, more specifically, to the characters that Eastwood represents. In short, the only reason this movie got a write up in The New Yorker is because it shows how Dirty Harry learned the error of his ways:

Walt's final acts in the neighborhood struggles come as a shock, but, in retrospect, they make perfect sense as Eastwood's personal renunciation of vengeance and also as a kind of down payment on an altered American future.
Slow down, Criss Angel, I know a mindfreak when I see one.  Clint Eastwood doesn't have anything to do with this.  It's not Clinton Eastwood Jr.'s personal renunciation anyone cares about, because nobody actually knows anything about Clinton Eastwood Jr. or his personal beliefs.  It is all the characters that he played-- their renunciation people care about.  People aren't seeing Eastwood play Walt; they are seeing The Man With No Name now aged 70 and living alone, still clinging to his horse, I mean gun, I mean car.  That's the guy they want to see "grow," that's the guy they want to see admit he was wrong.  Time Magazine's review doesn't have the header, "Clinton Eastwood Jr. Changes His Mind About The Use Of Weapons To Solve Problems."  It says Cleansing Dirty Harry.

One might take pause here and ask two questions. First of all, why does Dirty Harry need any cleansing?  You didn't complain when he was taking out serial killers or corrupt cops.  And the answer is that the movie isn't a movie, or even a story, it's a mea culpa for a generation.  Since there are no heroes anymore, then all those action movies, all that black and white, right and wrong, must have been very unsophisticated.  Real life, real problems are considerably more... nuanced.  Since there is no black and white, people do bad things not because they're bad but because they make bad choices.

Yeah, well, color me unconvinced, things may not be all black and white, but there is a black and there is a white and I know them when I see them. 

And second: hey, stupid, what the hell are you talking about?  Dirty Harry doesn't exist.

But we want him to exist.  This generation, this, The Dumbest Generation Of Narcissists In The History Of The World, they hate heroes-- except dead ones, they're ok, and superheroes are ok too, people with magic or from other planets-- but human heroes are anathemas, they want to tear them down and show them to be regular mortals, flawed-- and the best is if they can catch them being hypocritical, nothing brings an impotent narcissist to orgasm faster, even faster than cheating wife stories, than detecting hypocrisy in the elites.

What they don't understand because they are stupefied by their jealous hate is that the real reason they want to show that heroes are flawed is because that would mean that heroes exist in the first place.

Gran Torino is a gift to the jaded narcisissist of today.  It says, look, there aren't really any action heroes, violence really doesn't solve anything-- I see that now.

Ok, but what happens when violence finds you and a hero is needed?

That's why the end of Gran Torino fits so well-- this is a *spoiler*, though they don't so much foreshadow this ending as they do scream it at you from the opening scene-- he goes to confront the bad guys and dies in a hail of bullets-- the end which is so obvious and predictable but at the same time the only one that would speak to this generation of narcissists: when we need a hero, heroes are obligated to rise up and serve, but please have the decency to die afterwards so we can go back to second guessing the ethics of your actions. 

We hate to be reminded that there are others who are better than us; but, for the love of God, please let there be people better than us.


"I'm 47 years old," is Jean Claude Van Damme's third line in JCVD, the movie about the real JCVD, the actor, who fell through the rabbit hole into the world of JCVD, the character.  The opening scene is him filming an action movie, and he gets... tired.  "It's not so easy for me anymore." We get it.

JCVD is out of money, acute and chronic.  He lost his child custody case. He's been passed over for a role.   His ATM card is rejected, and his manager wants payment by noon.  So he talks his way into a closed bank to pick up a wire transfer.  Sorry, technical problems.  Huh?  "We're out of money."  Huh??  The teller stares at him blankly, the guard uselessly.  He finds it surreal-- until he deduces it must be a joke?  Candid Camera?  Nope.

It's surreal for the bank teller, too, of course: the guy yelling at her is none other than the famous action star Jean Claude Van-Damme.  What are the chances?  Actually, that's only half of the surreal: it's JCVD yelling at her, and she's also simultaneously being held hostage.  The bank has been taken over by armed robbers.

The movie sets up the man JCVD against the image.  The man doesn't know how to fight real bad guys.  When the robbers beat up one old man, JCVD does nothing except hide behind a chair.  A dozen times he doesn't punch one of the bad guys, doesn't try to grab the gun.   Do you know why?  Because he's not a hero, he's a regular guy in real life.

Strangely/expectedly, when the public and the cops learn that JCVD is inside the bank during this hostage situation, what occurs to them isn't that he may help stop the criminals; it is that he must be one of them.   No one assumes JCVD is really JCVD the hero, but it is entirely plausible that JCVD is a criminal.  Even his mother believes he is one of the bad guys.  In fairness to her and to the public, they really only have two options: either a) he's a regular man who can be pushed into "making bad choices;" or b) this guy who had three wives and used cocaine can actually be a hero after all.  Calendar check: 2008.  Pick a).

In other words, it's easier to believe he's a criminal than a hero.  It's easier to believe JCVD could be a bad person than a good person.

What happened?  I think the generation raised on action movies felt betrayed.  Those movies promised possibilities, promised that when you grow up, your powers will kick in.  When you grow up, if bad guys take over a bank, you'll be able to use kung fu on them.  It seemed not to have occurred to anyone to learn actual kung fu, or look up how banks are typically laid out, where the alarms are-- just in case. No,  these skills would be uploaded straight by God when needed, sudden and immediate, just as they came to JCVD in Bloodsport.  Life is a movie and movies are only 90 minutes long.  Not a whole lot of time for training.

Well, the possibilities never came true, so heroes can all go to hell.  And God, too, while we're at it, he didn't deliver either.

We got a brief moment of the possibility of 1980s style black and white American might with George Bush after 9/11, when half the country went, "hell yeah, let's go kick some ass!" and the other half went, "wait a second, don't you guys know we suck?"  That being the full extent of our national dialogue.  You see the results.

III.  1985: Tina Turner or Bonnie Tyler? 

Both movies play with the concept of identity.  Who are these guys, after all? 

Walt, played by Eastwood pretending to be the aged Dirty Harry, is too old to engage in significant gunplay, and we all know that if it came down to it, he wouldn't be able to defeat a ten member gang, in real life.  The actor himself is too old to pull off an action sequence.  So what does he do?  He allows them to shoot and kill him, thereby getting them all jailed.  But it is entirely consistent with what Dirty Harry would do if he was old and alone.  Identity intact, even if it is all made up.

JCVD has the exact opposite problem.  There's a scene when one of the bad guys-- an aging, overweight, haggard man with a revolver, wants JCVD to demonstrate a "high kick the cigarette out of his mouth" tricks.   He even puts his gun down on a chair in order to get out a cigarette.   You're practically screaming at the screen, take him out!  But he doesn't.  Again, this is intended to show you that JCVD isn't actually an action hero, he is actually a regular man, in real life.  Except that he is also actually a championship kickboxer in real life.  In that scene, a nine year old panda could have overtaken the guy.  It's impossible that the director, or Jean Claude himself, did not think about this.  The scene works because it shows even JCVD doubts who he is, doesn't know who he is.  Here he is, actually something, and he's not sure about his identity.

You can't help but admire a man who knows his limitations-- ironically, a line from Dirty Harry-- but what we need now, in these days moving forward, is less awareness of our limitations, and more dedication to overcoming them.  I'm not advocating people should be someone they are not.  But it seems obvious to me that if you are going to be someone you are not, and are willing to put in the time, be a hero.