2020s, Action-Adventure, Auteurs, Scifi

Avatar: The Way of Water (2022)

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Director: James Cameron
Screenwriters: James Cameron, Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver

By Roderick Heath

Here there be spoilers…

So, at long last, 13 years after Avatar hit movie screens and became in unadjusted terms the biggest movie of all time, James Cameron returns with a big, teetering second helping of adventure on Pandora. The interval was mostly forced by Cameron’s ceaseless push for technical advancement to outpace the ever-quickening assimilation of such achievement by the modern viewer. Meanwhile the intervening years have been made to feel even longer by all the cultural commentators repeatedly stating that Avatar supposedly left no cultural footprint, in contrast to other pop cultural colossi like Gone With The Wind (1939), The Godfather (1972), Star Wars (1977), E.T. – The Extra-Terrestrial (1982), or even Cameron’s own Titanic (1997), which did indeed often generate quotes and directorial visions that sank deep into the popular consciousness. Certainly no-one’s been getting around saying “I see you” since 2009, but on the other hand the images of Avatar remain instantly recognisable. I made no bones about enjoying the film enormously back then and today still feel one of its best qualities is also its most salient feature of general criticism – Cameron applied his showmanship to a familiar space opera storyline and quasi-mythic template, engaging with fanciful scientific and mystical concepts but weaving it all around a story that paid many nods to pulp adventure and scientifiction writing like Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan and Barsoom tales, whilst blending in overtones of revisionist Westerns like A Man Called Horse (1972) and Dances With Wolves (1990). There was, then, something wilfully classical about Avatar, coexisting with the cutting-edge showmanship and loopy blend of hi-tech dreaming and new-age mysticism, and that choice allowed Cameron to easily sell to the audience a lot of images and ideas that were actually extremely bizarre.

In that long interval much has changed: Cameron’s regular collaborator, the composer James Horner, died in a plane crash in 2015, and Twentieth Century Fox, the once-mighty film studio that backed Avatar, has now been redesignated by its new Disney overlords as merely Twentieth Century Film, as if to coldly declare anything it releases to be yesterday’s news. Some enthusiasm for an Avatar sequel probably has bled off in that time. But that’s arguably counterbalanced by a building mystique, fuelled by the prospect that whatever Cameron was cooking up, it wouldn’t just be any old buck-chasing rehash. It’s also left Cameron in an awkward position, appealing to a movie audience the greater bulk of which would have been kids when they first watched Avatar, or perhaps never saw it or barely remember it, and a pulse of anxiety has been amplified by the peculiar and worrying moment of cinema-going we’re currently in. It’s hard not to root for Cameron and Avatar: The Way of Water, in part because whilst it is a sequel, it is at least Cameron’s sequel, based in his own material and tackled with all the outsized enthusiasm the man brings to his blockbusters, in an age where audiences have been depressingly eager to surrender any hint of artistic interest in cinema product so long as franchising is served up with consistent baseline competence. A sequel to Avatar must partly serve the purpose of reiterating the basic proposition and recapturing some of its more peculiar facets, particularly the way the original film offered a type of extended fantasy travelogue in its midsection. Cameron knows his way around sequels, with his script for Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985) and his own Aliens (1986) and Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991). With each of those films, Cameron essentially reused the skeleton of the original film’s plot and essential elements, whilst riffing on them in other ways, greatly amplifying their scope and swapping in clever new variations on basic ideas, like the alien queen and the liquid metal T-1000.

So it didn’t surprise me that much when The Way of Water essentially does the same thing. Cameron kicks off the film with Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) bringing us up to speed on what’s transpired since he was fully assimilated into the Na’vi and kicked the wicked human capitalist exploiters off Pandora. This opening narration immediately inspires a little narrative whiplash, particularly as Jake mentions that not only have he and Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) had three children of their own – Neteyam (Jamie Flatters), Lo’ak (Britain Dalton), and Tuk (Trinity Jo-Li Bliss) – but they’ve also become adoptive parents to two more. One is Kiri (Sigourney Weaver), born out of Dr Grace Augustine’s mindless Na’vi avatar in a perplexing event, and a young human boy nicknamed Spider (Jack Champion), who was left behind with Augustine’s scientific team by the fleeing humans because he was too young for cryogenic stasis. Spider splits his time between the Na’vi fort and the laboratory still run by Na’vi-allied human scientists including Norm Spellman (Joel David Moore) and Max Patel (Dileep Rao). The question of who fathered Kiri and Spider is raised, although only that of Spider is answered in the course of the film: turns out he’s the son of the late Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang), a fact that sits uneasily in the back of the young man’s mind but doesn’t seem too important.

But then a fleet of human spaceships arrive again on Pandora, this time with the object of transforming the planet into a human colony to escape a dying Earth. With them comes a gang of “recombinants,” Na’vi bodies created from the genetic material of Quaritch and the other soldiers in his old squad and reunited with their saved memories and personalities, specifically to exploit their ingrained knowledge of fighting on Pandora. The reborn Quaritch, whilst readily perceiving himself as something different to what he used to be, nonetheless is exactly the same total jerkwad as ever, and delights in being set loose on Pandora to track down and kill Jake and Neytiri. Jake, Neytiri, their kids and clan recommence their guerrilla war on the invaders, but the children are captured by Quaritch and his unit. Jake and Neytiri attack and manage to free them all except for Spider. Quaritch intervenes to stop the new military commander of the invaders, General Ardmore (Edie Falco), from using torturous brain scans to force information about the family’s whereabouts from his “son,” instead using more psychological pressure to force Spider to become his guide and translator.

Meanwhile, realising the danger, Jake insists that the family flee their home and travel out to oceanic islands inhabited by the Metkayina, water-dwelling Na’vi who have evolved thick tails and arms specifically for swimming. They also have close relations with the tulkun, a species of whale-like creatures with advanced and communicative intelligence, but also an ethos of total pacifism that leaves them vulnerable to human predation. The Metkayina chieftain Tonowari (Cliff Curtis) and his shamanka-like wife Ronal (Kate Winslet) uneasily let the Sully clan into their midst, and Jake in turn demands his kids toe the line with the Metkayina, but after being bullied by Tonowari and Ronal’s son Aonung (Filip Geljo) and his pals, Neteyam and Lo’ak brawl with them. Under the guise of making peace, Aonung and his gang talk Lo’ak into accompanying them out to fish in the open ocean, but then abandon Lo’ak. He’s nearly eaten by a giant predator, but is rescued by a tulkun named Payakan, who’s an outcast from his kind because he once tried to fight back against human hunters.

The shift in locale from the lush forests of the previous film’s locations allows Cameron a new stage to purvey the pure immersive appeal of exploring his created environments, as the Sully clan are introduced to the oceanic environs the Metkayina live in. This entails challenges of adaptation for the formerly arboreal family, like swapping their pterodactyl-like, symbiotically-linked Mountain Banshee mounts for a new species that seem like cross-breeds of barracuda and flying fish, allowing them to not just wing over water but dive under it as well. As with the previous film, these environs and the creatures living in them are fantastically magnified versions of more prosaically familiar earthly things that gloss them over with a new coat of strangeness and luminous spectacle, even if the invention never quite gets as pleasantly nutty as the previous film’s floating mountains. Where the Na’vi were a melange of different indigenous American nations, the Metkayina are based pretty baldly on Polynesian and Maori culture (it’s also amusing to see the digitally transformed Winslet, who first gained attention in Heavenly Creatures, 1994, and Curtis, who became an international character actor on the back of Once Were Warriors, 1994, united in an accidental nod to the glories of mid-1990s New Zealand cinema — even if neither actor really gets much to do). Cameron treads oddly similar territory here to where his fellow digi-visionary blockbuster auteur George Lucas went with Star Wars – Episode I: The Phantom Menace (1999) with his visions of wicked machines descending from the sky and torching the natural environment, and Cameron blatantly makes the similarity plainer when he repeats the “always a bigger fish” joke from the Lucas film.

The choice of shifting much of the focus of the story of The Way of Water onto the next generation is one that most clearly echoes what Cameron did on Terminator 2. Where young John Connor was a wayward product of a quasi-countercultural youth terminally on the outs with the square world he’s forced to subsist in whilst being constantly conscious of another, impending reality, the Sully youngsters are conscious of their status of mutts born between species and cultures, anointing with both burdens and special status, although Spider has some of John’s PG-swearing attitude. Cameron puts much emphasis on the youngsters of the family trying to find their way and negotiate familiar problems of growing up, particularly in the elder brothers’ clashes with the snooty local youths who like teasing and hazing the new kids on the block. Kiri, meanwhile, emerges as the most interesting of the new characters, with her bizarre birth and hazy heritage, adrift with a moony fascination for the world and stirring mysterious interactions with it, that even strikes the Na’vi as pretty odd. The sight (and sound) of Weaver rendered as an alien adolescent is amusing enough in itself, but also gives the part some curious note of pathos: where much of the recent craze for wielding de-aging digital technology has been applied for pretty cynical ends, or was used by Martin Scorsese on The Irishman (2019) for discomforting musing on aging on screen, Cameron seems genuinely delighted by the possibility of setting such things in flux.

Like many very successful late-career filmmakers, Cameron’s become relatively indifferent to expected standards of realism, going instead for instantly legible visual mystique and dialogue that, whilst inflected with contemporary argot, is pitched on a level designed to be accessible to the young and to resonate on an essential level. The Way of Water strongly reminded me of a brand of family entertainments that used to be reasonably common on screen and in books, those ones where a gang of kids would be living on a permanent safari or the like because their parents had a weird job, and their ranks would be both open and loyal in all sorts of all-together-now fun – actually, Noel Marshall’s Roar (1981) is a good, if particularly unnerving example of that – as well as more reminiscent of classic Disney live-action adventure movies than anything Disney makes now. I sincerely mean this as a compliment. Cameron’s insistent (bordering on bullhorned) approach to his environmental themes, as the youngsters are appalled to register violations of the natural world they intermingle with, echoes those kinds of stories too. Not that Cameron’s gone entirely soft: The Way of Water is still a big, booming action-adventure movie where the audience is however ironically encouraged to cheer when the nasty, exploitative humans get their violent comeuppance. Indeed, he expressly set out to create an interesting tension between the idea that advanced intelligence leads to more pacifistic behaviour, as expressed through the tulkun, and its impossibility when faced with naked aggression.

A while ago I pondered the notion that Cameron might indeed by modern cinema’s preeminent, old-school, capital-R Romantic artist. The fascinating result of watching Cameron’s output back-to-back was coming to recognise this, not just in the vast concepts but in the sense of passion as a world-reshaping force, as expressed in his crucial relationships. Cameron certainly invites overt connection with some greats of the Romantic school, most obviously his variations on the Frankenstein mythos of Mary Shelley. Of course, that could be just the pervasive influence on the genre Cameron works in, but he’s also gone further, annexing the specifically North American mythos of the likes of James Fenimore Cooper and Herman Melville and their own engagement with ideas out of Rousseau. Cameron’s fascination for technology, the foe of the Romantic Movement when it emerged in the late 1700s, might seem to preclude that, but for Cameron technology is both the tool of realising his fantasies and, within the frame of those fantasies, a source of monumental contradiction. Indeed, it emerges that Cameron loves tech because it allows Romantic concepts to regain precedence from realism; whether positively or negatively or with aspects of both, the success or failure of the tech shatters the stolid world and unleashes his heroes and their passions. That aforementioned similarity to The Phantom Menace also recalls how that film dipped a toe into a Wagnerian sense of the natural and spiritual world being violated by the spirit of industrialised greed.

Most of Cameron’s films, ranging from the dread apocalyptic fantasies of the Terminator films to the disintegrating modern dream of Titanic that specifically kills off both the Romantic artist and the aristocratic world that couched the style, and the dreams of perfect fusion found in The Abyss (1989) and the first Avatar, contended with that ambivalence. For Cameron technology had the ironic promise of stirring atavistic potential, repopulating the world with demons like the Terminators and neo-knights like the steel-suited Ripley. Again, also pervasive in the genre, but Cameron seems highly conscious of the traditions he works in. Here he wades into the south sea dreaming of Melville’s Omoo and Typee before wholeheartedly offering a variation on Moby Dick as retold from the whale’s point of view. Cameron’s well-known passion for the ocean, which evidently combines a healthy sense of unease with awe, is worked through here at length, as it presents an obvious example of a world that is at once familiar but also eternally alien to humanity. Cameron nudged quasi-transcendental territory with The Abyss and the blatantly angelic look of the aliens in that movie who have developed their technology to the state where there is no tension between it and their natural environment, leading to his messianic climax, in a grandiose cinematic articulation of Arthur C. Clarke’s maxim that technology rendered on an unrecognisably advanced level might as well be magic.

Cameron was of course pinching heavily from Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) there, but Spielberg is less a Romantic than a curious blend of modernist sceptic and Old Testament thaumaturg. Cameron in Avatar finally went over his own theoretical horizon by presenting the fantasy of a natural system so complete and connected it essentially makes technology unnecessary, even primitive-seeming, so long as one developed sufficiently to meet it half-way: it was not so much an abandonment of technology as an attempt to imaginatively synthesis something that serves the same function. That system works not just as a great communication network but contains the memories of its world in a kind of spiritual database. Cameron tries to give this some specific new expressions in The Way of Water, particularly through Kiri, who has a peculiar relationship with Eywa, as the Na’vi call the planetary deity-consciousness that permeates all the life-forms of Pandora to some degree. Kiri’s first attempt to plug into the Metkayina’s local version of the spirit tree like the others can results in her suffering a seizure that gets diagnosed as something like epilepsy after having a vision of her “mother,” only for her to later try it under extreme pressure and reveal uncanny control that allows her to kill a couple of pursuers. Cameron keeps mum to a potentially frustrating degree about what’s going on here, which he plainly means to get into more in the next instalment. I could nonetheless venture a thesis – that Kiri likely had no father and instead is the spontaneously generated attempt by Eywa to reincarnate Grace, and came out connected to Eywa to a unique degree: she can’t link to the spirit tree because she is one.

Cameron seems to be pinching ideas from Frank Herbert’s Dune novels throughout here, with the recombinants reminiscent of Herbert’s gholas, Kiri resembling a less freaky variation on the super-consciousness-inheriting Alia, and the tulkuns as much friendlier sandworms. Fair play – Cameron seems more interested in those ideas and their potential that Denis Villeneuve’s recent hemi-adaptation of Dune was. The first Avatar came out at a time when the pervasiveness of the internet and the truth of a new kind of reality it was fostering had become undeniable, and Cameron’s portrayal of the human operators and their projected selves finding new truth in an extra-reality wonderland felt timely, even if he never let it get in the way of a good story. Today, the internet’s more unsettling traits have become plainer, but Cameron isn’t interested in reflecting on that, in large part because he’s now dealing with experience more explicitly related to the body, of changes to the body and its expressed meaning, which is also touching on fashionable concerns, if less encompassing ones. Repeatedly throughout Cameron explores the idea of a kind of afterlife made possible through both digital transmission and rehousing in the recombinants, and through the great neural function of Eywa, where consciousnesses live on and can be communed with in some form.

The release of the original Avatar inspired a fascinating variety of responses for what it entailed for the culture at large, ranging from right-wing readings dismayed by its environmentalist stance and borderline-misanthropic anger, to accusations from some leftists of dated racism and much musing over contradictions regarding Cameron’s imperial might as a film technician and what he chose to celebrate with it. Meanwhile its general success signalled that, over and above his great skill and showman’s instinct apparent purely on a filmmaking level, Cameron had the pulse of the mass audience still, speaking directly to common fantasies and worries. I don’t really know if The Way of Water will set any of that stuff in motion again. One of the values of sci-fi is of course that it offers a stage to explore such things on a quasi-abstract, displaced level: Avatar reflected on such things on the level of a parable, proposing what it would look if, say, one encountered an ecosystem as one, giant, literal living thing. The disparity with life as we know it is obvious: nature doesn’t work like that, at least no on this planet, and so we’ve been obliged to utilise the world to meet our needs, if indeed to the degree of forming contempt for it. The Na’vi are gifted a kind of exceptionalism because they know Eywa on a direct level, without which they might seem obnoxiously arrogant. Here Cameron does tacitly admit that they are a little, when he has the Sully children browbeaten by the Metkayina brats both as outsiders and as half-breeds. Their enclosed and sufficient world would likely to be even more, and not less, allergic to and intolerant of alienness and outsiders.

Which is perhaps the chief way The Way of Water is a trifle disappointing: Cameron backs away from offering any kind of dialogue or argument of values, of taking his concepts deeper. Even the Wachowskis with their forsaken The Matrix sequels dared to deconstruct their basic power fantasy, as did Lucas. Again, Cameron might be saving that for a later instalment, but I still felt a nibble of frustration as he shifted from an extrapolated “save the rainforest” message to “save the whales.” Quaritch and his team, meaning to track down the Sullys after catching wind of their general location, pressgangs some tulkun hunters into transporting them there and, once he grasps the power of the relationship between the Metkayina and the tulkuns, encourages the hunters to start killing close to the islands, to draw out resistance, and the Sullys very likely with them. Cameron stages a suitably spectacular and nakedly heart-rending sequence of the hunters, led by their ratbag captain Scoresby (Brendan Cowell), chasing down and killing a tulkun mother, a laborious process as the tulkuns have tough, bony bodies and have to be finished off with an explosive harpoon. Cameron gives a further kick in the ribs when he reveals the object of the hunt boils down to a couple of litres of brain fluid that has unique aging-halting properties, now the leading commercial prize on Pandora. This is nominally better as a plot propeller than the previous film’s notorious (perhaps unfairly so given its basis in theoretical physics) “Unobtainium,” and does actually reflect on some unpleasant facts about a long history of animal exploitation. Nonetheless it provokes many questions, as to when and how the humans discovered these properties, and how it became such a priority in the course of the very recent return of the colonial mission. It’s also very plainly there to make the audience whoop when the time to kick ass finally arrives.

Which takes some time, as The Way of Water resists simply leaping into all-action shenanigans, which could be a plus or minus depending on how it strikes you. Cameron deliberately stymies Jake, the accomplished swashbuckler, as he’s now a protective family man playing nice on someone else’s turf. After Lo’ak is nearly killed early in the film, when Jake and the Na’vi blow up a maglev train built through the jungle, Jake becomes increasingly concerned by his second son’s seeming recklessness in the face of danger, and his brood’s general difficulty with the concept of obeying orders. Lo’ak meanwhile feels like he’s considered less worthy compared to his more circumspect older brother, but his disaffection and determination to prove himself ultimately help him connect with Payakan, another being stray from his flock. Lo’ak tries to make others see the worth of Payakan, even as he’s told the reason why the other tulkun shun him. The chain of relations, elemental as they are, nonetheless accrue substance through insistence: connection, whether it be friendship, between Lo’ak and Payakan, synergetic, as between the Metkayina and the tulkuns, romantic, as between Neteyam and Reya (Baiey Bass), the chieftain’s willowy daughter, or familial, between the Sullys and even the Quaritchs, is a constant in this world, echoing in the mirroring father-son conflicts and played out on a more ethereal level by Kiri, who is at once an orphan and an expression of the very planet’s need for connection.

Quaritch in the first film was a heightened caricature of American militarist machismo, imbued with the traits of an explicitly Ahab-like character, scarred by his encounter with the fierce and ungovernable wildlife and determined to decimate it all in the course of asserting power. Here Cameron makes the connection more overt as Quaritch oversees the tulkun hunt, even if it’s only a means to end. Meanwhile his methods for interrogating and browbeating Metkayina villagers, where Spider’s presence influences him to avoid executing prisoners but still burns down their homes, confirm the Vietnam War is still on Cameron’s mind. Bringing Quaritch back smacks of waned inspiration akin to the way Agent Smith became a boring fixture in The Matrix sequels, but also understandable, as Lang’s marvellously sullen and contemptuous aggression in the role was one of the first film’s most potent if unsubtle elements. Cameron signals intention to take Quaritch to peculiar places. Even as for the most part he’s just playing the matinee villain again this time around, Cameron broaches some of this intent, now that Quaritch is inhabiting a life form built for a new planet and must soon or later respond to its wavelengths, whilst his son is still thoroughly human but identifies with the Na’vi. Cameron pauses to note the profoundly dislocating spectacle of Quaritch, after recovering the filmed record of his human body’s death at the hands of Jake and Neytiri, witnessing that death as a viewer locked in a new and alien body. The possibility that Spider’s presence coaxes something like humanity out of the now-inhuman Quaritch is dangled throughout the film, and whilst he remains a monster, he finally does prove to have this one, particular weak spot. Spider’s increasingly horrified response to both Quaritch’s methods and the hunting of the tulkuns eventually drives him to intervene on his adopted family’s behalf in the climax, but then also repays a debt by saving Quaritch from the fruits of his own malevolence.

One element The Way of Water definitely lacks that buoyed the first film had was the surreal, fetish-fuel romance of Jake and Neytiri. The love affairs here, such as between Neteyam and Reya and Spider and Kiri, are by comparison only glanced over, and don’t have the same playfully transgressive quality. The emphasis on Lo’ak’s journey also means that Kiri, who has the more intriguing story if less immediately important for how the plot resolves, isn’t given as much time as she deserves. Jake and Neytiri finally reclaim their eminence in the climax when they go on the warpath to save their brood from Quaritch, with Neytiri pushed to the edge of the genuinely unbalanced when the family take a brutal loss, reduced to taking Spider hostage to counter Quaritch and threatening to cut his throat. Which Spider seems oddly forgiving of later, but then again he’s not doing too well when it comes to parental figures. When push does come to shoot, the wrath of the Metkayina as they charge out to assault the humans is nothing compared to the show-stopping spectacle of Payakan launching himself out of the water and crashing down upon the deck of the hunting craft in trying to save his tiny friend, dealing out righteous destruction and turning Quaritch’s contrived trap into a chaotic free-for-all that also rewrites Moby Dick sinking the Pequod and killing Ahab from grim expression of cosmic indifference and chaos to act of direct and vengeful justice, even down to Payakan taking out his most hated foe by wrapping him up in his own harpoon line.

Whatever one thinks of Cameron’s extension of his mythos, it’s impossible to deny the man still knows how to make a movie on the biggest scale possible, and that’s become a rare gift even in an age where every two-bit director seems to fancy themselves a pontential special effects epic maestro. The years spent refining the special effects have paid off: even if they still sometimes look like what they essentially are, a very sophisticated CGI cartoon, they have a lustre, a richness of colour and grain of detail, that’s quite astounding, particularly with what must have been the excruciatingly finicky work of making digital effects interact with water. Cameron has one of the most clean and fluidic eyes for graphics of any director working, refusing at any point to let the movie degenerate into a jumble of shots for their own sake even as elements pile up to a crazy degree, so when the action finally, properly busts out in the climax it comes with exhilarating force: on a first viewing it leaves a delirious impression of charging flying fish rides and wild underwater battles with mechanical crabs and aerial assaults from a berserker Neytiri. Cameron has some fun tossing in touches ripped off from his own films, in his own aesthetic form of recombinant and daring the audience to call him on it – scenes recalling Titanic as the heroes and villains are trapped within the capsized and flooding hunting ship, Neytiri losing Tuk down a chute a la Ripley and Newt in Aliens, and nods to the angelic aliens of The Abyss as Kiri straps to her back a jellyfish-like creature that works like a scuba tank and spreads gleaming wing-like fronds.

The oddest and most stirring quality of The Way of Water is that it is, even more than its precursor, at once deeply misanthropic and perfectly idealistic, even corny (dig the Tinkerbell-esque way Kiri helps track down the trapped family in the ship), in the way it manipulates a puppet theatre of human facets, the clash between cruelty and empathy, destruction and protection, playing upon the desire for grand new landscapes whilst also insistently reminding us of how we’ve fouled up the ones we know too well. Cameron’s always been a fascinating bundle of contradictions, a male action movie director famed for female protagonists, who populates his tech-heavy films with some of the few memorable romances in recent popular cinema, a control freak who often delivers antiestablishment messages through the ungainly vehicles of colossal blockbusters. And he goes on being one even as the imaginative constructs of the Avatar universe labour so urgently to find some point of fusion for them all. Avatar: The Way of Water is also many warring things, a failure of imagination on some levels and a spectacular and hugely entertaining expression of it on others, a long and clunky example of franchise cinema but also a full-blooded, gleeful relief from it, a film that does its best to satisfy on its own merits whilst keeping on an eye on things still in the future.

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1980s, Action-Adventure, Auteurs, War

First Blood (1982) / Rambo: First Blood Part II (1984)

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Directors: Ted Kotcheff / George Pan Cosmatos
Screenwriters: Michael Kozoll, William Sackheim, Sylvester Stallone / James Cameron, Sylvester Stallone

By Roderick Heath

In the late 1960s David Morrell, working as an English professor at the University of Iowa, became interested in the Vietnam war veterans amongst his students and their often painful accounts of returning to civilian life in the United States. Morrell, an aspiring writer born in Ontario and whose father had died in combat during World War II, began a novel about a veteran who, trapped beyond the fringes of an oblivious or outright hostile society, erupts in a display of nihilistic murder and destruction, turned on the victimising civil authorities of a small Kentucky town. The character was known only by his last name, Rambo, which Morrell took from the breed of apple he was eating at the time, and based him on various real-life figures, including war hero and actor Audie Murphy, whose life was beset by traumatic fallout. Morrell also took inspiration from Geoffrey Household’s famous novel Rogue Male, filmed in 1943 by Fritz Lang as Man Hunt. Morrell published his book, First Blood, in 1972 to some acclaim, and quickly sold the film rights. The proposed adaptation kicked around Hollywood for nearly ten years with heavyweight directors including Richard Brooks, John Frankenheimer, and Sydney Pollack taking an interest. Eventually the project was taken in hand by Mario Kassar and Andrew Vajna, two film distributors itching to try producing.

Kassar and Vajna hired the Canadian filmmaker Ted Kotcheff, whose previous credits included helping the Australian film industry revive with 1971’s Wake In Fright (aka Outback), and a jewel of the similar Canadian revival of the 1970s, The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz (1974). Kotcheff in turn attracted Sylvester Stallone, who was hunting for a viable career alternative to his Rocky films after several coolly received attempts to expand his star persona. Stallone rewrote the best extant script, by William Sackheim and Michael Kozoll, with his canny eye for selling a story to a mass audience causing him to revise the story and make Rambo, now gifted a first name of John, more sympathetic and less heedlessly murderous, essentially refashioning him as an angrier, more damaged and antisocial version of the underdog hero Stallone played in Rocky (1976). First Blood the movie resituated the story to a town called Hope in Washington state, in part because this allowed the film to be filmed more cheaply in Canada. The movie, which still finished up costing some $15 million, became a major hit, cementing Stallone’s place as a major Hollywood star. But Rambo’s place as a byword in popular culture wouldn’t be sealed until a sequel, Rambo: First Blood Part II, was released in 1984.

That film would transform Rambo, conceived as an avatar for the wounded and thwarted products of a bitter zeitgeist, into a figure many took to be the guns-blazing representative of the Reagan era’s renewed militarist swagger and sense of purpose, avenging old defeats and swashbuckling through new wars, driven on by the delight of movie audiences. A third entry, Peter MacDonald’s Rambo III (1989), would become the most expensive film ever produced for a brief reign. As embodied by Stallone, with fast and bulbous physique, penchant for wearing headbands but not shirts, and clutching huge weapons, the character Rambo became eventually birthed a popular caricature, eagerly satirised in movies like UHF (1989) and Hot Shots! Part Deux (1992). Quite the progression from the dark and sombre thriller Morrell wrote, which ended with the character being shot dead by his former Green Berets trainer, Colonel Samuel Trautman. For the adaptation, Kirk Douglas was hired to play Trautman, who was revised from a peripheral, resented figure in Rambo’s life to his former commanding officer, but Douglas dropped out early in filming when he disagreed with revising the story to let Rambo live. He was replaced, in another fortuitous accident, by Richard Crenna.

Douglas might have been artistically right, but Stallone knew his audience. First Blood works carefully to put the viewer entirely on Rambo’s side in its opening reels, as the soldier turned drifter seeking out the home of Delmore Barry, the last surviving other member of his old unit. Rambo soon learns from a neighbour that he’s died of cancer, which she believes was caused by exposure to Agent Orange. The forlorn figure that is Rambo, Medal of Honor winner and relentlessly honed, preternaturally gifted warrior turned ragged drifter, follows a highway into the mountains of Washington until he’s picked up on the fringes of the town of Hope by the Sheriff, Teasle (Brian Dennehy), who lets Rambo know he’s not going to be allowed to linger there, and deposits him on the far side of town. Rambo defiantly turns back towards the town and Teasle promptly arrests him. Rambo is placed in the police station lock-up where Teasle’s deputies, including the swaggering sadist Art Galt (Jack Starrett), beat him, forcibly strip him, and hose him down, experiences that remind Rambo of being tortured in a North Vietnamese POW camp.

Kotcheff makes use of flashbacks to reveal Rambo’s reawakened traumatic memory as he’s brutalised by Galt in a manner reminiscent of the stuttering, near-subliminal technique Sidney Lumet utilised in The Pawnbroker (1964). The likeness of his present situation to his time suffering in captivity is immediately and vividly illustrated and also the similarity of intent behind it, the pleasure of petty tyrants in humiliating and reducing people under their thumb. The sight of the scars that score Rambo’s naked torso, when he’s obliged to strip for a cleaning in the lockup, alarm the younger deputy on the Hope PD, Mitch Rogers (David Caruso), who suggests telling Teasle about it. But the sight only stirs Galt to more delighted viciousness, seeing the evidence of suffering and heroism only as a especially sweet spur to proving his own power. Finally, when the cops try to dry-shave the resisting Rambo, he unleashes his fighting prowess. In short order he decks the cops, flees the station, and steals a motorcycle. He rides the bike as far up a mountain trail as he can get before leaving it behind and fashioning himself rough clothing out of a bearskin rug he finds at a rubbish dump.

When Galt gleefully tries to shoot Rambo from a helicopter, Rambo retaliates by hurling a rock back, striking the chopper’s windscreen and causing Galt to fall to his death. Teasle immediately vows revenge for his old friend, but as he and his men venture deeper in the forest with tracker dogs, they soon find themselves completely thwarted by Rambo’s tactical smarts. He slays the dogs and lures the cops onto his ingenious and brutal traps. Teasle himself is finally ambushed, helpless under Rambo’s knife, only to be spared with the advice, “Let it go, or I’ll give you a war you won’t believe,” before vanishing into the underbrush Of course, Teasle can’t and won’t take that advice. He instead calls in the National Guard, who trap Rambo in a mine shaft he’s made his base, but Rambo, surviving an attempt to kill him with a rocket launcher, crawls through the mine until he breaks out to the surface at another locale. Stealing an National Guard truck and heavy machine gun, he returns to Hope, smashes through a blockade, and begins laying waste to the town with Teasle his ultimate target.

First Blood offered something like an upmarket version of ‘70s grindhouse thrillers that often thrust returned vets into bloody action, or a cheeralong extrapolation of the interior fantasies of Taxi Driver’s (1976) Travis Bickle. Rambo can also be seen as an extension of actor-turned-auteur Tom Laughlin’s hero Billy Jack, star of a series of popular movies in the late 1960s and early ‘70s. Both characters were living lethal weapons who had served in ‘Nam, both part-Native American, both reluctant heroes who eventually cracked when confronted by thugs and redneck cops and start dealing out ass-kickings. Only Billy Jack had been a nominally countercultural hero, having thrown in his lot with young hippies, dropouts, and the oppressed, whilst Rambo doesn’t have that much community, and eventually became popularly associated with a revanchist right wing’s attitude to the peacenik crowd. First Blood is nonetheless entirely about an outsider battling representatives of authority. The cops are generally portrayed as smugly self-righteous, bullying, or weak, more concerned with the illusion of order rather than the reality of it, more obsessed with safeguarding its privilege as power than worried about justice, and in the case of Galt, essentially psychopathic.

Instead of developing more respect and solicitude the more Teasle and his people learn about Rambo, including eventually discovering his status as a war hero, they become all the more angrily determined to bring him down, because he taunts and undercuts their machismo. The essential, just about endlessly reloadable moment of crisis in every Rambo movie, awaited with eagerness by the viewer and built towards with varying levels of skill and intensity by its directors, is the scene where our hero’s blood finally boils over and he begins dealing out pain and calamity to tormentors and tyrants. The countdown to this inevitable eruption in First Blood begins in its earliest moments, as Rambo learns of Delmar’s passing and starts a lonely montage trek along the road to Hope, a place that describes itself via a sign over the road in as the “Gateway to Holidayland.” One powerfully lingering aspect of First Blood is Kotcheff’s use of British Columbian locations, which prove a perfect backdrop to communicate Rambo’s solitude and the pall of crisis that follows him like a raincloud from the bucolic setting that was Delmar’s home into the increasingly blue-soaked and dour atmosphere of the mountain forests.

The use of landscape maps out both essential dramatic venues, as Rambo escapes into the woods where he can turn the tables on the cops, and his mental landscape, leaving behind the last glimmer of hope for a familiar face and a toehold in society as represented by Delmar’s place, exchanged for the mockingly named town of Hope and finally a plunge into the primal landscape beyond where civilisation drops away and the best hunter and killer reclaims his place at the apex of existence. But the landscape also folds in upon Rambo until his empire is reduced to a hole in the ground with a flickering fire and a buzzing radio that announces the names of dead men. When he does break free and brings his wrath back to Hope, he has already lost, because he must again countenance civilisation to do so. Regardless of the specific cultural and political context the character was planted in, Rambo nonetheless became the essential modern movie depiction of a truly ancient cultural figure, the perfect warrior born purely for combat, an Achilles, a Hercules, or a modern day Viking berserker, a likeness that becomes inescapable in the maniacal last third of Rambo: First Blood Part II.

For Stallone, Rambo provided a second reliable and recognisable role as a star, a rare gift in the early days of cinematic franchising. Rambo was a counterpart to his lovably dim, gentle-‘til-roused Rocky Balboa, and the star continued this counterpoint when he revived both characters in the mid-2000s and again in the mid-2010s. Rocky was a hero deeply embedded in a sense of community and identity, pushed along by a hazily optimistic sensibility. Rambo, by contrast, is a perpetually clenched fist, his blazing, tragedy-telegraphing eyes perpetually seeing double in the world, the one that is and the one in his past, locked in a nihilistic place by his hard-won self-knowledge that the one thing he’s indisputably great at it is warfare. He comes equipped with his personal Excalibur, his ever-present hunting knife, with its wickedly curved point and serrated back edge, a weapon found on his person that the cops take to be a sign he’s a violent miscreant. The crucial similarity of Rocky and Rambo was that both had to be provoked to do what they do best, Rocky because of his general passivity, Rambo because of his grim knowledge that the kinds of situations that require his skills are already too nightmarish to contemplate. The role allowed Stallone to show off not just his musculature but his athleticism, always more convincing in that regard than the comparative ponderousness of his eventual rival and displacer in the pneumatic movie hero stakes, Arnold Schwarzenegger. “I’ve always believed the mind is the best weapon,” Rambo comments in the second, and Rambo’s cunning as a strategist is repeatedly emphasised as his real edge over variously arrogant and bullish foes.

Rambo is also inseparable from his enemies, the men who provoke his raging remonstrations. First Blood has the best and most dramatically intense of these, in the form of Teasle, who, in his way, is entirely justified in his attitude to Rambo. The film obliges the audience to identify with Rambo as the sad and simple man just trying and failing to get on with life finally pushed too far, with Teasle’s smiling but quietly assured and dictatorial attitude, followed soon by more bluntly thuggish treatment. Unlike most of his successors in the sequels, however, Teasle’s viewpoint is loaned a faint gleam of validity. The reek of danger and strangeness the sheriff gets from Rambo at first glance, and the sense of focused provocation when the drifter ignores his instructions and turns back towards Hope prove, ultimately, correct. Teasle has his own war medals on display in his office, and refuses to grant Rambo any special sympathy: “You think Rambo’s the only guy who had had a tough time in Vietnam?” Rambo nonetheless represents a revenge fantasy not just for disaffected servicemen, but for every wandering outcast bewildered and provoked by their lot in the American landscape, of which there were once many likenesses in Hollywood cinema. Rambo in his first outing belongs to a continuum linking Chaplin’s Little Tramp, Henry Fonda’s Tom Joad, William Wellman’s Wild Boys and Girls of the road, Raoul Walsh’s angry misfits, and Dennis Hopper’s Easy Riders. In a most specific likeness, Rambo, like Mad Dog Earle in Walsh’s High Sierra (1941), is driven into the mountains in a stand-off with authority, but where in the ironclad days of the studio system and Production Code such a figure had to eventually lose, Rambo was a product of a much more ornery time.

Kotcheff was a film and television jack-of-all-trades, gaining his career start in Canadian TV in the late 1950s before moving to the UK and making his feature film debut with 1962’s Tiara Tahiti, and his well-honed efficiency that made him an ideal figure to travel to Australia and then back to Canada to resuscitate their movie industries. It’s an odd career that encompasses the likes of First Blood, Fun with Dick and Jane (1977) and Weekend at Bernie’s (1989) alongside Wake In Fright, The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, and North Dallas Forty (1979). What’s most interesting in this regard is that First Blood plays as Kotcheff’s thematic sequel to Wake In Fright, depicting as it does an outsider arriving in a boondock town and being driven near-insanity by the behaviour of the locals, whose delight in tormenting and degrading a stranger reflects back out at the larger world a sense of resentment and fringe detachment. Whilst Kotcheff swapped the desolate alienation of an Aussie town on the edge of a desert for the tangled and looming reach of pine-thatched mountains, and the naïve intellectual for the hard and ingenious superwarrior, the palpable sense of danger and entrapment and depiction of regressive bullying has evident likeness.

First Blood has been criticised for abandoning its potential as a believable and down-to-earth kind of action movie by having Rambo perform some incredibly lucky pieces of physical action, like jumping off a cliff and crashing down through the nettled pine branches until he’s deposited relatively unscathed on the ground, and causing Galt’s death with a rock when the cop can’t nail him with a high-powered rifle. Those criticisms are entirely legitimate, although to Kotcheff’s credit he manages to invest them with a veneer of sense in his staging and cutting. Such shows of prowess also accrue into it’s plain that Rambo is a unique individual with levels of physical ability beyond the normal, and a degree of reflexive intelligence in the midst of battle, that gives him a radical edge over the blowhards. These touches also clearly signal that, despite its nominal roots in social issue melodrama reminiscent of the films Wellman and Walsh made once upon a time for Warner Bros., already First Blood is bending Rambo’s trajectory off into the zone of the matinee serial-style adventurer, at a time when Superman and Indiana Jones had recently revived the unbreakable brand of old-school pulp hero in movies, and the 1980s style of action movie was gaining definition.

So when Crenna’s Trautman does turn up, his presence is supposed be that of the wise elder who knows all the secret history denied to civilians like Teasle and perhaps even to Rambo himself, the man who knows what Rambo is capable of (“God didn’t make Rambo. I did.”) and also why he is the way he is, and provides a last bulwark between two factions. But his real function is essentially to act as Rambo’s hype man, promising Teasle, and the audience, what Rambo delivers. This quality manifests most memorably when Trautman, upon hearing Teasle’s declaration that two hundred cops and National Guards are being sent in to handle Rambo, retorts, “You send that many don’t forget one thing – a good supply of body bags.” Like a bard at a campfire telling stories of great heroes of old to thrill and excite the next prospectives, Trautman announces Rambo’s skills and qualities until he’s transformed from a surprisingly good fighter for a shaggy loser to a demigod only limited by his remnant human scruples: “Technically he slipped up,” Trautman says in noting Rambo’s failure to actually kill the men hunting him.

Crenna’s role at Trautman, which immediately became his most famous and recognisable, presented an inversion of his portrayal of the disintegrating commander in The Sand Pebbles (1966): where that film, made in the early days of the American Vietnam experience and presenting a parable critiquing it, disassembled the mythos of noble military machismo, Trautman reconstructs it rhetorically whilst Rambo does so physically. Rambo presents a fantasy vision of an American soldier who learned to fight like a Viet Cong guerrilla, with nods to Native American fighting styles. Rambo’s incredible physical fitness and toughness as well as honed skill gives him an edge over his enemies, able to dodge and weave and hide, seeming to become part of the forest itself, like the title alien of Predator (1987). His campaign against Teasle and the pursuing cops becomes an ironic inversion where Rambo does to his foes what the Vietnamese are often perceived as doing to the Americans in the war. He utilises the landscape and cunning, nasty traps to draw in and disassemble them, using their reactive vengefulness against them. One cop ends up tied to a tree as bait to draw in and unnerve his comrades. Another is impaled at crotch height upon a row of wicked stakes. The cops and National Guard are reduced to firing blind and shows of impotent firepower, as when the National Guardsmen shoot a rocket launcher after Rambo as he hides in the mine shaft.

When Rambo is hiding in that mine, Trautman contacts him on a CB radio taken from one of the cops, awakening Rambo from his sleep with his old service call-sign and a rollcall of his dead comrades, provoking the warrior with the perverse feeling of his dreams and waking life blurring incoherently until he realises the call is real. “There are no friendly civilians,” he tells Trautman with new-found conviction, and claims the cops “drew first blood,” justifying his retaliation, whilst Trautman retorts that “you did some pushing of your own,” and Teasle tries to trace the transmission. Kotcheff contrasts the different environs of the two men, Trautman broadcasting in lamplight as a beacon in an endless night whilst Rambo is curled up in a bole in the earth where the wind echoes hollow and his paltry fire flickers in a sea of dark. A haunting and impressive scene that perfectly evokes the mental and moral drama in play and provides a meditative interlude that’s unusual in an action movie. It also somewhat outclasses the more officially dramatic climactic moment where Stallone does some capital-A acting, as Rambo, on the verge of killing Teasle, is confronted by Trautman and has a breakdown. He recounts semi-coherently his feelings of outrage at being abused by antiwar protestors and how one of his friends died in a terrorist bombing in Saigon and he was reduced to trying to stuff his guts back inside his body, a vignette that tries so hard to be terribly cathartic it borders on camp.

Nonetheless First Blood holds together with admirable grit for the most part, in part because it resists deviating from its basic concerns. It matches the ideal of Rambo’s purposeful intensity with its own, wielding a sense of gamy, gruelling, intensely corporeal vitality that’s all but disappeared from contemporary cinema. Arguably the film’s most thrilling scene depicts Rambo’s journey through the depths of the mine in his attempt to escape with the entrance blocked by the explosion. This involves a phobic odyssey through a space of pressing walls, dripping, sloshing water, and teeming rats, a gritty, visceral, vividly claustrophobic sequence that doesn’t look like it was much fun to shoot. When he does finally reach a shaft leading out, Rambo pauses to catch his breath and offer a solemn, silent moment of gratitude before climbing back out to the world. There he finds everyone thinks he’s dead, everyone except Trautman, who muses on the scene outside the mine and knows well Rambo might still emerge but doesn’t tell Trautman. Soon enough Rambo leaps aboard a National Guard truck, forces its driver to jump out, and commandeers the M60 machine gun in the back. He arrives in Hope, blows up a gas station, and begins knocking out the power to the town’s centre. Teasle takes up station on the police station roof, only to be shot in the legs by Rambo from below, and he crashes through the skylight to the floor a bloody mess.

Before he kill the sheriff, Trautman manages to disarm Rambo and penetrate his glaze of wrath to reveal the desperately haunted and anguished man beneath. Trautman then leads him away to whatever fate the law demands, a softening of the novel’s end that also opened the door for a sequel. That Rambo is reduced to sobbing violently, whilst clinging to Trautman who plays his father and confessor, confirms a peculiar status Stallone managed to stake out in his stardom, able to play inarguably tough men who are nonetheless governed by powerful emotions, and his shows of rage and destruction throughout the film are finally revealed to be, essentially, displacement of his urgent need to grieve for himself and his former comrades. First Blood was released after The Deer Hunter and Coming Home (both 1978) had begun a rehabilitation of Vietnam as a movie subject, but before Platoon (1986) offered what many felt was official catharsis. First Blood and its follow-up were nonetheless the more populist version of the same thing, selling to the audience a new image of the ‘Nam vet as a tormented underdog deserving rehabilitation even if the war, as Trautman puts it, “was a bad time for everybody.” “Somebody wouldn’t let us win,” Rambo howls, a note taken up again at the start of the sequel, where Rambo questions, when asked to return to Vietnam, “Do we get to win this time?” “That’s up to you,” Trautman replies.

Rambo: First Blood Part II cunningly extends this Janus-faced attitude, angry anti-authoritarian outlook and revanchist reactionary passion, by portraying Rambo as next plunged into a situation where the representatives of the American government are corrupt and craven, whilst their enemies are even worse, and only Rambo, Trautman, and others like them retain something like honour. As with its precursor, Stallone applied his own polish to a script this time penned by James Cameron, at the same time he was developing his own The Terminator (1984) and Aliens (1986), and there’s a lot of overlap. Rambo is nearly as remorseless and irresistible as the cyborg in The Terminator once he gets going, and as with Ripley in Aliens he’s portrayed as a sorry survivor who welcomes a chance to go back to a scene of suffering to exorcise his traumatic demons and fully evolve into a hero, despite the connivance of suit-wearing creeps. Rambo: First Blood Part II opens with Trautman approaching Rambo where he’s stuck working in a prison quarry, a setting that cries out for Woody Allen singing “Gonna see Miss Liza!” The Colonel gives Rambo his apologies for failing to keep him out of jail, but then offers a chance for freedom, if he’ll volunteer for an extremely dangerous covert mission, to be airdropped into Vietnamese territory and determine whether rumours American POWs are still being held at a remote jungle base are correct. Rambo and Trautman fly to an black ops base near the border of Thailand with Vietnam, and Rambo is briefed by Roger Murdock (Charles Napier), the commander of the operation.

The unpleasant side of this plot keystone is that Stallone exploited another actual, lingering issue of the Vietnam War, the plight of missing American servicemen who were at the time believed to still be captives, to pump emotive adrenalin into his rah-rah action flick. On the other hand, the film is surprisingly direct and scathing about the US reneging on its peace pledges of reparations to Vietnam, a tussle in which the POWs are theoretical pawns: any diplomatic push to get any POWs back would certainly require paying up. The face of this deceit is Murdock, a man who may or may not have once been a soldier but now has certainly crossed over the dark side of bureaucracy, and will again readily and actively betray him and GIs still in Vietnamese hands for the sake of political equilibrium. Rambo catches him out in a lie over his alleged wartime service, which he tells Trautman about, before assuring his old Colonel, “You’re the only one I trust.” Rambo’s airdrop over the jungle from a Lear jet goes wrong when his copious equipment gets hung up on the plane, a thrilling action sequence that also contains symbolic meaning. Being forced to cut loose all the fancy gear he’s been encumbered with obliges Rambo to get back to basics, and keeps him from recommitting the assumed mistake of past American method.

Once he manages to free himself and successfully lands in the jungle, he encounters his local contact, Co Bao (Julia Nickson), after first sneaking up on her. Co Bao, the daughter of a former South Vietnamese officer, has elected to continue his fight, and she helps Rambo approach the camp by arranging passage with some smugglers who regularly traverse a nearby river. When he penetrates the camp, Rambo discovers a number of G.I. captives being kept in sadistically awful circumstances, and he frees one man POW (Don Collins, I think), who’s been left tied to a post. Rambo and Co Bao take him back to their rendezvous point as Trautman comes to the rescue in a chopper being flown by Murdock’s aides Ericson (Martin Kove) and Banks (Andy Wood), but when he’s told Rambo has a freed prisoner Murdock orders the chopper to return without him. Trautman is held at gunpoint whilst Rambo and the POW are taken by the Vietnamese, with Co Bao escaping as she split away from them. The trussed-up Rambo is immersed in a slop pit filled with leeches and then tortured with electricity by a Red Army envoy, Lt-Col Sergei Podovsky (Steven Berkoff), and his aide Sgt Yushin (Voyo Goric), who, along with a detachment of Soviet commandos, have come to the camp for shady reasons. Podovsky wants Rambo to hand him a propaganda victory by denouncing his government over the radio. But, unfortunately for him and all the other Commies, the countdown to Rambo’s next eruption has already begun.

Rambo has his one and only real encounter with a romantic interest in all his excursions to date, as he and Co Bao fall in love whilst adventuring in the wilds, and the girl convinces Rambo to take her with him back to the US. Of course, she’s necessarily doomed, and is gunned down by soldiers after helping him escape the camp. Rambo takes possession of her jade Buddha necklace and wears it at as a lucky totem and wears it through the rest of this film and on into Rambo III, finally giving it away at the end to a boy Afghan warrior he decides needs it more. Nickson’s performance doesn’t exactly help the credibility factor – she comes across exactly as what she is, a Canadian model trying very hard to look and sound like a halting-English-speaking guerrilla warrior – but Co Bao is nonetheless interesting and rather singular as a true human, romantic connection for Rambo. She has similar talents to him, accomplished with an AK-47 and skilled at war in her own way: she pretends to be one of the prostitutes who visit the camp in an attempt to extricate Rambo from their clutches, and saves his hide repeatedly in the ensuing battle. Co Bao’s presence also helped to dampen, at least to a degree, the otherwise blatantly sectarian world-view exhibited in the film holding the Communist Vietnamese as malignant scum who can be happily dispatched in all manner of creatively violent ways, as opposed to Rambo’s relatively soft touch with the police of Hope.

Even the smugglers prove to be treacherous dogs who sell Rambo and Co Bao out, forcing Rambo to slay them all and blow up a patrol boat with a Russian RPG the pirates keep around for such encounters. Of course, there’s also the Russians to add new ingredients to the vengeful mix, presenting the ultimate spectre of a renascent Domino Theory being driven by the masterminds of the Evil Empire, the real Cold War foe unmasked as puppet master. To a great extent all the historical and political issues raised and depicted here don’t matter – in practice Rambo: First Blood Part II is simply a slightly updated World War II movie, with the Vietnamese cast as proxy as Japanese and the Russians as Germans. Berkoff, who had cleverly walked a line between seriousness and absurdity as an Russian villain in the James Bond film Octopussy a year earlier, returned to play a different variation on the concept here – Podovsky is an ice-cold, iron-souled Cold Warrior who presents Rambo with the perfect incarnation of The Enemy, entirely antipathetic in values and methods but just as assured in his sense of patriotic mission as Rambo himself. Nonetheless Rambo’s truest foe is Murdock, who resembles Teasle as a smug-ugly representative of civilian authority but robbed of Teasle’s better qualities and comparable moral perspective, instead providing the incarnation of everything Rambo perceives as craven, manipulative, deceitful, and disdainful of actual fighting men in country’s official mindset.

Where First Blood had been handled in a relatively muted, textured fashion by Kotcheff, Rambo: First Blood Part II was helmed by George Pan Cosmatos. The Greek-Italian Cosmatos had been born in Florence, and worked his way up through the ranks of European film production including serving as an assistant director and bit player on Zorba The Greek (1964). Cosmatos began his directing career with serious films, like the 1973 wartime film Massacre In Rome, but, starting with the absurd but very entertaining blend of medical thriller and disaster movie The Cassandra Crossing (1977), he reinvented himself as a maker of hard-charging action flicks. After scoring another success with the Alistair MacLean-ish World II actioner Escape From Athena (1979). Cosmatos made the Canadian-produced, New York set Of Unknown Origin (1983), a peculiar blend of satire and monster movie depicting a corporate man battling a gigantic rat at loose in his apartment, before being offered Rambo: First Blood Part II. Later he would work again with Stallone on an even more hyperbolic star vehicle, Cobra (1986), the deep-sea Alien rip-off Leviathan (1989), and the popular Western Tombstone (1993). Cosmatos’ gift for pure, unadulterated, go-for-broke pulp cinema impact is rife in Rambo: First Blood Part II. Most particularly, in the pivotal scene of Rambo being tortured and forced by Podovsky to make his propaganda broadcast.

As so often in Stallone’s films the evocation of masculine physicality and suffering embraces what might be called martyr homoeroticism, not so much to invite a desiring gaze but to offer the perfected icon for the audience’s sadomasochistic identification, a mix of delight and distress in the sight of tormented masculine strength before it explodes in orgasmic carnage. What glee the film taps in the sight of the all-but-naked Stallone, covered in sewage, body infested with leeches, which Podovsky begins to methodically peel away with Rambo’s own knife. Rambo is electrocuted and threatened with having a glowing hot knife shoved into his eyes, until Podovsky realises it’s better to threaten the POW he tried to free. Finally Rambo seems to relent and settles down reluctantly before a radio microphone, calling up the American base over the border, and asking to speak to Murdock. Cosmatos moves through shots here in musical degrees of intensity – close-ups of Berkoff’s face with piercing blue eyes as he maintains ruthless pressure, of Stallone’s muscular arm as he grips the radio, of his sadly limpid gaze as he affects being driven to traitorousness – before delivering the killer blows, as Rambo growls out Murdock’s name, lightning flashing on his face, his grip on the microphone tightening with a click of knuckles. “I’m coming to get you,” he warns Murdock, whose aghast and terrified reaction on the other end is glimpsed in a near-subliminal but indelible cut, before Rambo lashes out, using the microphone as a weapon to wallop his torturers and make his break. He even gives Yushin a dose of his own medicine by thrusting him against his own electrical torture device and turning the dial to 11. Utterly ludicrous, of course, and the sort of action movie vignette that’s provided fodder for lampooners ever since. And also a kind of perfection for this kind of moviemaking, completely unabashed and unashamed in presenting the cinematic equivalent of an adrenalin hit.

Rambo: First Blood Part II can also be regarded as one of the many children of Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo (1961) and Sergio Leone’s spaghetti western transcription A Fistful of Dollars (1964), films that pretty much made compulsory a scene depicting the hero’s capture and brutalisation, prefiguring his escape and rebirth as incarnate wrath. Rambo flees with Co Bao’s aid but her death provokes him to halt his flight and ready for apocalyptic battle, picking off Podovsky’s commandos one by one and decimating a unit of Vietnamese soldiers who hunt him through long reeds only to find he’s laid a trap. Rambo’s preparations for battle include strapping on a headband with a tug of pure manliness, and selecting a weapon of choice, explosive head-tipped arrows, the sort of touch that makes eight-year-old boys of all ages delight. During a gunfight with the Vietnamese commander who directed Co Bao’s death, he turns one of these on his foe and blows him to smithereens in one of those moments that breaks down what little barrier there is between violent melodrama and absurdist comedy. Meanwhile Yushin chases him down in a helicopter, only for Rambo to manage to scramble on board, kill Yushin, and commandeer the craft, which he then uses to annihilate the camp’s garrison and rescue the POWs. As they flee they’re chased down by Podovsky in a colossal Sikorsky helicopter gunship, but Rambo manages, by playing possum, to lure Podovsky in and blow him out of the sky with an RPG.

Here, again, Cosmatos’ gleeful lack of moderation or care for anything except the impression of hellfire fury blesses the film with a certain pathological perfection, as in the way he holds off Goldsmith’s pounding martial music until after Rambo screams in the deepest eye of his berserker rage, somehow finding a step beyond the zenith of bloodlust. Indeed, what distinguishes Rambo: First Blood Part II from its many forebears and imitators is precisely the way it enters entirely into the berserker mindset, and indulges it to the nth degree. The peculiar conviction of the Rambo films as a unit is their complete rejection of all modern moral sensibility, turning instead to the primeval conviction that sometimes the only solution is righteous bloodletting, and that once countenanced, after other avenues are exhausted that zone must be committed to, and can indeed be a place of virtually transcendental experience. Rambo has evolved into a holy warrior without a specific religion to espouse beyond aiding the weak against the strong, a note taken up in his three subsequent outings. In the meantime, Rambo: First Blood Part II concludes with Rambo only just manages to fly the damaged and failing chopper to the American base and land it safely. There he socks Ericson, shoots up the surveillance equipment in the American base, and terrorises Murdock, only sparing his life on pain of doing his best to bring home other POWs: “Find them, or I’ll find you.” What’s most notable here is that Rambo is essentially rendered impotent by his one great loyalty, his country, discharging his weapons and rage fruitlessly against inanimate objects.

The most invaluable connecting thread for the early Rambo films beyond Stallone himself was Jerry Goldsmith’s scoring. His theme for First Blood precisely evoked the state of haunted but dignified persistence that was the initial key to Rambo’s character, and became the leitmotif for his wanderings in subsequent movies. The soaring lushness and booming martial intensity of his orchestrations are perhaps what chiefly distinguished the series from its lower-budgeted precursors and imitators (along with peculiarly good technical collaborators, including Jack Cardiff who worked as director of photography on Rambo: First Blood Part II, and who might well have remembered his own Dark of the Sun, 1968, when he signed on). The colossal success of Rambo: First Blood Part II birthed a string of imitations, like the Chuck Norris star vehicle Missing In Action and its sequels, and left a permanent mark on the style and assumptions of Hollywood action films. Predator likely wouldn’t exist without it to riff on. It was made the subject of jest and then validation in Die Hard (1988). On through just about every movie since where an omnicompetent hero decimates hordes of baddies, like John Wick (2014) and Extraction (2020). As for the character himself, Rambo III rounded off his initial trilogy, just managing to scrape over the line as the end of the Cold War loomed and Rambo’s days as a relevant pop culture hero suddenly seemed numbered. The film’s choice of taking up the Soviet war in Afghanistan became a sorely ironic point as the film indicted the conflict as the Russians’ equivalent of Vietnam, more than a decade before the US would go into the country itself (indeed an odd piece of fake lore would be coined on the internet that the film’s postscript title tribute to the “gallant people of Afghanistan” had been altered from an original version dedicated to the Mujahidin).

Rambo III’s first director Russell Mulcahy was fired and British editor Peter MacDonald hired. MacDonald stated his chief desire was to make Rambo a more human, humorous figure, and the film had a strong essential proposition: Rambo, after refusing to join Trautman on a mission in Afghanistan supplying Stinger missiles to the Mujahidin, goes in to rescue him when he’s captured, and the two battle their way out of the country side by side. Rambo III’s then-astronomical budget registers in the demolition of expensive infrastructure, the tactile immediacy and ruggedness of the action, and the lustre of the landscapes. But it’s too much a scrappy retread of its precursor despite trying to shift into buddy movie territory: the film climaxes again in a battle between Rambo and a Russian enemy in a giant helicopter – this time with Rambo pitted against him, hilariously, in a tank – and pithy exchanges over the radio (“Who are you?” “Your worst nightmare!”). Stallone resisted bringing the character back until 2008, well into the renewed warlike moment of the War on Terror. Finally he directed and starred in a film variably called simply Rambo or John Rambo, depending on the market. I didn’t like this entry when it first came out, but on recent revisit found it surprisingly good. Rambo, now living a peaceful life as a snake trapper and riverboat skipper, is called upon by some American Christian medical personnel to ferry them into Myanmar where they plan to administer aid to victims of the ruling military dictatorship’s brutal repression. Rambo, after warning them against going, is convinced by their leader’s open-hearted fiancé Sarah (Julie Benz) to take them. When he later hears they’ve been captured by the truly evil local military commander during a massacre of a village, Rambo elects to accompany a team of mercenaries hired by their pastor to go in and rescue them.

The storyline this time around was almost too straightforward and executes a much slower burn than its precursors, holding off the requisite, purgative explosion of payback until the climax, and lacking a strongly developed antagonist, only sporting a particularly vicious army commander Major Tint (Maung Maung Khin), who likes doing things like feeding the missionaries to pigs and slaughtering entire communities. But Rambo did develop some substantial ideas in its juxtapositions, leaning heavily on echoes of High Noon (1952) and Shane (1953) in mooting tension between Rambo’s weary knowledge of humanity’s dark side and the humane, optimistic ideals of the missionaries, as well as probing the schism between Rambo and the cadre of mercenaries with their different generational and professional attitudes. When the action finally cuts loose in the climax, as Rambo unleashes a heavy machine gun on the Myanmar military, backed up by his newfound pals, with properly maniacal impact. By the film’s end the series circled back to where it nominally started, with Rambo returning to the US, but this time truly going home, to his father’s horse ranch in the Arizona heartland. Stallone has returned to the role once more, for 2019’s Rambo: Last Blood, which saw him battling a Mexican drug cartel. But it was a disappointingly generic coda that felt hurriedly repurposed to vaguely fit Rambo, with our hero acting in ways rather too naive for the character so familiar by this point, at least until the impressively bloodthirsty climax. Old soldiers never die, apparently – their box office takings simply fade away.

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1990s, Action-Adventure, Comedy, Horror/Eerie

Sleepy Hollow (1999)

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Director: Tim Burton
Screenwriters: Andrew Kevin Walker, Kevin Yagher

By Roderick Heath

Alongside his own ‘Rip Van Winkle,’ Washington Irving’s story ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow’ is probably the best-known work of American literature from before the time of Poe and James Fenimore Cooper. Born in New York in the early years of the republic, Irving, after struggling as a merchant, found success in his twenties as a writer, journalist, and editor, and later pursued a career as a diplomat, serving for a time as ambassador to Spain. Amongst Irving’s random, still-resonating achievements ranked coining the phrase “the almighty dollar” and the nickname “Gotham” for New York, publishing the Francis Scott Key poem that became ‘The Star-Spangled Banner,’ popularising the false notion medieval Europeans thought the world was flat before Columbus, and having one of his pen names inspire the name of the New York Knicks. The roots of Irving’s most famous labours went back to his teenaged years, when a yellow fever epidemic caused his parents to send him to live with a friend in upstate New York. During that sojourn Irving first encountered Sleepy Hollow, a small town founded by Dutch settlers. His two most famous stories were both first published in a collection entitled The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. Irving connected several elements of local lore for ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,’ including the history of the locale during the Revolutionary War, as he created the story of the timorous schoolmaster Ichabod Crane. Crane moves to Sleepy Hollow and becomes involved with a local girl, only to encounter the ghost of a Hessian mercenary soldier decapitated in battle but still terrorising the local byways.

Tim Burton, born in Burbank, California in 1958, is another curious American artist of the fanciful and student of the arcane and eerie. Burton started making short films with an 18mm camera as a child, displayed aptitude as an artist, and studied animation after leaving school. For a time he worked at Disney Studios in various artistic capacities and making short films on the side. One of these was the six-minute stop-motion animation Vincent (1983), depicting a young boy who fantasizes about being his hero Vincent Price, winning Burton his first burst of attention. Shortly after, he made a live-action version of Hansel and Gretel with a Japonaise style, sporting a kung fu fight between the titular duo and the witch, an early example of Burton’s habit of mischievously remixing various genres: that work screened once on the Disney Channel and was barely sighted again. Then he made Frankenweenie (1984), another stop-motion work about a junior mad scientist who revives his dog, killed by being run over by a car. Disney fired Burton for wasting company resources on something too scary for kids, but screenings of the short attracted the attention of comedian Paul Rubens, who, looking to play his popular comedy character Pee-wee Herman in a movie, hired Burton to direct Pee-wee’s Big Adventure (1985). It was a hit, and Burton scarcely looked back.

Burton’s initial success was rooted in a projection of a singular identity. He was a director capable of balancing commercial imperatives with a strong personal inflection sourced in a passion for retro 1950s and ‘60s kitsch culture, old horror movies and other disreputable genres, eccentric and often mean humour, and stories sporting losers, freaks, and outsiders recast as heroes. He connected with a hip young audience somewhat starved for flavour in the oh-so-slick ‘80s mainstream movie culture and gained cultish fervour with the next three films he made – Beetlejuice (1987), Batman (1989), and Edward Scissorhands (1990). Burton was the most mainstream-acceptable, at least at first, of a generation of director sharing similar touchstones and a similarly unstable sense of genre, delighting in blending provocation with playfulness, also including Sam Raimi, Stuart Gordon, and Peter Jackson. The rest of his career has however proven patchy. His follow-up to the hugely successful, high-style take on Batman, Batman Returns (1992), despite some potent elements, was more divisive and less successful. His best film to date, the tragicomic biopic Ed Wood (1994), and its follow-up, the gleefully sick comic alien invasion movie Mars Attacks (1996), were both box office disappointments, and his career was hampered by being drawn into an ill-fated attempt to make a Superman movie starring Nicholas Cage. Later, as his career moved into the 2000s and 2010s, Burton became more assured as a box office hand with a string of reboots, remakes, and would-be franchise-starters given a light gloss of the patented Burton black nail-polish touch, but he paid a price for this, as his movies were now often met with blank critical and former fan hostility. Sometimes the dismissal has been deserved, sometimes not.

Whilst a great number of Burton’s films interpolate imagery and ideas harvested from Horror cinema – Batman applied lashings of Expressionist paint to the superhero film and did the same with Edward Scissorhands to a blend of romantic fairy-tale and John Waters-esque suburban satire – few of his movies have actually, properly belong to the genre. Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007) did, but with the conceit of being a musical too, whilst Beetlejuice and Dark Shadows (2012) crossbred Horror with roguish comedy. Sleepy Hollow, released in 1999, is the closest he’s come to date to make a straight-up Horror film, and even it’s as much camp parody and action film as Horror. It is nonetheless one of Burton’s best films – indeed the one I enjoy most purely of his work save Ed Wood – and a last hurrah in paying tribute to the old-fashioned gothic horror style. The film, written by Andrew Kevin Walker who had a major success writing David Fincher’s 1996 hit Se7en with its adolescent grunge moralism, was originally slated to be a low-budget potboiler to be directed by makeup effects artist Kevin Yagher, who finished up serving in that capacity as well as co-producing when Burton came on board, whilst Francis Ford Coppola was loosely involved in the same capacity. Burton set about transforming the inherited project into a wildly stylish tribute to old Hammer and Universal Horror movies and Mario Bava films, shooting it in England and mostly on sets.

Irving’s story had been filmed many times before, most memorably as a portion of the 1949 animated Disney film The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad (where it was partnered with an episode taken from The Wind and the Willows). ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow’ chapter exemplified the old Disney’s brilliance at animation and willingness to conjure ghoulish imagery for a young audience. Burton inserts some visual references to the Disney take into his, including the famous climactic image of the headless horseman hurling a hollow jack o’lantern at Ichabod, blazing maw and eyes looming at the camera. Burton’s Sleepy Hollow nonetheless goes off on a tangent from straightforward adaptation, taking the basics of the Irving style whilst crossbreeding them with aspects of the nascent steampunk branch of fantastical fiction, fascinated by anachronistic but theoretically possible anticipations of modern technology and social attitudes in period settings, and detective story. Ichabod is portrayed as not a teacher but a policeman interested in sifting clues and deduction at a time when maintaining law and order was a very simple, brutal affair, and he’s flung into the mystery of headless horseman’s murderous maraudings.

The film’s pre-title sequences open on wealthy Sleepy Hollow landowner Peter Van Garrett (Martin Landau), after busily preparing and sealing a legal document, setting out in a coach driven by his son Dirk (Robert Sella) from his house to town. As they pass through his fields filled with growing corn and overlooked by a creepy scarecrow with a jack o’lantern head, Peter overhears the neigh of a horse and the ring of a steel blade, and looks out to see his son has been decapitated. Leaping from the coach, Peter retreats into the corn, only to be chased down by an unseen assailant and likewise left headless. Meanwhile in Manhattan, Ichabod (Johnny Depp), a constable with the New York Police, fishes a corpse out of the Hudson River, but his desire to make a pathology examination to determine the cause of death is foiled by a dismissive High Constable (Alun Armstrong). When he protests to a presiding judge (Christopher Lee), the judge, irritated by Ichabod’s radicalism, challenges him to accept the assignment of travelling to Sleepy Hollow and investigate the murders of the two Van Garretts and another local, the Widow Winship. Ichabod accepts, and travels north, finding lodging with another major local landowner, Baltus Van Tassel (Michael Gambon), with his comely new wife Mary (Miranda Richardson) and grown-up daughter Katrina (Christina Ricci) from his previous marriage.

The core joke of Sleepy Hollow is that whilst its version of Ichabod Crane now occupies the role of man of action and incisive intellectual vision, equal prototype for Sherlock Holmes, Van Helsing, and Dirty Harry and conflating two centuries of pulp fiction heroes, he’s actually, essentially the same timorous, incongruous figure Irving created. Burton wields the disparity to mock a familiar kind of genre hero whilst also presenting the story of how Ichabod grows into the role, at least as far as he can. Upon arrival in Sleepy Hollow, Ichabod cringes before gruesome sights, gulps when people warn him about the horseman, is bullied by local jock Brom (Casper Van Dien), and leaps up on a chair when he spies a spider crawling across his room’s floor. He bears mysterious scars on his hands that bespeak a hidden trauma in his past motivating his determination, against all his physical and emotional reflexes, to take on evil and prove a force for rational good, and so attacks the problems before him with all the fortitude and purpose he can muster. His attempts to wield his hand-crafted medical tools in his investigations invariably result in aniety and revulsion from onlookers and a lot of mess. His methods, including play-acting the role of the killer’s giant horse as he inspects the ground around a victim’s corpse and notes the meaning of the hoof-prints, generally make him look rather barmy to the bewildered and frightened locals. The Sleepy Hollow denizens keep telling Ichabod about the horseman, but Ichabod as a rationalist refuses to believe this, until he’s presented with the terrifying sight the black-clad rider in full murderous charge.

In similar fashion, Sleepy Hollow enlarges upon aspects of the Irving story to weave an involved plot and make thematic capital out of the idea of the ghosts of the Revolutionary War and the colonial age not yet at rest. Baltus narrates the tale of the horseman to Ichabod, whereupon Burton interpolates a marvellous flashback that evokes the theatrical artificiality of early cinema, with jostling muskets and bayonets of clashing armies in the foreground and the mounted Hessian lurking beyond against an expressionistically stylised set full of sturm-und-drung. The Hessian is glimpsed, played by a wittily cast (and unbilled) Christopher Walken without dialogue, as a ferocious warrior who’s filed his teeth into monstrous fangs: even before he’s killed and resurrected, the Hessian’s desire is to become a perfect beast of war. Burton segues from this stylised hellishness to a scene of hallucinatory beauty infiltrated by a diseased presence: the Hessian is chased into snowy woods by Continental soldiers, where he encounters two children, blonde sisters, one of who gives away his position. The Hessian fights with all his ferocity and kills many foes, but is finally skewered, beheaded, and his corpse dumped in a grave.

Burton, through his streamlined flow of gorgeous imagery, reaches here through a recreation of a highly stylised silent film aesthetic which itself was drawn from stage performance and shadow puppet theatre, before conjuring the ironic fairy-tale setting as backdrop to the Hessian’s defeat. Later in the film Burton notes a young boy fascinated by the flitting images of witches and ghouls cast out by his magic lantern. This brief vignette nonetheless allows Burton to note the grand tradition of entertainment by frightful frisson and invocation of the uncanny that reaches back far beyond the age of cinema, and the film’s entire form manages to encapsulate an animated history of that tradition without sacrificing narrative flow and coherence. A bauble Ichabod inherited from his mother, which he shows to Katrina, creates an optical illusion of a bird alternating between being caged and freed: Katrina amusedly calls it magic whilst Ichabod insists it’s science, and of course it’s also the distant prototype for cinema itself, the combination of both.

Meanwhile the casting makes immediate connections with the movie tradition Burton’s having a ball recreating, first and foremost with Lee’s early cameo (commencing his late career revival extended by The Lord of the Rings films and George Lucas’ Star Wars prequels, as well as Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, 2005, all of which would help to make Lee technically the top box office star of 2006) and his Dracula (1958) costar Michael Gough, who Burton brought into the blockbuster age by casting him as Alfred in Batman, playing Sleepy Hollow notary Hardenbrook. The rest of the coterie of noble gentlemen comprising Sleepy Hollow’s powers-that-be are filled out by a notable gang of character actors, including Gambon, Richard Griffiths as the town’s frightened and boozy Magistrate, Samuel Philipse, Ian McDiarmid as local doctor Thomas Lancaster, and Jeffrey Jones as Paster Steenwyck. This collective of familiar faces lets Burton nudge whodunit territory, as the question of who resurrected the Hessian and has now unleashed him on seemingly random residents of the town becomes Ichabod’s preoccupying quandary. And also in pure whodunit territory is the solution to that as the one notable person who seems to hover on the fringes.

Ichabod arrives at the Van Tassel manse as Baltus is throwing as Ichabod arrives, and strangeness is already lurking the shadows, as Ichabod glimpses a silhouetted couple snogging on the porch. Inside the house, Ichabod first encounters Katrina as she plays blind-man’s-bluff and catches Ichabod as he tries to pass by, giving him a kiss “on account” much to the chagrin of her suitor Brom. “Young man you are welcome,” Baltus says to Ichabod as he plays the happy host, “Even if you are selling something.” Ichabod reveals his purpose, casting a pall over proceedings, and the village gentlemen try to explain the situation to the policeman. When he’s installed in an attic room, serving girl Sarah (Jessica Oyelowo) tells Ichabod “Thank god you’ve come!”, to his swivel-eyed disquiet, and within a short time a former servant of Van Garrett, Jonathan Masbath (Mark Spalding), is killed by the horseman whilst on guard duty awaiting its appearance. On a tip from Philipse, Ichabod soon exhumes the other victims of the horseman and finds, to his revulsion, that the killer not only beheaded the Widow Winship but also her unborn child inside her womb with a deft sword thrust.

One night as he walks through the village, Ichabod is terrorised by what seems to be the horseman, carrying a jack o’lantern, only to be hit by it and knocked silly whilst the rider is revealed to be Brom, playing a prank with some hastily contrived disguise. This vignette, as well as sporting nods to the Disney version, refers back to the Irving story, which left events purposefully vague, so that Ichabod might well have been scared off by Brom in the horseman’s guise rather than killed by the ghoul. When Ichabod confronts Philipse as he’s trying to flee town, the horseman rides out of the fog and beheads the Magistrate, but leaves Ichabod alone to faint away in fright. After battling through his shock, Ichabod finds himself taking in Masbath’s son (Mark Pickering) as a servant, and the two venture into the reputedly haunted western woods where the Hessian was buried. Along the way, they spy someone following them, which proves to be Katrina, valiantly determined to stick with them. They also encounter a witch who keeps her face hidden by a veil, who summons a demonic entity to possess her and give Ichabod some pointers of where to seek out the Hessian’s grave, at what she calls “the Tree of the Dead.”

After departing hastily, Ichabod and his two companions soon locate the grave under its unmistakeable marker, a black, gnarled tree that sprang up and died since the Hessian’s burial and still has his sword wedged in its roots, which also conceal a portal stuffed with the severed heads of the horseman’s victims and concealing a portal to Hell. As Ichabod digs up the Hessian’s skeleton he finds its skull is missing. The supernatural entity itself bursts from the heart of the tree and pounds off through the forest in search of another victim, with Ichabod giving chase. The Hessian’s next target proves to be a midwife, Beth Killian (Claire Skinner) and her husband (Steven Waddington): the horseman bursts into their house and swiftly slays both. Burton, never averse to risking some real darkness even in his playful films, provides a brief, black-hearted send-up of the climax of Aliens (1986) as the Skinners’ young son Thomas (Sean Stephens) tries to elude the horseman by crawling about under the floorboards, only for the ghoul to smash through the floorboards and claim the lad’s head for his bag of trophies. Ichabod arrives just as Brom confronts the Hessian, and the two men try to bring him down, but the headless monster soon cuts Brom in half and leaves Ichabod with a sword wound, instantly cauterised by the blade’s devilish heat.

All of this unfolds in Burton’s updated version of the kinds of gnarled, fogbound, permanently autumnal rural landscapes seen in the old Universal Horror films like Bride of Frankenstein (1935) and The Wolf Man (1941), and similarly creating the oppressive atmosphere by shooting on cleverly dressed sets. The attempt to recreate the old soundstage Horror style had been presaged by Neil Jordan’s The Company of Wolves (1984) and Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992), but where those directors approached the aesthetic with a kind of art installation-like self-consciousness, Burton entirely enters into the logic of the world he conjures. Burton’s nods to classic Horror history are plentiful and mostly cleverly kneaded into the story. The windmill that provides the setting for part of the climax is based on the one seen at the end of The Brides of Dracula (1960). The scene in which young Ichabod discovers his mother locked in an iron maiden ticks off both Roger Corman’s Pit and the Pendulum (1961), Bava’s La Maschera del Demonio (1960), and Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980), as the mother’s eyes stare out of the steel prison before her hole-ridden face is unleashed in a flood of gore. Burton and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki first considered making Sleepy Hollow in black-and-white, before adopting a compelling visual texture, largely desaturated and rendered in shades of grey, save for careful deployments of colour, where the black thatch of Ichabod’s hair swallows light whilst the blonde tresses of Katrina seem to exude it.

Sleepy Hollow came out at a time when CGI was making movie special effects increasingly sophisticated and the magic lantern show all the more seamless. Burton was able to portray the headless horseman (with stuntman Ray Park playing the headless Hessian) without the kind of awkward costuming effects used in something like The Mysterious Doctor (1943) with its headless ghost, or the infamous ‘Chopper’ episode of Kolchak: The Night Stalker with its poorly realised variation on the horseman as a headless motorcyclist. He was also able to juice up the various beheadings with flourishes largely impossible prior to the CGI era, like one head getting hacked off and spinning about like a top on the severed neck. The felicity of this is debatable. The more cartoonish effects, particularly those used in Ichabod’s encounter with the witch feels like they came out of a different movie, giving the slight impression Burton was anxious about selling a neo-gothic horror movie to a mass audience without the crutch of absurd-flecked spectacle. But the special effects are also used to real effect at points too. When the Hessian comes to claim the elder Masbath, tendrils of drifting mist seem to reach out and extinguish burning torches. In the climax, the horseman, restoring his reclaimed skull, regrows all the flesh on his head.

Sleepy Hollow exhibits much of Burton’s imaginative genius, and also some of his niggling faults, if here kept in proportion. His tendency to take the edge off his gore effects by emphasising black comedy messiness to them, with Ichabod constantly getting spurting bodily fluids over himself, cuts against the grain of the fetishised majesty of the old-school genre trappings and the essential seriousness of the story: the character comedy based in Ichabod’s anxious heroism works far better. Burton seems here to have been trying to live up to the example of some of his generational fellows who came out of their own, hand-crafted cinema and wielded a harder edge to their deliriously funny, transgressive use of gore. On the other hand, Burton’s indulgence in this regard is arguably authentic in exemplifying the tradition of the Grand Guignol approach to Horror, specialising in both provoking and delighting an audience with spectacles of absurd bloodshed. Burton’s occasional problems with tone, a tendency that helped and harmed his Batman films with their sharp swerves from comic jauntiness to sleazy violence, also manifests at points.

The film never affects to be an authentic period piece, but rather a wry meditation on the emergence of modernity’s earliest glimmers from the pall of history, with both the wielders of religious authority and black magicians indicted as two sides of the same coin. The New York constabulary is seen showing off medieval torture machines even as Ichabod is trying to invent pathology and detective method at least seventy years early. “The millennium is almost upon us!” Ichabod declares to the judge early in the film, trying to inject future-shock promise into a moment still slithering out of medievalism. This connects with Burton’s recurring flourishes regarding the roots of cinema. This in turn feeds into Burton’s semi-sarcastic exploration of the familiar genre tension between rationalism and superstition, which he couches in terms of his established interest in damaged heroes. Burton’s emphasis on the formative backstory and resulting psychological dance of gallantry and derangement in the hero of Batman did much to define the obsession with such things in contemporary storytelling: heroes without backstories to overcomes in their character arcs are compulsory now where they were essentially pretexts in classic genre literature. Here, Ichabod experiences dreamily-styled flashbacks, all provoked by moments of shock and wounding as his travails in Sleepy Hollow forcing him to reckon with his past. It slowly emerges that his father, Lord Crane (Peter Guinness), had his mother (Lisa Marie) tortured and killed for practicing her own brand of white magic.

Burton saves particularly vivid stylisation for these fragmentary visions which contains hues of colour bled out of the rest of the film, portraying glimmering fairy-tale wonder giving way to awful nightmarish menace as the story unfolds, and childhood perspective gives way to adult, a state Burton essentially regards as less the achievement of maturity than the result of constant, scar-forming wounding. This idea is made literal as the scars on Ichabod’s hands came from gripping spiked torture implements in his shock at finding his mother locked in the iron maiden. Ichabod’s attempts to stand for reason and justice are rooted in his “bible-black tyrant” of a father’s killing of his “child of nature” mother, grievous patriarchy exterminating magical maternalism. A pattern Ichabod can’t help falling into again when his logic and the nature of appearances leads him to misunderstand Katrina’s attempts to protect him with her own white magic.

Katrina’s stoked memories of childhood are happier than Ichabod’s, recalling spending an idyllic time with her parents when they were poor tenants on Van Garrett land. Katrina takes Ichabod to the ruins of the cottage where they lived and points out to Ichabod an archer carved into the fireplace, an emblem that proves to have crucial meaning in the mystery of the horseman. Meanwhile Ichabod’s investigations uncover varying levels of greed, lust, cowardice, double-dealing, and manipulation convulsing through the Sleepy Hollow denizens, as when he follows Mary out into the woods when he sees her acting furtively, and beholds the spectacle of her screwing Steenwyck on a bed of clammy autumn leaves, slicing her hand open with a dagger and rubbing her blood on his back in a sex magick rite. Notary Hardenbrook quite literally hides in the closet to avoid being interviewed by Ichabod, and the detective finds him in possession of Van Garrett’s legal documents, which he claims and finds to be a will. During a brainstorming session in his room, Ichabod scribbles down random notes on paper without noticing they accrue to say, quite accurately, “the secret conspiracy point to Baltus,” as indeed all the horseman’s killings seem to have left Baltus as heir to the Van Garrett estate. Ichabod’s digging soon causes a rift between him and Katrina, who warns Ichabod her father isn’t that kind of man.

The unfolding mystery finally combusts when Baltus sees the horseman advancing on Mary as she collects ingredients for herbal medicine, and, assuming the ghoul kills her, flees to the town just as the denizens are collecting in the church. Chaos ensues in a brilliantly choreographed and filmed sequence, as the besieged villagers try to fend off the Hessian as he rides around the church, held out of consecrated ground but looking for some means to nab his prey Baltus. Meanwhile Steenwyck beats Lancaster to death when the doctor tries to warn Baltus he’s been the victim of a conspiracy, and Baltus shoots Steenwyck. Katrina urgently draws a talismanic symbol on the church floor with a piece of chalk. Finally the cunning Hessian makes a lance with a fencepost, ties a rope to it, and spears Baltus through the window, pulling him out of the church and across the grass to the fence line so the ghoul can claim his head. Katrina faints, and, in a glorious high tracking shot, Burton surveys the scene of sprawled bodies and the taunting emblem of Katrina’s magic, which seems to all to have been the invocation whipping up the horseman. Only later, as he prepares to depart Sleepy Hollow in sullen defeat and disillusion, determined to protect Katrina but also convinced she was his puppeteer, does Ichabod, twirling the bird bauble, realise he’s fallen prey to a game of illusions. Quickly enough he realises that the apparently killed Mary is the real puppeteer, having slain the servant Sarah and substituted her body for her own. Meanwhile Mary has appeared to Katrina, knocked her out, and spirited her to the windmill she uses as a base for her witchcraft.

Richardson’s fabulous performance, once properly unleashed, expertly juggles the diverging urges between camp melodrama and hard urgency manifest throughout the film, as Mary explains her plot with relish to Katrina, who is the last person standing between her and ownership of Sleepy Hollow. Her motive was vengeance for her family’s eviction from the cottage, which her father built, the archer symbol in the fireplace a reference to their family name of Archer. She and her twin sister were the two girls who encountered the Hessian, and Mary the one who brought about his death, and whilst the sister became the hermitic witch of the forest, Mary set about mastering black magic to resurrect the horseman and use him n her plot to kill off all potential alternative heirs to the Van Garrett and Van Tassel estates. Mary’s triumphal monologue succeeds in unifying the conventions of the whodunit, with the whys and hows of Mary’s campaign illustrated in a cascade of flashbacks and glimpsed vignettes, including of her murdering her sister and seducing Steenwyck, and a raft of bloody, bizarre business befitting a Horror movie. Mary’s revelations present her as a companion and counterpoint to Ichabod as another survivor of traumatic formative experiences driven to wage a private war with the world, but her informed by class rage and a psychopathic streak all her own – she’s established as already a bit of bitch when she betrays the Hessian – and evil, murderous rather than protective and empowering ends in mind. Burton would repeat the motif of the witchy avenger of social wrongs wielding sympathetic motives but ugly and egocentric method in Dark Shadows.

Depp has lost a lot of paint in the past few years after being accused of abusiveness in his personal life, legal wrangles, and too many goddamned Pirates of the Caribbean movies. Nonetheless it must be said that Sleepy Hollow was a fitting cap for the period he spent through most of the 1990s as the most interesting and adventurous leading man in Hollywood, and when his and Burton’s regular collaborations were still events. In Sleepy Hollow he gives one of the best lead performances in a Horror movie, dynamic in sustaining both the comic and serious aspects to his characterisation. His Ichabod, wielding a deft English accent, is reminiscent after a fashion of Christopher Reeve’s similarly good bipolar performance in Superman (1978), the would-be man of reason and boldness suffering as his whole body tenses up, nostrils thinning to tight slits and mouth twisting glumly, as he is faced with sights gruesome and fantastical. He strikes a Peter Sellers-esque figure as Ichabod constantly suggests his wits aren’t quite as keen as he fancies them. Nonetheless Ichabod fights through all his anxieties and limitations and evolves into a classical swashbuckling hero, even if he does still hide behind his girlfriend and faint dead away at the drama’s end. Ricci was just trying to break her way out of her child star mode with his first adult lead, and she’s a bit awkward in the role, particularly as Burton cast her as a complete inversion of her name-making role as the mordant Wednesday in Barry Sonnenfeld’s Burton-derivative The Addams Family films. That said, with her huge eyes contrasting her new blonde locks, Ricci undoubtedly seems perfectly at home in Burton’s world, and presents an interesting blend of innocent romanticism and nascent canniness reminiscent of Sarah Jessica Parker’s role as a swiftly evolving, era-conflating emblem in Ed Wood.

After his relatively lackadaisical action scenes in the Batman films, the action staging in Sleepy Horror represented a leap in craft and ingenuity for Burton – the mid-film fight with the Hessian and the climactic battles are some of the best-crafted scenes of their kind of the last few decades, kinetic whilst completely coherent. The climax commences with Ichabod and the horseman converging on the windmill, where Young Masbath manages to knock Mary out, and Ichabod, Katrina, and the boy try to elude by climbing up through the mill and returning to the ground by riding its sails, whilst Ichabod sets fire to the structure, which explodes as the wafting flour ignites. “Is he dead?” Young Masbath questions as the trio gaze back on the fiery ruin. “That’s the problem – he was dead to begin with,” Ichabod admits, and when the horseman emerges unharmed they flee in Ichabod’s carriage, chased through the haunted forest by the Hessian. This sequence, with its canted camera angles and looming, fearsome imagery, is a particularly triumph for Lubezki, and the highpoint of action staging in Burton’s career, working in elements of wild slapstick amidst the wild, careening struggle as Ichabod tries to keep the horseman at bay long enough to give Katrina and the boy a chance to escape, before the carriage crashes close to the Tree of the Dead.

The idea of blending horror and action is much more familiar now, and whilst Sleepy Hollow didn’t spark a new craze for gothic horror revivalism, it did, along with Jackson’s The Frighteners (1997) and Stephen Sommers’ The Mummy (1999), give directors licence to mate action and horror in interesting and often popular ways: Paul W.S. Anderson’s Resident Evil (2002) and sequels, Neil Marshall’s Dog Soldiers (2002) and The Descent (2006), Zack Snyder’s remake of Dawn of the Dead (2004), Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later (2005), and Marc Forster’s World War Z (2013) all arguably owe something to Burton’s example as they strove to render once fairly benign manifestations of horror tropes into newly fast, ferocious, and spectacle-friendly creations. The French director Christoph Gans was bolder in building on Burton’s example with his marvellous Brotherhood of the Wolf (2001) and Beauty and the Beast (2014), likewise blending lush genre imagery with aspects of swashbuckling and even kung fu. It also kicked off a simmering penchant for movies reconfiguring familiar public domain stories into odd generic blends, manifest in fare like Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (2010) and Pride + Prejudice + Zombies (2016). A less than beneficial influence sometimes then perhaps, although I like both those movies.

The actual climactic confrontation is nonetheless close to perfect. After barely surviving the chase, the three heroes are confronted by Mary, who catches up on horseback, and the horseman by the Tree of the Dead. Before the Hessian can behead Katrina at Mary’s command, Ichabod tosses the Hessian his skull. Regaining his complete form and his hellish will, the Horseman picks up Mary and gives her a rather intense kiss – he eats her tongue out of her mouth, and rides with her bloody-mawed into the portal to hell under the tree. Magnificently ghoulish stuff, with a charge of perverse sexuality married to intimate nastiness, redolent of the kind of folkloric horror Burton and Irving reference. Mary’s hand is left protruding from the roots, beckoning in a last gesture of taunting humour, a sight that finally causes Ichabod to black out. Still, a little while later he with new bride Katrina and Young Masbath as servant travel back to New York, where Ichabod pre-writes Leonard Bernstein (“The Bronx is up, the Battery’s down, and home is this way!”) and escorts his new family through the newly cleansed, forward-looking Manhattan streets, all cosmic forces in new if only momentary harmony – man and woman, magic and science, past and future. Whilst it is uneven, it’s precisely for its bold and vigorous juggling act with both the imagery and the ideas of the genre that help Sleepy Hollow remain a rare achievement in modern Horror cinema.

Standard
2020s, Action-Adventure, Horror/Eerie, Scifi

Nope (2022)

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Director / Screenwriter: Jordan Peele

By Roderick Heath

Here there be spoilers…

Jordan Peele’s latest film, Nope opens with a pair of seemingly unrelated scenes. First we get a glimpse of a TV studio, filled with signs of bloodshed and rampage, a bashful-looking, bloody-pawed chimpanzee seated amidst the mess. Next comes a bucolic moment in the sun for father and son horse ranchers Otis Haywood (Keith David) and his son Otis Jnr, or OJ (Daniel Kaluuya) as he’s found himself problematically stuck with being called: we see OJ going about his usual morning business of letting out the horses and exercising them, before chatting with his old man, who’s already mounted up. The two men are preparing for a TV show performance on star horse Lucky, which they hope will rescue their ranch from financial doldrums. The scene is shattered as a seemingly random shower of hard metal objects falls from the sky. A coin hits Otis in the eye, and he dies as OJ rushes him to the hospital. Cut to a few months later, as OJ uneasily tries to get on with his professional life by wrangling Lucky on the TV set, only for the horse to be irritated by a crewman and kick out dangerously. OJ is obliged to rely on his sister Emerald (Keke Palmer), whose gregarious enthusiasm as a wannabe show biz player contrasts his sullen, taciturn, quietly grieving manner and fateful lack of assertive strength, but Emerald doesn’t want to be stuck with her brother in a failing business. OJ has been propping up the business by selling horses to a neighbouring ranch, the prosperous and popular Jupiter’s Claim, run by former child actor Ricky ‘Jupe’ Park (Steven Yeun) and his wife Amber (Wrenn Schmidt).

That night, one of the horses, Ghost, bolts into the dark, dusty, hilly landscape around the ranch. Chasing after Ghost, OJ hears Jupe’s voice on a loudspeaker in the distance whilst the horse gives an unearthly shriek, and glimpses a large, strange object moving fast through the sky above, whilst a rolling blackout afflicts the locale. Convinced he’s seen a UFO, OJ and Emerald buy a new surveillance system for the ranch, and the morose IT salesperson, Angel (Brandon Perea), who sells and installs the equipment becomes increasingly interested and involved as he’s a UFO freak. They also try to interest the acclaimed cinematographer Antlers Holst (Michael Wincott), who they met on the TV shoot, as they feel only he might be able to get photographic evidence of this scary phenomenon. As the enigmatic situation begins to resolve, the Haywoods are eventually faced with alarming proof that the UFO is actually some kind of living organism that eagerly eats just about anything placed in its path, and that Jupe not only knows about its presence, but even seems to be trying to make it part of his act, luring it down to his ranch with free lunches, being OJ’s horses.

New York-born Peele was best known for many years as a comic writer and actor. After dropping out of college to start a comedy act with future writing collaborator Rebecca Drysdale and spending some time with the famous Second City comedy troupe, Peele gained his big break as a performer on the sketch comedy show Mad TV in the early 2000s. Later he teamed up with another Black comedian, Keegan-Michael Key, for their cable TV show Key & Peele (2012–2015). The duo wrote, produced, and starred in the film Keanu (2016), and Peele made his standalone debut as director with the 2017 Horror film Get Out, a film that represented for the most part an apparently radical switch of vision for Peele, offering a woozy, unsettling blend of social and racial satire and straight-edged Horror and thriller stuff.


That film’s huge popular and critical success came in the immediate aftermath of Donald Trump’s election as US President, seemingly on the back of a new reactionary feeling swiftly met by a bold progressive backlash, and Get Out, along with the Ryan Coogler’s successes with Creed (2015) and Black Panther (2018), seemed to announce a new mainstream hunger for films made by African-American filmmakers with a presumed, concomitant authenticity in needling racial and social angst. Peele’s success with Get Out was cunning in that regard, with his narrative of young Black man whose white girlfriend proves to be luring him in for her family to use in their business of swapping brains between bodies: Peele expertly made the mass audience empathise with his hero’s terror of having his identity erased and subsumed by representatives of a larger assimilating culture because it’s all the rage at the moment to be Black. He also deftly skewered and, ironically and if in all likelihood semi-accidentally, appealed to the white liberal guilt, portraying the wicked family not as overt racists but rather smiling, virtue-signalling bourgeois progressives pretending to be all cool with the new multiculturalism.

Peele has since become, with startling swiftness, a pop culture brand, evinced with his follow-up film Us (2019), through producing a refurbished take on TV’s The Twilight Zone and a reboot-cum-sequel of the 1990s cult film Candyman (2021), and now Nope. Peele is with increasingly plainness trying to position himself as an inheritor to talents writers like Rod Serling, Ray Bradbury, and Stephen King, with their penchant for depicting disturbing intrusions of the outlandish and the mysterious into exceptionally ordinary locales in tales touched with a mystique of fable. He also joins the ranks of directors anointing themselves as inheritors of Steven Spielberg, with his gifts as an orchestrator of the fantastic and of cinematic space for maximum audience impact. The traps in trying to occupy such a cultural crossroads were well-charted by M. Night Shyamalan in the 2000s. Peele’s chief proposition as a new and improved successor to Shyamalan is that he brings a less veiled approach to the metaphors inherent in those fable-narratives, with his specific perspective, which can keep his stories from dissolving into bombast: the idea that Peele’s critiquing gestures really mean something, rather than simply offering the usual glossy wrap of pseudo-meaning over the usual Hollywood bombast, is a big part of his cachet.

At the same time, Peele has also shown savvy commercial instincts. Get Out resisted going anywhere near as dark and mean as it might have, and whilst Us embraced a more surreal and allegorical aesthetic, also only took it so far: in the end it was still, mostly, the story of a threatened nuclear family winning through against erupting boogeymen. Nor were they so sharp a pivot from his previous metier of comedy as they might seem superficially. Get Out had a simmering sense of satirical bite and drollery throughout, such as the famous liberal cliche utterances of the white family’s patriarch (Bradley Whitford), like how he would’ve voted for Barack Obama a third time, and an encounter with one of their victims, the body of a young black man now inhabited by an old white bourgeois, that was pure sitcom shtick. Both Get Out and Us were preoccupied by imposters, absorption, and doppelgangers, concerns he took a few steps further in Us where the central family were confronted by chthonic lookalikes, representing a kind of shadow realm of the oppressed and excluded, with the ultimate twist proving that the mother is herself an escaped double, having forcibly swapped places with her overworld counterpart, who is now leading the buried horde in revenge.

Nope tries to move on a degree from the preoccupations of Peele’s first two films, which is both a good idea in theory but in practice one that doesn’t work so well for him. Nope strongly recalls Shyamalan’s Signs (2002): like that film it depicts an alien invasion, constantly teased in oblique and fleeting ways before finally resolving into a heroic tale of little people standing up to cosmic menace. Peele’s story and style are however better described as an oddball forced mating of Jaws (1975) and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), borrowing many beats from each: the incredible, elusive visitor from the sky is also the territorial man-eating monster. Peele, despite his success thus far, occupies a potentially hazardous place in contemporary screen culture. He has been so eagerly embraced as a figure that many felt American film desperately needed that everything he does has to be met as either total greatness or risk sour disillusionment, rather than simply being a new and talented genre film voice. Well, the first third of Nope is quite strong – indeed, whilst watching it I felt the film was shaping up as Peele’s best yet. He expertly creates, as he did in the fairground prologue of Us, a mood of cryptic menace and simmering tension whilst playing patient games with perspective, as OJ and Emerald keep getting fleeting hints of the nature of their strange and malevolent new neighbour. Peele uses sound well, particularly in the suggestive gruesome shrieks of the horses echoing down from the sky after being swallowed. In one particularly effective and creepy sequence, OJ is menaced by what look like humanoid alien creatures stalking him around his darkened stables at night, only to realise they’re just Jupe and Amber’s teenage sons in costume, playing a prank as payback for Emerald stealing one of their horse statues to use as bait for the alien.

The title’s blunt, folksy quality is constantly uttered by characters throughout, mostly when confronted by sights that confound their sense of reality and set off a profound war of impulses on the basic level of fight or flight. It also signals the way the film seems constantly at odds with itself, toying with being a kind of send-up rooted in a particular tenor of Black scepticism, whilst also trying to reap the popular benefits of a good old Spielbergian ride. I’ve suspected that Peele might get into trouble when he tried more boldly to crossbreed his penchant for horror with his reflexes as a comedic writer. Not in the sense that he tries to apply too much humour to Nope – in fact it could do with more humour than it has, and might have been better pitched as a blend of laughs and suspense like, say, Tremors (1990) – but he applies a fondness for unexpected segues and bizarre pivots to his essentially straight-laced core story. The most significant subplot of Nope involves Jupe’s experience as a child actor, specifically the infamous incident on a sitcom called Gordy’s Home which he featured on in the ‘90s, opposite a trained chimpanzee who played the titular Gordy, and the two of them “invented” their signature gesture of an exploding fist-bump. But Gordy went berserk during filming one day thanks to some random fright, and brutally killed several of Jupe’s costars. Peele keeps teasing this event through snatched glimpses, including right at the start and then a brief vision of the terrified young Jupe (Jacob Kim) hiding under a table and trying not to attract the crazed animal’s attention. Peele effectively employs this vignette after Jupe has wriggled out of recounting the event to the Haywoods during a business meeting. Jupe instead takes refuge in talking up a Saturday Night Live skit that made dark sport of the incident.

This segue has some evident personal meaning and insider referential appeal for Peele as a wry glance into the world of TV he emerged from, bringing up once-famous, half-forgotten comedy stars like Chris Kattan. Jupe mythologises the greatness of the skit before the trauma he’s trying to suppress is then seen by the audience. Later, Peele gives a more sustained version of Jupe’s memory, his perspective on the event used to avoid showing gory detail whilst still putting across a grim sense of the event’s dreadful violence. Eventually the resolution is presented: Gordy approaches Jupe not to attack but to seek their signature gesture, the ape suddenly just a pathetic, frightened animal needing its costar’s assurance, only for the ape to be gunned down, his blood spraying across Jupe’s face. This portion of Nope is striking and the film’s highpoint in many ways: it’s a more effective moment of restrained horror than the more accidentally silly depiction of people being sucked into the interior of the alien. But Gordy’s rampage isn’t convincing or realistic in its details. Peele requires a CGI chimp to impersonate that kind of deadly ferocity, and we’re forced to wonder why there wasn’t an animal wrangler on the set. Also, the way the fake portions we see of Gordy’s Home lampoons a style of family sitcom that died with the ‘80s, although admittedly Peele does an uncanny job recreating that style. It made me wonder if this was a sketch Peele wrote out and, realising there was no way in hell he could get it made as a feature, decided to weave it into this script.

How this aspect of the story connects to the rest of Nope is tangential but, to be fair, also suggestive. Peele hints Jupe has a pathological need to get close to another monster and make it the star of another act of showbiz hoopla, as if to prove even the wildest, strangest, most inhuman thing can be made amenable to the pleasures of being a celebrity. Holst later makes this idea more literal when he notes the sad fate of tiger-taming performers Siegfried and Roy. When the Gordy element is connected with OJ’s unfortunate sobriquet, it seems Peele’s trying to make a mea culpa-tinged point about the industry of comedy making sport of all kinds of tragic stuff such as was rife in ‘90s American TV culture. This is interesting, but it quickly reaps multiplying problems. Firstly, it makes Jupe a more interesting and indeed more detailed character than the Haywoods, privileging his background and formative experiences with vivid and galvanising power, and yet Peele keeps Jupe a peripheral and blandly executed figure. He should be the focus, a beaming, televisually canny Ahab stirring up monsters. With Nope the lurking point of all this is at once obvious and feebly interrogated: it proposes to be about the nature of spectacle itself, of show business and performance and reality and authenticity in age where those things have become perhaps irreparably blurred. This is literalised by having the monster attracted by being looked at, whilst its presence causes electrical systems to fail, making filming it extremely difficult. Our heroes then must find a way of both looking and not looking at the alien: they most pointedly cannot gaze on in awe like Spielberg’s people.

To this end, after Angel’s security cameras fail, the Haywoods turn to Holst, a portentous being who sits around watching nature documentary footage of predators chasing and consuming prey – thematics are being underlined, dig. Wincott brings his long-neglected but still-persuasive gravel-voiced gravitas to a role that’s pitched as Werner Herzog playing the Quint role, but he’s stuck with a one-dimensional part. His final act of self-annihilating consequence – “We don’t deserve the impossible,” he utters gnomically to Angel before venturing up to get the ultimate shot of being sucked up into the alien’s maw – aims for a note of crazy, nihilistic bravado but feels more like, once more, Peele taking an easy way out of resolving one of his story elements with some shallow portent. Angel himself, winningly played by Perea, is in many ways the film’s most vivid and believable presence, a shambolic character still processing a bad break-up and taking refuge in nerdy frippery. He attaches himself to the reluctant Haywoods to become an unshakeable if jumpy collaborator in their hunt. Both he and Emerald are driven frantic when a praying mantis insists on perching itself before one of their new surveillance cameras just as the UFO appears.

Nope essentially replays, in less funny and snappy fashion, the driving joke from a portion of The Simpsons’ episode “Treehouse of Horror VI”, which depicted an onslaught by advertising signs and mascots suddenly come to life, and could only be defeated by not being looked at, a weapon ironically facilitated with an advertising jingle warbled by Paul Anka. Rather than following such a mischievously satirical bent, Peele tries an each-way bet, wanting the respectability of inferred parable and the base rewards of crowd-pleasing. Peele also steals an idea from The Trollenberg Terror (1958), as it’s eventually revealed by Angel, scanning the ranch’s security footage, that the UFO hides behind a perpetually present, stationary cloud just about the valley. The alien  itself (which I’ll call it although Peele ultimately never defines what it is), once properly glimpsed proves to be saucer-shaped but when looked at beam-on looks like a gigantic eye in the sky – thematics still being underlined, folks. Towards the end it unfolds as a diaphanously swirling thing, like a mating of kite and jellyfish, and with a square eye – the most extreme possible variation on the old parental warning to kids that too much screen time will make their eyes go square? Anyway, it’s clearly an attempt by Peele to come up with something new and interesting in movie monsters, but it just looks, well, silly.

As these misjudged ideas accumulate whilst the threat and its underpinning metaphors emerge into view, Nope, after its promising early scenes, start to slide vertiginously downhill. Where in Us Peele’s spongily fable-like underpinnings gained a certain amount of power through his filmmaking, Nope fails for the same reason. But let me define what I mean by fable, which is a seemingly simple, naïve form of storytelling that privileges the illustration of emotion, ideas, and a certain kind of dream logic over rigorous narrative. In both Get Out and Us the mechanics of Peele’s plots bore no scrutiny, for the most part deliberately, I felt. The conceit of the underground tunnels and anti-people they housed were presented as nominally present in a kind of reality but were rather an illustration of a psychological zone. It was absurd that Allison Williams’ girlfriend character in Get Out had to role-play and prostitute herself for months on end just to nab one schmuck college student, when surely it could have been accomplished in an hour. But the object there was to chart the double goad to the hero’s aspiration and anxiety about the many barbs of interracial love. If one took Peele’s films on such a level, they worked. If you didn’t, you were in trouble. As for me, well, as I often do, I hovered somewhere between.

On a more prosaic level, Nope indicates that, good as he is at building mystery and tension, Peele is still quite clumsy at orchestrating large-scale action, in a manner already hinted at with aspects of the climactic scenes of Us. We get endless shots of OJ riding around on his horse without any particular sense of his objectives or tactics, when the alien can hoover him at will. There’s an old trope in monster movies that’s been sardonically recognised by fans where incredibly dangerous and threatening forces easily decimate hapless victims in early scenes but for some reason can’t quite get to grips with the heroes because, well, they’re the heroes, and this phenomenon is so pronounced here it could represent it from now on.  Also, the plotting is almost perversely clumsy. The finale hinges on the sudden intrusion of an unwelcome visitor as the Haywoods, Angel, and Holst are trying to lure in the monster so Holst can film it on a hand-cranked camera. The visitor proves to be some jerk online journalist riding a motorcycle. His kinship with the alien as an embodiment of the voracious eye is unsubtly suggested by having him wear a crash helmet that is, like the UFO, silver and sporting one large, dark orb for vision. He soon gets himself stupidly killed, which proves fortuitous as Emerald eventually commandeers his bike to lure the alien into a trap. Was this an aim all along? Or did it just occur to Emerald? Meanwhile OJ seems to be swallowed up by the monster only to emerge unharmed later, a la Hooper in Jaws.

Peele could get away with fuzziness on story details in his earlier films because of that aforementioned fable quality. But the kind of story Nope tells lives and dies on a precise sense of how elements interact. The alien is supposed to be attracted by things that look back, and can tell when it’s being looked at by some tiny animal from a long distance, but cannot distinguish between living creatures and inanimate objects. Its kryptonite, amongst all the non-organic material it tends to suck up, proves to be small plastic string flags, which it first swallows when sucking up the horse statue around which some are wrapped. Later Emerald weaponises these indigestible things against it. Which, frankly, is damn near as a stupid as the water-kills-aliens reveal at the climax of Signs. This frustratingly points up the awkwardness of Peele trying to subsume that sweeping, compulsive blockbuster appeal whilst also maintaining a slight tint of the arbitrarily ridiculous in the unfolding action.

Peele interpolates a few of his now-familiar flourishes of racial consciousness-provoking, particularly in making the Haywoods the imagined descendants of a black jockey filmed by Eadweard Muybridge in his pioneering photographic studies, and also prominently featuring a poster for the relatively obscure but hardly suppressed Black Western Buck and the Preacher (1972). The object here is pretty patent, teasing the presence of a Black influence in cinema and its most stereotypically white American genre in particular. But part of me also wondered if Peele threw such flourishes in to make critics do the heavy lifting of inferring that he’s made some kind of profound parable, instead of a disjointed, half-digested one. Particularly in floating that dubious proposition that “everybody knows who Eadweard Muybridge is.” There’s also OJ’s name, which plays on evoking its bearer’s sense of exposure and connecting to that meditation on horror as exploited in the mass media, but also begs the question of who would keep insisting on calling their kid that when growing up in the last thirty years. There might have been some potential in the ironic portrait of Black and Asian-Americans applying their talents and identities to the cultural tradition of the Western, but again, it doesn’t progress much further than ultimately affirming OJ as a classical genre hero who looks good on a horse.

Kaluuya is a good actor – he was the visual and performative linchpin of Get Out as the bewildered, naïve, victimised protagonist, and was also great in the exact opposite kind of role as a vicious criminal in Steve McQueen’s Widows (2018). But he’s entirely miscast here playing a brooding cowboy, which makes OJ something of a nonentity. He’s supposed to be a strong, silent type who comes to life as his best gifts are provoked, but he remains out of focus. Palmer compensates with an energetic performance, even as I never quite bought Emerald as a character either. Peele presents the Haywoods as a mismatched pair of personalities, Emerald garrulous and slick, a creature geared to perform in a world of modern media, where OJ is shy and wounded and old-fashioned in his enclosed masculinity. Their chief bond is in their uneasy relationship with their father and his unpredictable, sometimes hurtful ways, ways which bound OJ closer to him and pushed Emerald on her own path but left both unfulfilled. Peele’s attempts to give them some personal totemic investment in the battle with the alien feel forced. At one point Emerald recalls how Otis Snr once proposed to give to her horse named Jean Jacket, but then took back to use on a film shoot, only for OJ to later dub the alien Jean Jacket as if to make it the embodiment of their angst.

The mixture here is of squelchy hipster humour – oh, Jean Jacket, that’s so retro and uncool – and unconvincing emotional ploys. Peele similarly has, in a visual pastiche-cum-lampoon of Quint’s monologue in Jaws, Holst sing the lyrics of “Flying Purple People Eater” in a gravely raspy way. All this is the sort of thing Peele ought sensibly have dumped on his second draft of the script, along with the plastic flags thing. Which really only points to the major lack of the film’s climactic scenes, which is any genuine sense of dramatic tension between the Haywoods in their aims in dealing with their quarry. Perhaps Emerald, in her need for validation, might have been made more and more maniacally determined to photograph the alien, whilst OJ becomes increasingly heated in his determination to simply kill the thing that eats his beloved animals and inadvertently killed his father. Instead, their relationship is by and large stated and then allowed to coast. There’s no particularly palpable sense of danger to either, which means there’s never any, genuine thrill to their eventual triumph. Much of the power of Get Out came, for me at any rate, not from the racial provocation but from the portrayal of romantic disillusionment, which culminated in the hero impotently trying to strangle his blankly treacherous lover: that was an idea, an image, a feeling, that communicated a sense of real danger.

The finale makes a big deal of Emerald finally trying to capture the alien’s photo on the old-timey tintype carousel camera that’s used a gimmicky tourist trap on Jupe’s ranch, whilst distracting and killing it by releasing a flag-bedecked balloon mascot. This touch tries to close a loop of meaning with Muybridge’s photography, and perhaps might intend to suggest the only the way to break through to true original vision is to wield a painstaking method with essential tools. Or is it just something as trite as old-timey stuff trumps modern junk? Either way, everything about this struck me as laboured. Nope holds not just the sight of the alien but most of its ideas and feelings in a kind of dip-eyed cringe, and it can’t even quite land the straightforward monster movie is essentially is. It made me long for the potency of something like Chuck Russell’s remake of The Blob (1988), which also feels like an influence in the mix here – the kind of old-school genre film that easily encompassed its revisionism and charged subtexts whilst sprinting onwards with crazy energy and careless gore. Never mind anything by Peele’s genre hero John Carpenter. Nope isn’t a bad film exactly. It’s well-made on all technical levels and for a while at least drags you along with its teases. And yet it never coheres, and by the end, rather than feeling Peele had broken through to new ground, I felt he’d made something closer to a car crash. Which might, in the end, be good for him. Peele can just be a filmmaker now.

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2000s, Action-Adventure, Auteurs, Horror/Eerie

Death Proof (2007)

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Director / Screenwriter: Quentin Tarantino

By Roderick Heath

Death Proof has been the problem child in Quentin Tarantino’s filmography since it was released, when it proved the director’s only real box office failure after the zeitgeist-inflecting success of his early work. Even Tarantino himself more or less wrote it off as a miscalculation. But Death Proof stands as a pivotal moment in his oeuvre, literally and figuratively, if not for all the right reasons. Counting the two halves of Kill Bill (2003-4) as one movie, and diplomatically ignoring the portion of Four Rooms (1995) he made, Death Proof emerged exactly half-way through his directing career to date, the median point for Tarantino’s first four films and his subsequent four. The film’s initial failure was largely due to the intriguing but ultimately cockamamie conceit that birthed it. Tarantino and fellow independent film zero-to-hero Robert Rodriguez, who had previously collaborated on the Rodriguez-directed, Tarantino-written From Dusk Till Dawn (1996), wanted to revive and celebrate a lapsed tradition: the double bill they and many another movie freak once blissed out on in seamy movie theatres dubbed “grindhouses,” in the days before the age of VHS and the multiplex changed how movies were consumed. The two directors hatched the concept of Grindhouse, under the banner of which they would each offer a movie riffing on a classic brand of trashy genre fare. In the grindhouse manner, when retitling of movies was common, Death Proof itself is revealed to be the hastily inserted new title of a film called Thunder Bolt.

Rodriguez, for his part, made Planet Terror, a sci-fi horror crossbreed and freeform blend of George Romero, early James Cameron, and the kinds of movies turned out under the auspices of Roger Corman and Charles Band. Tarantino elected to make Death Proof, a characteristically eccentric twist on the hallowed tropes of the slasher movie. The two movies would be served up in a manner resembling the often scratched, shortened, scrambled prints that screened in those theatres, and connected by a number of trailers for other, imaginary horror and action movies. Grindhouse was gleefully defined by innate ironies, as a tribute to the fly-by-night world and rough-and-ready aesthetics of another age of moviemaking and viewing, and a supersized hipster-cineaste burlesque-cum-fetish object, executed with a big budget and classy collaborators. Edgar Wright, Rob Zombie, and Eli Roth contributed unnervingly convincing fake trailers. But when Grindhouse proved a flop, largely for its unwieldy length and confusing marketing, Death Proof and its companion piece were rereleased separately, as was always the intention for the films’ European release (where the double bill tradition was much less common) and for home viewing, with scenes left out of the initial versions for the sake of running time and humour value restored.

Of the two films, Rodriguez’s fun, silly, gruesome semi-spoof seemed the more appropriate considering the project it was part of (and it is indeed probably Rodriguez’s best film). Whereas Death Proof was criticised and rejected by many as rather too eccentric and particular. When Tarantino moved on, he kicked off a string of absurdist-revisionist period movies with Inglourious Basterds (2009), leaving behind the most noticeable thread of his films up until Death Proof, their fascination with contrasting the heightened-to-epic-proportions effects of genre film with the petty weirdness of modern life. But I’ve regarded as Death Proof as one of Tarantino’s finest achievements since my first viewing, and have even ventured to call it my personal favourite, although an oeuvre as generally strong as his that can change from viewing to viewing. Certainly Death Proof is a movie that pushes certain tendencies of Tarantino’s style to an extreme perhaps just beyond its popular understanding, which is doubly ironic considering the film’s nominal function as a celebration of the trashier delights of moviegoing, as both as a work about the cinephilia Tarantino is so strongly associated with, and a self-reflexive, self-satirising work that today carries echoes very likely beyond what was intended.

Death Proof is a movie purposefully constructed in two halves, each defined by a sinuously detailed and conversation-driven slow-burn capped by eruptions of floridly filmed violent action, Tarantino the archly theatrical composer of dialogues and Tarantino the high cinema maven in extended argument. Of all his films it’s the least baroquely plot-driven, but is also actually perhaps his cleverly layered labour of narrative dexterity, functioning as straightforward thriller, a laidback and counterintuitive deconstruction of such a thriller, and a work of self-reflexive critique all at once. Tarantino tried to mate the radically disparate sectors of cinema that regularly preoccupy his movies in a particularly delicate balancing act of form and function – the very different brands of interpersonal filmmaking of the Howard Hawks-esque “hangout” movie and the dryly observational method of post-Jim Jarmusch indie film, crashing against the down-and-dirty pleasures of 1970s genre film and French New Wave-inspired self-consciously postmodern showmanship.

Time has also provided more discomforting subtexts: Death Proof, which deals explicitly with a predatory man who works in the film industry setting out to violate and destroy women he can’t have, was produced by the movie mogul and serial sexual abuser Harvey Weinstein, and prominently features at least one of his victims, Rose McGowan. There’s also some fascinating echoes of the car crash Uma Thurman suffered in making Kill Bill, on which Death Proof’s heroine, the stunt performer Zoë Bell, had served as Thurman’s stunt double.  Heavy stuff indeed to attach to a film by and large defined by a generally vibrant, collegial tone. Except that tenor was always superficial: Death Proof always contained a sardonic commentary on the misogyny too often inherent in the slasher movie and the problems of converting an inner fantasy landscape into the actuality of a film production, and a work that digs into the relationship between cinema and sexuality with covert bite. The basic plot presents what could be described as twinned variations on John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978), as it charts two disparate groups of young women, both of whom become objects of obsession for a nefarious serial killer, ‘Stuntman’ Mike McCay (Kurt Russell). The entirety of the film depicts each group’s encounters with Mike and the small, almost logarithmic variances that see one group fall victim to him and the other prove capable of fighting back. One of which is, of course, familiarity with old movies.

The first group is a gang of friends recently reunited in Austin, Texas: radio DJ ‘Jungle’ Julia Lucai (Sydney Poitier), Shanna (Jordan Ladd), and Arlene (Vanessa Ferlito) go out for a night of sowing wild oats. The second group are all friends who know each-other from working on film crews – makeup artist Abernathy ‘Abbie’ Ross (Rosario Dawson), actress Lee (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), and stunt performers Kim (Tracie Thoms) and Zoë (Bell, playing a version of herself), who converge to work on a movie shoot in Lebanon, Tennessee, and encounter Mike during a harebrained escapade rooted in Zoe and Kim’s shared ardour for daredevilry and cinephilia, as Zoe obliges her friends to help her in her quest to borrow a 1970 Dodge Challenger from a farmer who’s selling it so she can execute her fantasy of riding on the exterior – a stunt she calls “Ship’s Mast” – of the car from Richard Sarafian’s Vanishing Point (1971). The algorithmic structure of the film, with its twinned gangs of female friends, nods to the wash-rinse-repeat narrative replication of, for instance, the Friday the 13th series, whilst also performing revisionism. The lengthy yammering sessions between the two girl gangs explicates subtle differences in character and outlook as well as positing plot points, and in the second half the traits and characters of the female friends are purposefully laid out to make the audience aware of the various factors that will lead them to be triumphant over Mike rather than just be more victims.

One obvious and distinctive quality of Death Proof in Tarantino’s oeuvre is that it’s a movie mostly populated by and entirely concerned with women characters, if also following Jackie Brown (1997) and Kill Bill with their female protagonists. This is partly a by-product of shifting ground to Horror cinema referencing as opposed to Tarantino’s usual stoping ground of crime thrillers and action movies, and also one accomplished with the director’s typical eccentricity as Tarantino blesses its performers with dialogue comprised of typically stylised Tarantino argot. Much of the film simply seems to consist, superficially at least, of the two gangs talking about jobs and relationships and hunting for a good time, unfolding in quasi-naturalistic manner that perhaps comes the closest of all Tarantino’s films to one of his acknowledged cinematic models, Howard Hawks. A lengthy conversation between the second gang whilst eating lunch in a diner sees Tarantino shooting it in the same manner as he did the opening scene of Reservoir Dogs (1992), turning into a conscious walk-through of his own stylistic reflexes, an algorithmic variation on his own cinema as well as of a certain genre.

Part of the design of Death Proof as a unit in the Grindhouse project was to recreate the exploitative and sexed-up aesthetic of ‘70s genre film with an edge of self-conscious irony. This intent is nodded to in a series of visuals in the opening credits laced with sarcastic commentary on the gazing – the long-legged Julia, strutting about her apartment in panties with butt impudently twitching, lies down underneath a poster of a starlet in the same pose; the camera zeroes in on Arlene’s crotch as she dashes up to Julia’s apartment but with urinating rather than horniness the spur. Later there’s a sequence in which Arlene performs a lap dance for Mike. But where your classical grindhouse movie was making its connections between sexuality and horror on a purely mercenary level, Death Proof is playing multiple games, the cheery recreation of a gauche aesthetic constantly underpinned by a narrative built around sexual display and frustration, one in which Tarantino repeatedly emphasises masculine attempts to defeat the essential and ultimate control of sex by women. This is depicted in the course of fairly normal sexual gamesmanship when out on the town but also on the ultimate, pathological level Mike espouses. In Arlene, Julia, and Shanna’s first conversation together as they drive through the streets of Austin, power dynamics underlying sex are a constant refrain, as Arlene explains her policy of trying to keep her boyfriends a little sex-starved to maintain firm control of her relationships, and Shanna comments wryly on Julia’s habits of flirting with Shanna’s father, to Julia calm retort, “I have my own relationship with Ben – you’re just jealous because it don’t include you.”

The interpersonal dynamics of the gang sketched in the scene point to the recurring notes struck in the film’s first half, particularly Julia’s too-cool-for-school persona and habit of playing queen bee and impresario. These stretch to setting up Arlene as butt of a slow-burn prank , having announced on her radio show that her friend from out of town is looking for a mate and will give a lap dance to any man who can successfully recite a certain poem to her. Julia’s habits of bullying are later resentfully recounted by Pam, and despite the good-humoured and sexy package Julia tries to wrap it in, her prank on Arlene has much the same flavour. Shanna herself wryly calls her “mean girl in a high school movie,” although Julia’s more positive traits are also apparent, as when she solicitously and apologetically nurses Arlene through disappointment. The arts of social discourse and sexual gamesmanship are themselves the subject of dramaturgical precision, as Julia insists on illustrating the scenario she’s dreamed up for Arlene by roping in her actress friend Marcy (Marcy Harriell) to role-play with Arlene, and the two do such a good job of recreating the flirtatious art that Shanna comments, “Y’all are making me hot!,” whilst Arlene gets revenge by provoking Julia with racially tinted scorn for her physique. Soon after, Arlene glimpses an old, souped-up, black-painted and menacingly detailed car cruising by the place where they eat lunch. She doesn’t know it yet, but she’s had her first encounter with Mike, the man stalking her and her friends across town.

The first group encounter Mike in the flesh at the Texas Chili Parlour, a tavern belonging by Warren (Tarantino), where they drink with random boys whilst awaiting a pot-dealing friend, Lanna Frank (Monica Staggs), before they head on to a girls-only retreat at Shanna’s father’s lake house. Mike sits at the bar, despite being a proclaimed teetotaller, and offers to give a ride home to Pam (Rose McGowan), a former classmate of Julia’s but not a friend, left stranded by a date who didn’t show. Mike’s affectation of placid congeniality makes him seem like a rock of gentlemanly rectitude around which the river of nocturnal boozing flows, compared to the spivs who set out to seduce the girls, Dov (Roth), Nate (Omar Doom), and Omar (Michael Bacall), although, with his prominent facial scar, he’s also a strikingly odd presence. The younger men launch sniggering, whispered jibes his way when they take in both his disfigurement and his generally antiquated veneer of cool, in between plotting with aggressive intent to get the girls drunk and wheedle their way into joining them at the lake house. “If a guy’s buying the drinks, a fucking bitch’ll drink anything,” Dov declares as if expounding the Talmud of scoring. Mike’s arsenal for picking up is deployed throughout the night, including name-dropping the once-famous TV personalities he used to double for, drawing blank looks from the twenty-somethings he’s out to impress. He does better when carefully targeting anyone slightly split off the pack: most immediately Pam, and also Arlene, who has, despite her displeasure at Julia’s prank, been disappointed it hasn’t paid off in gaining her masses of male attention: Mike cleverly goads her into performing the much-anticipated lap-dance for his benefit.

As usual for Tarantino, familiar genre tropes and the presence of the fantastical are posited in an otherwise studiously mundane, if not exactly realistic, world, where style and substance have peculiar, be-bop-like interactions. The other major dialogue in the drama is one of age. This is couched in both human terms, with Mike the angry, damaged relic amidst a youth culture that, like all youth cultures, firmly believes it invented the pleasures of getting wasted and laid on a Saturday night and heedlessly pursues its wont, and in cultural and cinematic terms. The dance through the familiar landmarks of the classical slasher movie is eccentric, the beats all askew, the points of concentration distorted but recognisable. The long, ambling scenes in the Texas Chili Parlour are actually ingeniously choreographed in the outlay of characterisation and seemingly happenstance yet ultimately purposeful detail, under the guise of depicting messy, formless fun. Vignettes flow like the rain pouring outside, from Shanna telling off Dov for mispronouncing her name “Shauna” to Arlene succumbing to the requests of Nate to go make out in his car for a while, heroically brandishing an umbrella for her courtly protection (“You have two jobs – kiss good, and make sure my hair don’t wet.”). Complicating notes are struck: Julia’s stature in her gang and as a minor celebrity is juxtaposed with her increasing romantic frustration with her sometime filmmaker boyfriend, Christian Simonson, with whom she swaps text messages through the night only to get increasingly irritated when he doesn’t turn up.

Death Proof then seems to less to the vicissitudes of seamy genre film than to the particular accent of American indie film as mapped out by John Cassavetes and Jim Jarmusch, and Tarantino found his toehold in whilst not so subtly perverting it – mundanely preoccupied, dialogue-driven, concerned with mapping behaviour and charting the semi-underground life of bohemians and outsiders in American life and the dreamy textures of its pop cultural inheritance. When Tarantino does have to do some plain plot progression, he manages to approach it with a simultaneous mixture of showmanship and affected blasé disinterest, most wittily purveyed when Warren tells one of his employees (Marta Mendoza) to turn on a light in the parking lot, so she listlessly flips the switch. Cut to without, as Arlene, relaxing by herself and smoking a cigarette, suddenly beholding the sight of Mike’s car revealed by the sudden illumination, the lurking presence of menace and the patterns in the algorithm wheeling about her suddenly beginning to come into focus. Later Arlene tells Mike his car makes her uncomfortable, but he’s able to disarm her instinctive worry by readily and happily posing as a good old-fashioned horndog on the prowl essentially after the same thing she is. Mike’s scar carries a host of associations, linking him to the disfigured murderers of films like Friday the 13th (1980) and The Burning (1981) but also to Scar of The Searchers (1956) and through him to Ahab, captain of another marauding, doom-purveying craft in combat with nature itself.

Mike’s pathology however must wreak its vengeance not on a mindless symbol but on the taunting, wilful, immediate presence of young women. Mike tolerates slights and humiliations all night with a patient, foreboding expectation of payback, with his preselected gallery of lovelies. He keeps photos of the gang he’s targeting pinned to the sunshade of his car, all taken with a telephoto lens, describing them as his “girlfriends.” Russell’s ingenious performance depends on the easy masculine charm that always defined him as a star and helps put across a sense of roguish, conspiratorial energy for the audience to share, down to smiling directly at the camera just before commencing his project of murder. As a role, Mike demands that kind of innate audience liking, before he’s eventually revealed to be less the familiar kind of forbidding and determined Horror movie villain, invulnerable a la Michael Myers to pain and unswerving in purpose, than a Looney Tunes-like character, alternating puffed-up delusions of potency and absurdist displays of pain and frustration, able to violate the fourth wall but still imprisoned by the whims of his creator, a la Daffy Duck in Duck Amuck (1953). Mike has pretences to being the director in his little drama as well as the stuntman, casting his bevies of beauties and forcing them to performers.

When the evening at the Parlour finally runs its course and everyone starts heading off their disparate destinations, Mike successfully lures Pam into his car, which he explains is “death proof,” carefully reinforced to protect the driver from injury during stunts. But the unfortunate passenger is not so protected, and is indeed caged and unprotected, and Mike veers about wildly to knock Pam to a bloody pulp even as she begs him to stop and tries, with a note of pathos as she tries to use a note desperate humour to disarm him (“I get it’s a joke and its really funny…”) before Mike performs his coup-de-grace with awful, mocking relish, slamming on the brakes and bashing her head in on the dashboard. This scene is singular in Tarantino’s oeuvre as a pivot to genuine, intimate cruelty, resisting the cartoonish safety-valve quality of much of his depictions of violence, instead properly discomforting in confronting the awful intimacy of misogynistic torment and victim plight. McGowan’s unnervingly convincing playing of the scene enforces this, whilst Russell expertly conveys the slipping of the mask he has worn through the previous scenes, the smouldering anger and relish for annihilating what he can’t have.

Alongside his dialogue, Tarantino’s most famous trait is his penchant for slow-burning suspense in long, nerve-wracking sequences that build and pay off in unpredictable ways. This is famously evinced in sequences like the cop’s torture in Reservoir Dogs, the tavern scene in Inglourious Basterds, and the dinner at Candyland in Django Unchained (2012). Death Proof marked an attempt to push that tendency as far as it would go by Tarantino, anticipating Once Upon A Time …In Hollywood (2019) in essentially offering a film that almost entirely devoted to that slow burn, building through the course of its twinned halves to eruptions of violent action. In this case, because he’s riffing on the slasher movie with its subtextual connection between a violent act and a sexual one, the evocation of desire and its eradication in terms of the filmic image, as well as the more obvious and literal conception of Mike as an aging lothario with a sexual problem who can only “shoot his goo” by killing his objects of desire, the structuring of Death Proof is inherently sexual, punctuated by two orgasmic moments of carnage. After killing Pam, Mike subsequently chases down of the other girls – Julia, Arlene, Shanna, and Lanna racing down the highway rocking out to Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mitch and Titch’s “Hold Tight” – and rams their car head on, shattering and mangling their bodies and destroying their car whilst his flips crazily down the road.

This scene is a highpoint of 21st century cinema as a piece of set-piece filmmaking that announces its own construction with hues of sarcasm – the elaborate means Julia has to go to get just the right song to score thrilling highway action (she calls up a fellow DJ at her radio station to make the request) and Mike’s vicious showmanship (calculatedly turning out his headlights a split-second before ramming their car to dazzle them). The thunder of the crash pays off the slow burn in a pure spectacle of terrible physical damage examined in forensic, instant-replay detail: a squall of shattered glass through which sails Julia’s pathetically severed leg, whilst Arlene’s face is torn off by a tyre and Shanna is launched like a bottle rocket through the windscreen and crashes against the tarmac. The peculiar quality of all this, over and above the intricate brilliance of the filmmaking which far excels just about any movie it’s riffing on on a technique level, is that Tarantino has actually succeeded in making a Horror movie that critiques the Horror movie and also fulfils it to the letter, having set up victims in reasonable depth and sympathy and sacrificing them all to the dark gods anyway.

Tarantino’s fadeout from the scene of carnage leads to a subsequent scene in a hospital where Texas Ranger Earl McGraw (Michael Parks) and his son and deputy Edgar (James Parks) discussing Mike’s seemingly miraculous survival and minor injuries, as Earl analyses the crash and immediately picks it as a calculated murder that will be impossible to prove as such thanks to Mike’s carefully contrived stage management of the event. This scene mediates the film and provides several strands of meta meaning: McGraw, a character created for From Dusk Till Dawn and subsequently featured in Kill Bill alongside Edgar, is the quintessential crusty, canny old Texas lawman, and in the Tarantino universe graced with dimension-hopping and death-defying abilities, appearing along with his son and his daughter Dr Dakota Block (Marley Shelton) who had also appeared with her father in Planet Terror, acting here as Mike’s physician who explains the painful but essentially superficial injuries he took in the crash.  Earl’s keenness as a lawman immediately sees through Mike’s smokescreen, and he suggests and then rejects a possible course of action in relentlessly hounding Mike to catch him up but elects against it, declaring he can at least make “goddamn sure he don’t do it again in Texas.” Whilst the meta-narrative trappings are superfluous in a film that’s otherwise highly sophisticated in such things, this scene finds a witty way of plodding through a necessary point of exposition, with Earl tantalisingly raising the notion of becoming a dogged nemesis to Mike as in some Horror movies only to decide the remainder of his life would be better spent “following the Nascar circuit.”

The second half, announced with dry humour in white-on-black titles declaring a shift to “Lebanon” before amending that to “Lebanon, Tennessee,” varies the algorithm whilst returning to particular images and actions, such as a more attentive member of the girl gang noticing Mike’s hovering presence as he loops back in his car for another gawk at his prey. Movie jokes proliferate with viral rapidity, befitting the half of the movie that’s looking back on itself, trapping the story told in the first half within the cage of revision. Lee, the designated hot young starlet, is delighted by any media coverage of herself and gets Abbie to buy a magazine she’s featured in. She also wears a cheerleader outfit throughout, for the role she’s playing in the movie she’s filming and likely to look cute, a character joke that’s also a nod to the hallowed traditions of the teen Horror movie. Noticing this, the cashier in a 7/11 sells the women a copy of the Italian edition of Vogue like an illicit drag stash. The area that’s supposed to be rural Tennessee is actually a stretch of California that also looks a lot like the kinds of Australian outback locale many an Ozploitation action film was shot in. Tarantino kicks off the second half in employing black-and-white as the viewpoint is temporarily that of Mike, as he hovers around the women he’s spying on, insinuating himself into their zone of existence. He pushes his daring fetishism and sense of secret possession to the limit, sneaking up on the snoozing Abbie with her feet jutting from a parked car’s window and caressing them until she snaps awake.

Whilst it’s tempting to push a little too far and claim Death Proof is a kind of secret parable for Weinstein’s behaviour and Thurman’s crash, it’s also difficult to deny from today’s vantage that both inform it to a degree. But ultimately it’s Tarantino’s ultimate, ironic commentary on the vicissitudes of being a filmmaker. Tarantino posits himself in the film in multiple guises, turning the nominal drama into a labyrinth leading back to himself as impresario of sex and violence. He’s Warren, the garrulous, party-mongering bar owner just trying to make everyone happy. He’s Julia, trying to arrange playlets of character and frisson-inducing encounters with friends as performers, and digging up classic songs to pervade life with a perfectly curated life soundtrack. He’s Mike himself, the guy who knows all the details to forgotten pop culture and feels frustrated nobody speaks his language these days, as well as the aging wolf frustrated he’s losing his youth culture cachet. He’s the much-mentioned director “Cecil” who’s directing the movies the second gang are working on, who has maintained his sexual status through being the locus of authority in his little world. And he is himself, in the director’s chair offscreen, heard calling “Got it!” at the end of a brief scene, mimicking the opening shots in Dario Argento’s The Bird With The Crystal Plumage (1970), where the move camera becomes a spying still camera, focusing on and taking unknowing possession of women about to fall prey to a killer.

This multivalent presence of Tarantino is both an ultimate statement of auteurist ownership and ego domain and a dissection of it. However playfully, Tarantino both celebrates and indicts himself as the particular gateway for a work of cinema where sexuality is both constantly evoked and portrayed but also necessarily sublimated into the flow of images, in the context of genre and mainstream cinema niceties where the orgasmic is registered through displaced destruction. This directly engages with and animates a familiar idea of criticism of the slasher movie, that with its deliberately blank-slate killers and common use of first-person camerawork, the style of the slasher was designed to allow the audience to experience the pleasure and frustration of the stalking killer trying to possess/annihilate the object it pursues. Tarantino links this quirk of style to the act of directing itself, at once constructing and destroying fetish objects and doppelgangers. And the inverse of that, the creation of heroic and empowering figures whose vitality can sometimes slip the bonds a creator can put on them. Much as the crazy proliferation of women-in-peril movies in the 1970s and ‘80s Horror films eventually forged the figure of the Final Girl – a female protagonist obliged to fight for survival without any rescue at hand – and then the James Cameron brand of action heroine, and Death Proof, humorously but also earnestly, encapsulates that evolution in its narrative whilst also linking it back to other traditions in the oft-dismissed but often quietly dissident traditions of the trash movie, with gestures to the rampaging Amazons of Russ Meyer’s Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! (1966), the tough ladies of ‘70s Blaxploitation, and the reforged avengers of rape-and-revenge thrillers.

And so, the second half of Death Proof creates a trio of heroines whose capacities and outlooks give them advantages lacked by their tragic counterparts from the first half. Kim discusses the handgun hidden in her purse as a safeguard against being raped. Zoë’s extraordinary physical agility and durability is expounded on at length. Abbie fills a similar place in their gang to Arlene as the butt of the gang’s idiosyncratic hierarchy but stands up for herself more effectively than Arlene, and the gang lacks a figure like Julia who controls it. The women haven’t abandoned their femininity, but laying claim to “masculine” pursuits like stunt work and car loving becomes a virtue, an idea summarised when Kim and Zoë acknowledge having grown up on the regulation diet of “that John Hughes shit” like Pretty In Pink (1986) but also a roster of classic drive-in hotrod and action films that both serviced and instilled a love for thrill-seeking, and so, in oblique fashion, trained them to deal with real evil when it comes at them. All of this is explored in the flow of seemingly formless conversation, Tarantino setting himself the challenge of showing Chekhov’s Gun (or Kim’s, in this instance) without anyone noticing, but then not being surprised when it’s fired.

Lee is the weak link in the gang as a girly girl who’s not too bright to boot, the embodiment of a more vacuous modern Hollywood, so she’s left behind when the trio head off for a fateful joyride. More intertextuality: the Dodge Challenger’s owner Jasper (Jonathan Loughran) is the same redneck creep who gets his tough bitten off molesting the Bride in Kill Bill, and Lee’s understandable reaction to being left in his company is to mutter, like Bug Bunny in a fix, “Gulp.” As usual with Tarantino, the onscreen action is accompanied by music scoring consisting of myriad harvested music cues and needle-drop oldies that drape the drama in a referential and bygone form of cool. But here this familiar artistic conceit comes on with a more layered and intricate sense of meta humour, often playing games with diegetic sourcing within the drama. The scenes in the Chili Parlour unfold under a near-constant flow of vintage Stax singles – approved hipster retro culture, of course, but as many of the songs belong to the classic “love advice” genre that comment sarcastically on the vignettes of modern romance played out in the tavern.

Tarantino’s snippet of Pino Donaggio’s score for Brian De Palm’s Blow Out (1981), as two-faced in its romanticism as ever in that composer’s work for the old master ironist, accompanies Julia texting Christian as a vignette of very modern romance – the directness of expressions of ardour and anger in this medium are far more clear and direct than what goes on between the young folk in actual physical proximity. This gives way to more a more overt joke riffing on the idea of matching thematically appropriate music to images as Julia accidentally provides Mike with the perfect soundtrack for high-speed murder. Mike’s constructed image as an old-school tough guy is illustrated as he shows off for the second gang of girls by gunning his car to make smoke with the wheels whilst Willy DeVille’s “It’s So Easy” blares from his tape deck, only to wring a mocking comment from Lee – “Little dick!” – that casually indicts his overcompensation and datedness (as well as the inference of association with William Friedkin’s Cruising, 1981, another film about the ambiguities of sex haunted by the presence of a serial killer).

The film wraps up with end credits set to April March’s careening translated cover of Serge Gainsbourg’s “Laisse tomber les filles,” concerning an infamous womaniser heading for deadly punishment from his many lovers. Those end credits also intersperse the familiar scrolling names with flash-edits of leads from old film reels, sporting female models whose names are forgotten by history and whose faces were included on those old reels to aid with colour and lighting collection by cinematographers. This peculiar touch again carries multiple associations. It is at once Tarantino’s signal of pure delight in the expressive tool of a medium, one immediately under threat by digital photography, and a random, peculiar piece of ephemera associated with it. It’s also a flourish of cultural commentary, reminiscent of the dummies that mimic and mock the cast in the opening credits of Mario Bava’s Sei donne per l’assassino (1963), evoking a bygone ideal of femininity rendered glossy and artificial and thoroughly trashed by the film’s end.

Death Proof is also unusual as the only film Tarantino has shot himself, achieving a fleshy, colourful texture overlaid with a scratchy and washed-out veneer to capture the rough grindhouse print look, and use of wide-angle lensing to emphasise space and give objects a looming, surging impact. This becomes particularly vital in the climactic scenes, in which Zoe successfully engineers her fantasy of playing Ship’s Mast – riding on the hood of the Dodge Challenger, dangling from belts – on the legendary vehicle of Vanishing Point, a car that is, in homage to the original’s eerie symbolism but also befitting into Death Proof’s own dichotomy, snow white, whilst Mike’s muscle car is black with a skull-and-crossbones painted on the hood. But Mike, having followed the women into the boondocks and seeing the ideal opportunity to raise hell with them, begins chasing the Challenger, ramming into it to make Zoe fall from the car, but she manages nonetheless to ride like a gecko upon the sleek hood of the charging vehicle as the vehicles hurtle down country lanes. Finally Kim loses control and crashes to a halt on the roadside with Zoe hurled into the bushes on the shoulder. Kim shoots at the gloating and unwary Mike, wounding him and sending him fleeing, whilst Zoe pops up again, saved from injury by her astounding reflexes. Once sure everyone’s okay and hot for revenge, the trio race off in pursuit of Mike.

This makes for of the great movie finales, a dedicated statement decrying the increasingly artificial and smoothed-over tenor of millennial Hollywood cinema, a tendency that’s only grown far worse since 2007. Mike’s rueful awareness that CGI is stealing away both his livelihood and the peculiarly intense glamour his profession used to lend to cinema in general presages Tarantino’s employment of Bell to demonstrate just what a great stunt performer can do and how much spectacle it injects into a movie, over and above the formidable filmmaking technique which emphasises the essential veracity of what’s being shown. Tarantino’s deployment of Bell as the film’s can-do wonder woman betrays inherent respect for stuntpeople as well as for Bell’s effusive personality, anticipating Once Upon A Time …In Hollywood’s vision of the stunt performer as a being who most clearly and potently links the fantasy world of film to the real world, the figure required to perform acts of real daring and danger to make the cinematic illusion work. Moreover, in the context of the film Bell is presented as the light to Mike’s dark, the true practitioner of the risk-taking art that is stunt work, compared to Mike, who has fallen from grace. Her game of Ship’s Mast, which involves great danger and testing of all her physical and mental skills, pointedly contrast’s Mike’s “death-proof” car, his attempt to deliver himself from real danger even whilst indulging the orgasmic pleasure of dealing out death and carnage.

This dovetails in turn with the swivel in theme from misogynistic rampaging to nascent feminist revenge fantasy. Mike proves to have chosen exactly the wrong bunch of women to piss off this time, and he’s chased across the countryside by the ferociously determined Kim, who delightedly mimics sexist flirtation lines whilst tormenting the killer, and Zoe, who wields a length of pipe like a medieval knight’s lance. Mike himself, upon being shot, immediately degenerates from swaggering demon to howling coward, and doesn’t take too well to having the tables turned, desperately trying to outpace the Challenger. Their careening chase bursts out onto the highway, where, naturally, modern cars are humiliated by the power and steely integrity of the older vehicles, the instant metaphor for the film’s entire presumption and aesthetic. When Kim finally manages to ram Mike and flip his car over, the three women pluck him out and beat the shit out of him, their relentless punches causing a breakdown in the texture of the movie itself. When he collapses, Tarantino officially ends the film immediately, bringing up “The End” title over the triumph a la the end of many of a wu xia epic, only to then offer a kind of epilogue as he comes back to the scene to show Abbie breaking Mike’s neck with a well-place kick. Again, a very Tarantino motif – the defeat of one monster might well birth others – but one he carefully brackets to soften as more a fantasy addendum, a little like the curtain call spanking in The Bad Seed (1956). Fitting nonetheless for a movie that dismantles and then reconstructs a fundamental idea of cinema, that space where fantasies, ranging from the most depraved to the most heroic, are allowed free rein.

Standard
1970s, Action-Adventure, Scifi

Rollerball (1975)

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Director: Norman Jewison
Screenwriter: William Harrison

In memoriam: James Caan 1940-2022

By Roderick Heath

Science fiction movies produced in Hollywood in the late 1960s and 1970s have a tantalising quality from today’s perspective. After the genre’s boom in popularity in the 1950s ended, sci-fi remained a niche audience thing, until it suddenly returned as the stuff of major movies, a revival that might have been stirred by the James Bond movies and began properly with 1966’s Fantastic Voyage. The 1968 triptych of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, Franklin J. Schaffner’s Planet of the Apes, and Ralph Nelson’s Charly made science fiction cinema prestigious and won it popularity amongst the younger audience of the day, who latched onto the genre’s ability to offer witty and thoughtful reflections of contemporary concerns as well as future dreaming through a lens of parable and satire. For the next decade sci-fi simmered away with a string of usually modestly budgeted but thematically ambitious entries, with futuristic dystopias, often involving nuclear war or environmental degradation, and quasi-fascistic regimes aplenty. Many movies of this moment, including A Clockwork Orange (1971), The Omega Man (1971), Silent Running (1971), THX-1138 (1971), Soylent Green (1972), Westworld (1973), Zardoz (1974), and Logan’s Run (1976), remain objects of fierce cult followings. The success of Star Wars (1977) suddenly made the genre the stuff of blockbusters, but also by and large skewed the genre back to its less elevated roots.

Norman Jewison’s Rollerball is at once of the most sorely undervalued and significant entries in the style. Jewison himself was for a long time one of Hollywood’s most respected and prestigious directors, reputed for constantly tackling socially conscious subjects whilst proving himself across a range of genres. Jewison, born in Toronto in 1926, served in the navy during World War II, and when attending university after the war became involved in student theatre. He eventually found work in the fledgling days of Canadian television, quickly proving adept in many areas of production. When he moved to New York to work for NBC in 1958, he directed mostly live shows and star showcase specials, and eventually the actor Tony Curtis suggested he try feature filmmaking. Curtis gave him his first shot, too, with 1962’s 40 Pounds of Trouble. After a few middling comedies Jewison gained his first real attention for The Cincinnati Kid (1965), a film he was ironically only hired onto as a quick replacement for Sam Peckinpah, as Jewison proved he was able to balance serious character portraiture with an overlay of slick, inventive, then-modern style, a talent Hollywood urgently needed at the time. His follow-up, The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming (1966), became a cause celebre in depicting the chaos ensuing when a Soviet submarine appears off the coast of New England, offering a puckishly depicted possibility for rapprochement between Cold War foes. Jewison then made In the Heat of the Night (1967), a deft and moody blend of cop thriller and social issue movie, and captured the Best Picture Oscar, although it also marked the second of the seven occasions he’d be nominated for Best Director and lose.

Jewison scored further big hits with a segue into pure pop cinema, The Thomas Crown Affair (1968), and adaptations of the musicals Fiddler on the Roof (1971) and Jesus Christ Superstar (1973). A filmmaker of Jewison’s stature making a violent sci-fi film was a reasonably big deal in 1975, and sparked some mild controversy. Rollerball, adapted by writer William Harrison from his own short story, represented a coherent extension nonetheless of Jewison’s recurring fascination for brilliant but assailed protagonists who have the potential to be ignominiously crushed or emerge as messianic heroes, a tendency explored most obviously on Jesus Christ Superstar but perhaps most truly fulfilled on Rollerball. Aspects of Rollerball are extremely dated today. But in other respects it’s proven one of the more uniquely prognosticative sci-fi entries of its time. Its concept of the future, one where people increasingly seek proof of heroism’s possibility in non-intellectual settings, particularly sports, as the rest of the world becomes increasingly corporatized and conformist and narcotised by media consumption, feels damn near Nostradamus-like. The way it seeks messianic heroism amidst crushing fascistic realms in the genre setting would transmit that figuration to Star Wars and on to the likes of The Matrix (1999) and The Hunger Games (2012): the latter film in particular would riff on a similar proposition of sports used as a form of violent sublimation and social control. In more immediate terms Rollerball anticipated the following year’s Rocky in anointing the popular ideal of an underdog sporting hero, and sparked a brief run of futuristic gladiatorial competition movies, including Paul Bartel’s glorious Death Race 2000 (1976). Rollerball even gained a remake in 2002, but the less said of that the better.

Rollerball also gave star James Caan one of his finest lead roles after The Godfather (1972) cemented him as a major star. Caan was cast as Jonathan E, the champion of the eponymous sport. Jonathan plays for the Houston team in the international Rollerball league sometime in the 2080s. Jonathan has become the sport’s one indisputable legend, to the degree that he’s about to become the first individual player to ever be the subject of a showcase of a special on “Multivision,” the future’s multi-screen, multi-camera version of TV. Rollerball, as depicted in forensic detail in the film’s long opening sequence, is a brutal, gladiatorial sport that resembles a mixture of ice hockey, roller derby, and American football. Two competing teams charge at speed around a circular course, most players on roller skates but some also riding motorcycles, and fighting for control of a heavy metallic ball fired at speed from a cannon, with points scored by punching the ball into a small magnetic hole. Deaths in the game aren’t just common but expected. Jewison memorably raises the curtain on the film with Bach’s “Toccata and Fugue in D minor” blaring out as technicians prepare the arena for the upcoming match, spectators and bigwigs file in, and the players assemble.

The opening sequence depicting the unfolding match with its odd mix of the chaotic and the ritualistic in its unfolding is remarkable for making the imaginary sport palpable and convincing in its details. Jewison extends the oddball period punk aesthetic he explored with his Roman soldiers in Jesus Christ Superstar, here with the helmeted, padded, gauntleted look of the Rollerball players. The differences between this futuristic sporting event and more familiar ones soon become apparent, as the players and crowd are required to stand not for a national anthem, but for corporate anthems, as this future has seen the world carved up between a handful of colossal, omnipotent corporations, each with a different area of the world economy to maintain monopolistic control over. Houston represent the home of the Energy Corporation, also their sponsors, with their high-ranking executive watchdog Mr Bartholomew (John Houseman) looking on from the stands. Houston play Madrid in the quarter-final match: whilst there are some rules and curtailing limits, the competitors have relatively free rein to beat, bash, and run over each-other in the flow of play. Jonathan scores all three of Houston’s goals to win the match, whilst he’s given expert protection by his pal and protégé ‘Moonpie’ (John Beck), who specialises in taking enemy players out of the match with targeted hits and tackles, and Blue (Tony Brubaker), who rides a motorcycle used to haul whoever has the ball around the track to the goal. By the game’s end eight players are listed as injured or killed.

After the match the Houston team members are treated to a locker room visit by Bartholomew, a great honour that grows greater as Bartholomew charms the players by assuring them that whilst they might fantasize about gaining the power and privileges of a corporate executive, the executives all fantasize about being Rollerball players. Bartholomew offers Moonpie a recreational drug pill from his personal stash, and asks Jonathan to come and see him at his office the next day. When he does, however, Jonathan is left bewildered and chagrined when Bartholomew tells him that that the executives want Jonathan to announce his retirement on the Multivision special. This request, couched in the most smoothly affable terms by Bartholomew, is nonethless laced with a clear undercurrent of baleful coercion: “Take your time, take a few days…think about it, but understand it. Do understand it. Because I don’t understand your resistance, and I don’t think anyone else will.” This request however stings Jonathan out of the detached holding pattern he’s been maintaining since his wife Ella (Maud Adams) left him, or, as he thinks, was taken from him by a high-ranking executive. Other women assigned to him regularly to serve essentially as concubines, including current paramour Mackie (Pamela Hensley), who is aggravated when she finds Jonathan is having her replaced and plainly wanted her gone by the time he returned home. Jonathan is much happier to return to the company of his former coach and mentor, now personal trainer, Cletus (Moses Gunn) Cletues still has some contacts in the corporation hierarchy, and agrees to try and find out why the executives want Jonathan retired.

Rollerball’s unusual style pivots repeatedly from the bristling, bloody furore of the three Rollerball matches depicted to the muted, drifting, naggingly melancholic tone of the rest of the film, which Jewison depicts as a kind of lotus eater world of narcotising luxury and disorientating, deliberately ahistorical, amniotic existence, at least for people in Jonathan’s sphere. The use of classical music as the only scoring for the film, probably influenced by 2001: A Space Odyssey but achieving its own, rather different impact, underpins the mood of detached and bewildered absence that dogs Jonathan with works of lilting, longing emotionalism. Jonathan nominally misses his wife but in fact, as he eventually realises, suffers from an aching absence defining his entire existence: the only time Jonathan is entirely alive is on the Rollerball track. Which proves, eventually, to be exactly the problem: Rollerball as a game, it eventually emerges, is designed not simply to be an orgiastic outlet for the violent bloodlust of the audience in a perpetual cycle of repression and sublimation, but also one where the damage wrought upon individual players is a feature rather than a bug. It’s supposed to demonstrate the futility of individual effort, to use up human bodies in the course of entertaining and disarming the crowd. Jonathan himself holds the record taking the most opposing players out of a single match, standing at 13. And so Jonathan’s rise as a player who hasn’t just grown strong but properly and legitimately titanic in the sport is quite literally a violation of its whole ethos and purpose, and threatens the corporate establishment in case people start feeling themselves empowered. The essential matter of the fable questions whether the quick death of the body is any worse than slow death of the spirit, whilst presenting a situation where the two go hand in hand.

Rollerball at least offers a little sympathy for the devil in that regard because, as Bartholomew notes, the age of the corporate overlordship has delivered an age of apparent peace and plenty after the old nations all went bankrupt, and even the days of “The Corporate Wars” are past. Of course, such contentment is actually embalming, and Jonathan, as he tries to learn a little more about why things are as they are, finds himself coming up against a barrier of pleasantly beaming secretaries, suit-clad officials, and company-appointed courtesans trying to keep him safely within bounds. Rather than necessarily putting this down to nefarious deliberation as in, say, Fahrenheit 451 (1966), Rollerball hints this is due as much to general indolence and anti-intellectual habits from this future society, and the overly confident fiddling of technocrats eager to subsume knowledge into their computers, as it is from the corporations trying to quash the nuances of history and culture. Again, this feels quite keenly prophetic. Trying to learn some of the history of the rise of the corporations, Jonathan learns that all books have been transcribed and summarised on computer and the unexpurgated versions kept on an AI supercomputer called Zero, located in Geneva. When he travels there to get answers, Jonathan encounters Zero’s keeper, known as the Librarian (Ralph Richardson), who proves eager to please the great celebrity. This proves a vivid interlude of dark and woozy comedy, warped genre poetry, and dystopian sarcasm. The Librarian escorts Jonathan in to the innermost sanctum of Zero, which runs on “fluid mechanics…a memory pool. He’s supposed to tell us where things are and what they might possibly mean.” But the Librarian also laments that the erratic Zero is erratic, having recently lost all its knowledge of the Thirteenth century after a performing a colossal memory dump when someone asked it a specific question. “Not much in the century,” the Librarian tries to assure Jonathan, “Just Dante, and a few corrupt popes.” Jonathan beholds the core of Zero, a cage-like structure around a bubbling fluid memory bank, but when he asks his question the computer degenerates into incoherent phrases about corporate governance and the word “Negative” constantly repeated, whilst the Librarian furiously kicks the errant machine.

Sci-fi often works best when embracing qualities of fable in terms of narrative but insisting on realistic detail in its minutiae, and Rollerball offers this, pointing the way to other successful variations on the same template as Blade Runner (1982), if in a more modest fashion. The idea of corporate dictatorship as one of many possible futures of illiberalism had been fairly common in 1950s sci-fi writing, and aspects of Rollerball had been anticipated by the radical British filmmaker Peter Watkins with films like Privilege (1967), The Centurions (1968), and Punishment Park (1971), with his interest in systems of power degenerating into violence and atavism. In offering its own, more accessible take on such notions, Rollerball wields its own brand of cunning in the way it recognises and only exaggerates familiar phenomenon of its day just a little, phenomena that have only grown more acute over time. Particularly aware is the way it perceives the sporting hero as a genuine locus of worship and admiration as a figure retaining and employing primal virtues like strength, skill, physical courage, and a particular kind of reflexive, predatory intelligence once required everyday back when humans were hunter-gatherers but now suppressed and necessarily dulled, only allowed to be unleashed in certain arenas like competitive sports. Only the athlete and the actor have retained that kind of electrifying connection with the modern psyche.

Rollerball takes up that kind of sympathy and also the way great athletes and sportspeople become avatars for ordinary people the more they’re feted and rewarded rather than less. The previous year’s prison football drama The Longest Yard had sketched out the theme of the sportsman as a particular bastion of individualism against bullying power, and Rollerball took it considerably further. Much of the film’s first half is given over to perceiving the tension underlying Jonathan’s seemingly luxurious, indulged, and insulated life, manifesting in his interactions with Mackie, and her replacement Daphne (Barbara Trentham), who Jonathan quickly realises has been placed with him to keep him on a short leash in this decisive moment. During what’s supposed to be an interview recording session for the special, Jonathan finds he’s being fed lines via autocue trying to force him into retirement, with Bartholomew and his aide (Richard LeParmentier) watching on from a booth and Daphne lolling about in a drug daze, but Jonathan resists. Jonathan begins to suspect he might be assassinated, particularly as he continues to resist Bartholomew’s efforts to make him retire before the upcoming semi-final that will pitch Houston against Tokyo. Despite Bartholomew’s personal entreaties when they meet at the party Jonathan throws to coincide with the Multivision special, Jonathan insists on playing with the team in Tokyo, because the rules are going to be changed, eliminating all penalties and limiting substitutions, and with even more extreme measures being slated for the final match when it comes. When Daphne tries to prod Jonathan into toeing the line with veiled threats he furiously throws her against a couch and scratches her cheek with his studded uniform bracelet, telling her not to be around when he returns, and avoids taking a private flight to Tokyo, electing instead to travel with the team.

In a touch Steven Spielberg would appropriate in Minority Report (2003), Jonathan feeds his grieving and alienation by constantly rewatching old personal recordings of his glory gays with his missing wife: Daphne’s first arrival comes during one of these sessions. Here Rollerball successfully anticipates another aspect of modern life: technology becoming a kind of stasis chamber feeding out emotional reflexes and nostalgia urges back at is in a loop. The Multivision night party proves a uniquely epic vignette as realised by Jewison and cinematographer Douglas Slocombe, whose images, at once sleekly lit and gritty, capture a drifting, languid, detached quality amidst the flashy pleasure-seeking that presents a sarcastically amplified edition of a Hollywood player party. Moonpie, contending with a bevy of beauties and a dash for a quickie upstairs with one, is the one person who still knows how to enjoy themselves, amidst a sea of drugged-up gladhanding and benumbed sensuality, whilst odd guests experience private gibbers of intense, inchoate emotion, signalling that the bewildered and displaced experience Jonathan is dealing with is a common lot. Amidst the seemingly objective, almost unmoored play of zoom and tracking shots that survey the party we see characters engaging in plays of looks that signal unacknowledged but vitally important dramas unfolding – Jonathan arranging with Cletus a time to sneak away and discuss what Cletus has learned; Bartholomew watching them with intent; Mackie glaring after her former lover.

The Multivision special, filling the many screens all around the house, offers powerful slow-motion analysis of Jonathan’s gameplay, viewers applauding and gaping in glee with each shot of Jonathan clobbering challengers conveyed with both aesthetic and forensic intensity. Lustrous, dreamy beauty and intimate brutality meet, the thrill of sublimating violence and the transformative power of art blended into catch-all for the needs of the audience. That Jewison had his career beginnings as a shooter of live television and star showcases lends personal subtext as well as convincing technical approximation to the film’s depictions of such. The raw immediacy of the Rollerball matches is contrasted by the stylised spectacle of the special, both nonetheless conjoined as part of the apparatus of pacification and manipulation of the audience. Whilst Bartholomew confronts Jonathan and admonishes him for his intransigence, confessing that he and others have been embarrassed, the party guests head out into the dawn light as one man has brought a laser pistol. The glitzy-dressed society damsels begin shooting trees that erupt in fireballs to electric, orgasmic pleasure, experiencing the pure joy of destruction for its own sake, finding their own way of tapping what they imagine is a reserve of power only Jonathan can know.

Rollerball belongs to a strand of Hollywood cinema common in the 1970s that had an unusually European-feeling glaze of style and atmosphere, exacerbated here through location filming. Jewison himself, dismayed by American politics in the early decade, had relocated to London. The film is also a product of a time when a lot of directors assumed all you really needed to do to evoke a cold and pitiless future was film around some particularly odd and flashy examples of high modernist architecture – and it usually worked. Jewison found some particularly ripe examples in shooting portions of the film in Munich, including at the then-new BMW headquarters, and at the Palace of Nations in Geneva, whilst the Rollerball matches themselves were filmed in the Rudi-Sedlmayer-Halle, built for the Munich Olympics. All the lettering and numbers seen throughout are in the supposedly super-futuristic “Westminster” computer-readable font, a more amusingly dated touch, if also one that serves the film’s construction of its particular, sequestered reality. Amidst the lead-in to the match against Tokyo, the Houstonians are obliged to listen to an expert (Robert Ito) in the Tokyo players’ martial arts-derived playing style which represents a threat of precision and dexterity to the Houstonians’ celebrated forceful approach. Moonpie, encouraged by Jonathan, acts as self-appointed tactician and morale officer and refuses to listen to the expert, instead working up his fellow players until they converge en masse on the luckless lecturer whilst chanting their team name with warlike zeal.

Jewison strikes a foreboding note in this spectacle of camaraderie, Moonpie’s resolute refusal to countenance the idea any foe can foil his team’s strength returning to haunt him in the ensuing match. The semi-final proves every inch the dreadful battle Jonathan feared as players on each team are clubbed, bashed, and broken. Jonathan and Moonpie contrive to drag an opponent up into the path of the fired rollerball itself, the projectile breaking his neck, and this in turn prods the Tokyo players to target the two. Whilst Jonathan is taking a time-out after suffering a gouging blow to the arm, three Tokyo players tackle Moonpie and, just as he suggested to his own teammates, they waylay him, strip off his helmet, and punch him in the ganglia, a blow that leaves Moonpie instantly comatose and brain dead. Jewison stages this moment with brilliance as he shifts from the documentary-like style he shoots the rest of the Rollerball scenes to create a moment of tragic, hallucinatory clarity. The camera performs a quick zoom in on Jonathan’s face as he beholds his friend about to be destroyed by considered and ruthless violence, before switching to his viewpoint for a delirious slow-motion shot of Moonpie taking the blow. Jewison then moves in for a close shot of Moonpie’s dead-eyed gaze as his head strikes the track. Blue helps Jonathan get payback by cornering the player who struck Moonpie with his motorcycle, allowing Jonathan to grab him and smash his head in, but Blue himself is soon sent driving wildly against the wall of the track by an opponent’s blows, and burned when his bike explodes after being hit by the launched ball. So thrilled and moved are the Tokyo crowd they begin tearing down barricades.

The steady degeneration of the Rollerball matches from a coherent if madcap game into what are essentially gladiatorial bloodbaths and glorified street fights proves eventually to be cleverly motivated by a reasoned purpose on the behalf of the executives. As Bartholomew notes during the one scene depicting the various corporate honchos interacting over screens, they’ve voted against taking Jonathan down by illicit means, because they need Jonathan to either quit or be destroyed in the arena now that he’s raised the possibility of heroic achievement there. Instead it’s Jonathan’s allies who fall victim to the mounting carnage. Jonathan refuses to let Moonpie’s body be euthanized for transplant surgery, so he’s spirited back to Houston and kept in a clinic where Jonathan comes to visit him just before the last match, and he meditates on the likelihood that Moonpie could live on in his vegetable state long after Jonathan himself has met his end in the final. Jonathan is briefly reunited with his wife Ella thanks to Bartholomew’s string-pulling. Ella tries to argue Jonathan into accepting his fate and retiring, and Jonathan quickly divines their reunion could be made permanent as a reward for doing so, and that Ella will accept that despite now being happily settled with her executive husband and children. Jonathan is so disillusioned when he realises this he erases his recordings of Ella, and sets off in a state of complete existential readiness for the final match.

The role of Jonathan required both a virulently athletic presence and a fine acting touch to portray a troubled, quietly consumed figure, a man who’s not stupid but can express himself with far more clarity and authority when in combat than when confronted by systems of power that are deliberately and dangerously opaque, but still determines to press along his own path. Caan was one of the few actors of the time capable of convincing in both spheres, and he’s exceptionally good at conveying Jonathan’s quiet, deflecting, self-effacing manner when not playing – a common quality of top sportspeople that Caan plainly grasped. Jonathan barely weathers his life outside the arena as a constant succession of disorientating codes and bewildering absences, suddenly arriving and vanishing lovers and teammates. Jonathan isn’t at all a perfect or even always terribly good guy – he is after all someone who’s become enormously successful by unleashing a killer edge in games, whilst also keeping it on a tight leash at all other times – and gives few shows of specific emotion, like his rage at Daphne, and his evident happiness in training with Cletus. He tends to farm out his feeling through indirect gestures – giving Daphne a pill that makes her sleepy rather than alert during the interview, or letting Moonpie rev up the Houston team – and his rebellions petty, unfocused. Perhaps one of the more obvious touches in the film was casting Houseman as Jonathan’s nemesis, the personification of the corporate world order. Not because Houseman is ineffective: he’s characteristically good and intriguingly subtle in the part, conveying a more insidiously intelligent kind of villain and seeming all the more hateful for it, as in the way he quietly, gently, but coercively places his hand on Jonathan’s knee when telling him his time is up. Rather, because of his anachronistically patrician manner to contrast Caan’s rugged, plebeian grit: it’s a backward-looking touch, rather than one that confronts a less comforting schism than snobs versus slobs. Especially from today’s perspective, when all the magnates are trying desperately to seem like you chilled-out bro.

But Jonathan’s journey is rendered with strokes appropriate to mythology, with inevitable Christlike echoes, but also very strong hints of Achilles: like the Homeric hero Jonathan is the essential natural warrior, profoundly offended by the theft of his woman and the killing of his great and beloved fellow fighter. Jonathan’s attempts to learn about history and society meanwhile have their own tint of parable, of a man seeking wisdom who is constantly stymied and blocked, contending with gnomic watchdogs and psychotic machines, and ultimately finds the only way he can express himself is also the one he’s best equipped for, one that requires no learning from outside himself. So great has Jonathan’s cult grown that before the final starts Jewison shows locales around the world, all deserted and silent, whilst the chanting of his name from people watching both in the arena and their homes is heard on sound, registering the starved fervour he’s stirred in the people. The final match of the film which provides its apocalyptically-tinged climax sees Houston playing New York in a game played without penalties and no time limits, which essentially means it will play out as a long session of mutual murder. Soon enough the arena is a stygian space filled with sprawled corpses and blazing fires. Jewison wrings some juice out of asides like the sight of even Bartholomew’s aide being seduced into the cult of Jonathan, as the great player survives all efforts to bring him down.

Finally only Jonathan is left of the Houston team, pitted against two New Yorkers stalking him as the crowd has fallen to utterly fixated silence, only the billowing fires and the revving engine of the motorcycle under one opponent breaking the hush. Jonathan seems badly injured as he takes up a waiting station directly before Bartholomew’s ringside seat, only to prove to be feigning as he grabs the NY player who charges him, and crushes the life out of him before Bartholomew’s sternly concerted gaze. When the last opponent attacks, Jonathan tackles him, swiping him off his bike, but this time catches himself and, instead of killing his foe, gets up, takes the rollerball to the goal, and scores the game’s only, winning point. Instead of killing Jonathan or reducing him to a mindless killing machine, the corporate game finally hands him the proper venue to achieve apotheosis. The crowd take up their chant again from a breathless, ecstatic whisper to roaring triumphalism as Jonathan cruises around the arena, bloodied and battered but gaining new and fearsome determination with every second, until Jewison offers a succession of freeze-frames of his glowering face as “Toccata and Fugue” suddenly resurges, now the anthem of Jonathan’s wrath. Such gestures very quickly became cliché in popular moviemaking, but in the context of Jewison’s brilliantly sustained slow burn, they retain enormous, thrilling power. The film’s ultimate point isn’t that Jonathan is a singular titan who can slay armies or take down a single, hated tyrant, but one fit in the most ironic way for the role he was chosen for, the avatar for embodying and focusing human ferocity, the hero who stole back some of the gods’ fire.

Standard
1960s, Action-Adventure, Drama, Epic, Historical, War

55 Days At Peking (1963)

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Directors: Nicholas Ray, Guy Green (uncredited), Andrew Marton (uncredited)
Screenwriters: Ben Barzman, Bernard Gordon, Robert Hamer, Philip Yordan

By Roderick Heath

The history of cinema is so often one of fallen empires. Producer Samuel Bronston was born in Tsarist Russia and was, bewilderingly enough, a nephew of Leon Trotsky. Bronston grew up in the US and had some success as a movie producer in the early 1940s. He then fell into a long fallow patch that didn’t break until 1959’s John Paul Jones. Shooting that film partly in Spain, languishing under the Franco regime at the time and still trying to reconnect with the rest of the world, Bronston grasped the unexploited potential of making movies in that country. Costs were so low and the countryside so varied and littered with historical structures it was a perfect place to make costume epics, at that time the stuff of official blockbuster appeal. Soon Bronston’s move would be imitated by entire film industries. But Bronston’s blend of thrifty cunning and gaudy ambition would eventually ruin not only his career but those of two of Hollywood’s greatest directors. Bronston quickly scored an enormous hit with El Cid (1961), helmed by Anthony Mann, and the Jesus film King of Kings (1961), directed by Nicholas Ray, one of the era’s most vital and floridly talented but fatefully maverick filmmakers. Bronston then embarked on two more mega-budget historical epics, hiring Ray to make 55 Days At Peking and Mann for The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964).

By this time, Ray’s personal life was in a tailspin and his health declining thanks to his constant drug and alcohol use. Ray collapsed during the shooting of 55 Days In Peking, and the movie had to be taken over by Andrew Marton, the second unit director and an experienced shooter of action sequences, until the former cinematographer turned director Guy Green was hurriedly brought in to finish it. The results were punishing for all concerned: the film’s budget skyrocketed to the then-astronomical sum of $17 million and only made half of it back at the American box office (although it seems to have been much more popular elsewhere), beginning the collapse of Bronston’s fortunes. Ray himself was finished in Hollywood, only turning out sporadic collaborations with film students and a final testimonial with Wim Wenders, Lightning Over Water (1979), in the rest of his days. Today there are reasons to hold 55 Days At Peking in misgiving, on top of what it cost Ray. It’s set in China but at the time it was impossible to actually shoot there, so Bronston simply built a replica of Peking in a Spanish field. Major Chinese characters are played by Caucasian actors in Asian makeup, despite being released at a time when that sort of thing was falling firmly out of favour, whilst about 4,000 genuine Chinese extras were obtained from all over Europe. It depicts history that’s still a touchy subject, the infamous Boxer Rebellion of 1900, largely from a western perspective. Some of the gaps from the production turmoil are obvious, like the way a priest played by Harry Andrews suddenly enters the narrative as if he’s been there all the time.

Despite such obvious and not-negligible problems, I feel some sort of love for 55 Days At Peking, an ungainly problem child shot through with flashes of unexpected art. Like some of the other epics made in that early 1960s moment that were largely dismissed by both critics and audiences, it’s much richer and more complex than it was given credit for, as well as a movie where, as the cliché goes, the money can all be seen up on screen. It’s a transitional work, mediating the end of classic Hollywood and looking forward to where certain things were heading, and despite his tragic exit from the production, Ray’s distinctive blend of sour realism and stylised romanticism still permeates the whole of this, a fervent and fretful kiss goodbye to the age of cavaliers and gilded kingdoms and an uneasy bow to the modern world’s complexities. One of a string of expensive and often ambivalent movies about besiegement made at the time, along with The Alamo (1960), The 300 Spartans (1962), and Zulu (1963), 55 Days At Peking shares their nervous preoccupation with the Cold War zeitgeist as mediated through historical likenesses, as well as marking the first Hollywood film exploring what would eventually become clearly identified as Vietnam War angst. The film’s contention with the possibility of political blocs forced into cooperating takes as its intrinsic subject the birth of the modern world springing out of the colliding egotisms and breakdown of the old.

Today, with China a verified world power, the fractious and unruly state of the country 123 years ago can seem rather shocking, and even when 55 Days At Peking came out its look back to the turn of the century seems charged with bewildered fascination for how the world have both changed and not changed, its narrative hinting at the seeds for what would later happen to all the countries involved as found in this peculiar window of history. The Boxers, more properly called the Yìhéquán or the Militia United in Righteousness, gained their common sobriquet for their practising of martial arts disciplines, or Chinese Boxing as it was called at the time. The Boxers were a coalition of societies built around such activities, some of them uninterested in political matters, others obsessed with them, but many were unified by their sweeping hatred for various forms of foreign influence muscling in on China in the late 19th century, and evolved into religiously-fuelled quasi-revolutionaries with a militantly anti-Christian as well as anti-Western Imperialist outlook. Boxers created initial alarm and fear through persecution and eventually murders of missionaries and other foreigners. Eventually convincing themselves they had divine protection from modern weapons, they began agitating for a crusade of purification in mid-1900, and marched on Beijing, or Peking as it was styled at the time. Meanwhile the Qing Dynasty, led by the Empress Dowager who had deposed her nephew for trying to impose reforms, was being fatally stymied by lost wars and encroaching foreign powers.

In a storytelling flourish that feels entirely and perfectly Ray-like, political blocs are mapped out musically: the film opens with a survey of old Peking, when the various foreign powers share an enclave known as the Foreign Compound, and the various nations war in the morning with their bands playing their rival national anthems at full volume. The camera descends to two hapless Chinese men trying to have their breakfast, only for one to clap his hands on his ears and ask in desperation, “What is this noise?” His friend answers succinctly: “Different nations saying the same thing at the same time – ‘We want China.’” David Niven’s Sir Arthur Robertson, a fictionalised version of the real British legation chief Sir Claude MacDonald, is presented as a man who, on the surface at least, is the very model of an English diplomat. As an emissary from the world’s leading power of the time, Sir Arthur presses the English point of view and a sense of steadfast resolve and forbearance with such ease and class he obliges all the countries and their less easy representatives to play along in his great and dangerous game of chicken with the oncoming rebellion. He inspires his German counterpart Baron von Meck (Eric Pohlmann) to comment, “You know, I admire Sir Arthur – he always gives me the feeling that God must be an Englishman.”

Lines like that betray the contribution to the script by Robert Hamer, the director of Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949), credited here with additional dialogue, and his sardonic sense of humour about the great old days of British identity. 55 Days At Peking’s opening credits utilise paintings by Chinese-American artist Dong Kingman to lay down the aesthetic of a lushly stylised view of the past and the setting, slipping over the horizon of general memory. The story commences with tensions on the boil between three factions, the court of the Empress Dowager (Flora Robson), the great foreign powers comprising Great Britain, the US, France, Russia, Spain, Austria-Hungary, Japan, and Italy, and the Boxers. The Empress’s nephew Prince Tuan (Robert Helpmann) is trying to foment resistance to the increasing stranglehold the foreigners have over the country and is surreptitiously encouraging the Boxers, whilst the head of the armed forces, General Jung-Lu (Leo Genn), resists such moves. The Imperial court is portrayed a medieval holdover despite the gilded spectacle, with Jung-Lu fiercely establishing his authority over lessers as a factional power struggle commences by lashing an officer in the face with his fly whip, whilst the Empress orders another officer executed because the argument over his fate, amongst other reasons, “disturbs the tranquillity of the morning.”

A detachment of American Marines under Major Matt Lewis (Charlton Heston) arrives back on rotation to Peking to take over defence of the US legation just in time to behold some Boxers torturing a western priest on a water wheel. Matt tries to buy the priest off them but he dies first, resulting in a discomforting stand-off during which a Boxer is shot by a sergeant, Harry (John Ireland), but Matt manages to defuse the situation by buying the Boxer’s corpse instead and docks the price from Harry’s pay. There’s a discomforting undercurrent to this scene beyond the immediate tension in the square-off between armed gangs, as Matt readily grasps and accedes to an understanding that anything, be it faith, patriotism, revenge, or gratitude, can be translated into a dollar value. Matt finds himself mostly answering to Sir Arthur as the American envoy Maxwell (Ray himself) is ill, and soon witnesses Von Meck’s assassination by some Boxers under Tuan’s direction. When Sir Arthur and Matt are brought before the Empress, it becomes clear she has elected under Tuan’s influence to let the Boxers do what they like to the foreigners. Readying their enclave for siege, the international factions are forced to ally and protect their citizens whilst hoping for relief.

The opening vignette and the locals’ sarcastic reaction to it sets in play a film that remains intensely ambivalent about the political manoeuvring and game of national egos unfolding, the Imperial court envisioned as encrusted in arcane and empty ritual and spectacle no longer backed up by anything resembling legitimacy. The musical motif is matched by the visuals as the mammoth recreation of a large chunk of Peking sees the Foreign Compound littered with transplanted architectural styles like gothic forms amidst Chinese. The international representatives swan about in varied postures of arrogance but little real backbone, with only Sir Arthur’s determination to project unruffled calm and principled grit forcing the others to go along with him, because to do otherwise would be embarrassing. It feels revealing that Ray cast himself as the American representative who dismisses any interest in territorial concessions, as the film expresses a kind of idealism that feels consistent with Ray’s scepticism over grand-sounding ideals, although of course he can’t push this as far as he did in something like Bitter Victory (1957). He does nonetheless insist on portraying his heroes as indecisive, brittle, confused creatures, ironically nearly as unsure of themselves in facing down geopolitical crises as the wayward young folk of They Live By Night (1948) and Rebel Without A Cause (1955).

Heston’s Matt is offered as a prototype, a professional soldier who knows his way around upper crust climes as his job and rank require but who seems like anything but a blue blood, a wilfully rootless figure given up to the demands of the army. A man who tosses out most of his correspondence, collected for him by his hotel in the concession, because “Read it and you might have to answer it.” Matt soon finds himself drawn in close to Baroness Natasha Ivanoff (Ava Gardner), an exile from the Russian aristocracy with still-virulent scandal in her past. The Baroness is persecuted by her late husband’s brother, the Russian delegate Baron Sergei Ivanoff (Kurt Kasznar), who has a singular motive in trying to force her to return an enormously valuable gold-and-jade necklace her husband gave her, a combative relationship spiced by Sergei’s jagged blend of vengefulness and attraction to his former sister-in-law and the Baroness’s offended pleasure in resisting. The Baroness courts Matt’s attention when she’s ejected on Sergei’s behest from her hotel room which is then given to Matt, although her turns of sharp wit almost drive him away: “Clever women make me nervous.”

Nonetheless Matt and the Baroness form a connection in their shared liking not only for each-other but their penchant for ruffling feathers, with Matt agreeing to take the Baroness as his date to a Queen’s Birthday ball thrown by Sir Arthur, giving the Baroness the chance to make a splash wearing the necklace and forcing everyone to be polite to her in the social setting. Ray’s gift for cramming frames with absurd decorative beauty is certainly in evidence in the ball scene, drinking in the riot of colours and the chic allure of a bygone age’s way of expressing confidence and social import. The ritual is quietly violated by Matt and the Baroness’ gesture, Ray noting the reactions of many of the other men in the room when catching sight of the Baroness and her accoutrements with an edge of sexual satire, the Baroness possessing the power through her sheer presence and aura of beauty to disturb social niceties from the level of statecraft down to a few aggravated spouses. This is supplanted by a more calculated and meaningful disruption as Prince Tuan arrives and proposes to entertain the ball guests by bringing in some tame Boxers to give a show of their prowess in martial arts. When Matt is asked to help them in one trick, seemingly to arrange his humiliation in payback for the shooting of the Boxer, he turns the tables by striking not at the Boxer he’s supposed to but suddenly bailing up and tripping a huge Boxer.

Matt’s show of slyness and toughness gains a proud cry of “Bravo!” from Von Meck, but Sir Arthur senses well some delicate balance of politesse and all too substantive political arm wrestling has been upset. Rather than put up with the crowd any longer, Matt and the Baroness leave and enter a Buddhist temple where they waltz away to the strains of the orchestra surrounded by ancient, abiding idols. This image the feels like one pure crystallisation of Ray’s sensibility in the film and its emblematic pivot, west and east, vivacity and boding, male and female, old world about to crumble and be supplanted by the new, two pan-global lovers dancing along the precipice. In basic concept Matt and the Baroness are stock melodrama figures. And yet, rather than their romance becoming the dramatic pivot of the film a la great romantic epics like Gone With The Wind (1939) or Titanic (1997), however, they’re become instead very Ray figures, polarised, consumed by their divergent needs and by the quality of separateness, of wilful repudiation of the world, that brings them together in the first place, unable to properly connect and instead doomed to labour through the consequences of their emotional stymies. Both are ultimately obliged to become figures with a duty of care and rise to the challenge in different ways connected to the larger drama around them.

The film somewhat undercuts its attempts, from a contemporary perspective, to comment seriously on racism and cultural schism with its casting. Try as they might, Robson, Genn, and Helpmann can’t help but give the impression they’re starring in a high-class production of The Mikado. The resemblance might not be so accidental: Helpmann in particular seems to have been cast to put his dancer’s skill to good use in recreating the elaborate formal flavour of the Imperial court. And yet the film’s nuances are surprising as it engages with the theme in a very Ray-like manner, that is, couching it in human terms stemming from the affections and weaknesses of his characters. Matt’s friend and subordinate Captain Andy Marshall (Jerome Thor) has a daughter, Teresa (Lynne Sue Moon), by a Chinese mother: Matt and Andy speak about Teresa before she’s seen in a cool and clinical fashion, with the two men agreeing that Andy must leave her in safe hands in China when he goes home because, as Matt puts it, “She’d be a freak back home.”

But when Teresa comes to find her father during the soldiers’ entry into Peking he snatches her up with a desperately loving gesture, making plain his genuine anguish at the thought of leaving her behind. Later, Andy is killed in battle with the Boxers, leaving Teresa orphaned and facing a bleak future as a mixed race child there, and Teresa begins doting on Matt as an alternative father figure despite his complete lack of any experience or readiness for such loaded gift, no more than he is to help the Baroness. The Baroness’ own transgressive past eventually emerges when, to disarm the threats of Sergei, she tells Matt about how she betrayed her husband, a golden boy of the Russian establishment being groomed for a great career, by having an affair with a Chinese General, heavily implied to be Jung-Lu. “Can’t you imagine yourself falling in love with a Chinese girl?” The Baroness asks Matt, before noting sourly, “That’s not the same.” The political situation begins to lurch towards this conflict when Matt accidentally sees Von Meck’s assassination and he and Sir Arthur visit the Empress in the splendour of her palace, Sir Arthur deftly kicking aside the cushion placed for him to kneel on.

This small but infinitely consequential gesture signals a refusal of any further kowtowing, despite Sir Arthur’s words suggesting to the Empress being patient will benefit her country far more than rash gestures, quickly answered by the Empress and Tuan, who make it plan they will not stop the Boxers from making an assault on the Compound. Initially trying to escape as the war breaks out, the Baroness finds herself forced to return, but then finds her path to revitalisation through volunteering as a nurse under Dr Steinfeldt (Paul Lukas), an elderly German physician who finds himself caring for the wounded during the siege, and the Baroness swiftly becomes beloved by her charges and even the aged doctor. Steinfeldt’s makeshift clinic is a striking islet of Ray’s stylised visual mystique, a crude space transformed into a ward of healing simply by splashing whitewash everywhere. The ever-so-faintly surreal quality here is amplified by the way all colours are subtracted including the costuming of the actors as if to suggest they are part of the space, humans vying towards the angelic, broken up only by the crude blues of the soldiers and the red blood pools stark and bright, the corporeal brutality of the war duelling with the transcendental. Later the Baroness sells off her necklace to buy medical supplies and fruit through the black market.

The credited screenwriters were Bernard Gordon who was just re-emerging after years on the blacklist, and Phillip Yordan, a regular collaborator of Mann’s who had made a good living also serving as a front for blacklistees like Gordon. Such a background is detectable in the Countess’ exile and the very strained politesse of her re-entrance to polite society. “I just do a job patrolling the rice paddies out in the back country,” Matt comments to Sir Arthur in their first confrontation, evincing the first sunrise glimmers of the emerging sense of what the Cold War was becoming via the historical parable. After their visit to the Empress, Sir Arthur and Matt are forced thanks to Tuan’s machinations to head back to the Compound without escort, locked out by the gates of the Forbidden City. This cues a sequence Robert Wise would offer a variation of in The Sand Pebbles (1966) as the Vietnam echoes firmed up and a plain resemblance to TV news reports of unrest in third world locales, as the two men are forced to run the gauntlet of a furious mob.

The diplomat and soldier are quickly rescued by Captain Hanley (Robert Urquhart) and when Sir Arthur makes plain to the other envoys he has no intention of bowing to threats and leaving, he obliges them all to begin barricading the Foreign Compound and prepare for assaults by the Boxers. Matt allies with other capable officers like the British Hanley, the German Captain Hoffman (Walter Gotell), and the Japanese Colonel Shiba (Juzo Itami). Another very Hamer-esque joke gets by as Sir Arthur confesses to his wife, Lady Sarah (Elizabeth Sellers), that he doesn’t mind all the French history books her mother bought him to be used on the barricade because the topic bores him, before Ray cuts to the French ambassador having the same reaction with his books of English history. This joke cuts deeper than it seems: it helps flesh out the coherent theme threaded right through the film about the illusions of factionalism and the opacity of history as a way of understanding them, creating false zones of identity.

The raw and pressing crisis of the siege forces demands communal action illustrate by another good joke as Harry awakens the motley crew of defenders from sleep, offering versions of “Good morning” in each language until he’s stumped by a Japanese sailor and so says it in English, to which the sailor replies in perfect English. Sir Arthur, the perfect diplomat, is meanwhile revealed to hold serious doubts as to both the wisdom of his actions and his own motives. Glimpsed early on satirising himself by dryly suggesting cutting the family dog in two to please his two children to his daughter’s annoyance – “Oh father, don’t play King Solomon.” – Sir Arthur is soon left squirming in a morass of guilt and questioning when he son is shot and lingering close to death in hospital, ransacking his actions and the reasoning behind his choices. His wife has fits of dark reckoning in questioning whether the soul of someone who’s never been “home”, that is has never actually lived in England as their children haven’t, could ever find its way back or would be stuck in “an enormous, empty Chinese limbo.”

The troubled but ultimately tender relationship between the Robertsons is another Ray-like flavouring that contrasts the other, more ambivalent relationships in the film. So too is the motif of children paying the price for their elders’ actions and blindness, in both the Robertsons’ son’s ordeal and Teresa’s status as the unwanted avatar for the possibility of fusing worlds. Matt is pushed to face paternal responsibility towards Teresa when first Harry prods him determinedly to explain her father’s death to her, and then by a priest, Father de Bearn (Andrews), dedicated to looking after the orphans hiding out in the Compound: the Priest comments, “Someone, somewhere said that every man is the father of every child – but I suppose it’s only true if you really feel it.” Father de Bearn, sudden as his entrance into the film is, is a great character who ironically has more military inventiveness than the professional soldiers, improvising canons and mortars to fend off the Boxers’ increasingly ambitions attempts to attack the walls of the compound, including bringing up artillery and a siege engine, alternating warlike arts and soft-spoken humanism. De Bearn stands in for the so-called contingent of “fighting parsons” led by missionary Frank Gamewell, who took on the task of fortifying the Foreign Compound during the real siege.

Ray’s signature visual lushness serves the purpose of illustrating the dramatic concerns, in marvellous shots like one of Teresa hiding after setting up a flower in a gesture of domestic loving for Matt while he’s off in battle, only for the warrior to return bedraggled and exhausted, sitting upon his bed in a room festooned with aged artworks painted on the walls and the huge statue of a warrior with sword. The shot dramatizes the gap between people, between cultures, between aestheticized past and the all too painful now. Undercurrents of satire are readily detectable in the way the puffed-up envoys of the foreign nations are filmed in surveys of bloviating in rooms of plush Victorian only to find themselves forced to commit to a course of action because Sir Arthur is, whilst the Imperial grandees commit themselves to arcane rituals in realms of splendour, fronts of grandeur that have their crude brick backings. The Empress is eventually convinced by Prince Tuan to give the Boxers proper backing against Jung-Lu’s counsel, and the Empress orders Jung-Lu to give the help of the Imperial troops to besieging the Compound and holding off a relief force. This means the defenders of the Compound must face artillery fire.

Before they are handed such weapons, the Boxers try scaling the stout fortifications of the city walls adjoining the Compound and making a charge at dawn, but Matt, Andy, a French officer, and some other stout soldiers use a cobbled-together rolling barricade, backed up by Hanley with an equally cobbled-together canon, and push back the Boxer onslaught. Until the canon explodes and kills Hanley, and Andy is shot on the ramparts. The film was essentially completed by experienced action directors, and as you’d expect the action is strong, amplified by the awesome scale of the sets Bronston was able to build, aiding Ray and the other filmmakers in recreating the popular images of the Rebellion disseminated through correspondents’ artworks in the years following. One great portion of epic moviemaking comes late in the film when the Boxers drag up a rocket-festooned siege tower in the night, men with torches appearing in the dark, leading a horde hauling the tower into view. Composer Dimitri Tiomkin’s scoring is particularly good here too, in combining slow-thudding drums and a deep-voice male chorus to unnerving effect, as if the Boxers are bringing some kind of monster into battle. The tower’s alarming appearance is however quickly answered as De Bearn improvises a mortar and manages to set fire to the war engine.

Cinematographer Jack Hildyard’s brilliant work made the most of the Super-Technirama 70 scope and Technicolor, capturing all the lush colours of the sets of costumes of course as well as the spectacle of battle, but also backing up Ray’s compositional élan. A dialogue evolves between balanced geometry and lopsided groupings, indicating the flow of power and desertion of structural certainty. Shots of the Empress Dowager in her palace with her handmaidens see human and architectural elements arrayed in harmony, eloquent of a structure tightly and tensely ordered, counterpointing the ebb and flow of human power in the meetings of the foreign diplomats, where one man – Sir Arthur – ensconced behind his desk can contend with many standing on the other side. Even the most chaotic action sequences have a painterly integrity to them.

Shots of Matt barking orders to his men on the city ramparts with the soaring brickwork and overhanging eaves see them dwarfed and enclosed by the infrastructure of cultural, military, and historical might. A visual joke is apparent as the Baroness is glimpsed standing by a guttering lantern whilst Jung-Li hides in the corners, the literal old flame. One major set-piece is more familiar in terms of old-school action-adventure but well-done in its own terms, as Sir Arthur talks Matt, Shiba, and others into a nocturnal venture through the sewers to blow up an ammunition dump whilst the Empress is celebrating her soldiers’ victory over the relief forces. Sir Arthur joins the venture but the guerrilla unit has to contend with interruptions and delays that almost get them blown up, before they finally succeed in lighting the conflagration. Later Matt and one of his men set out to try and fetch reinforcements on a railway handcar, only to hit a mine on the tracks, leaving both men injured, with Matt carrying the other on his shoulders back to the Compound.

Young Teresa stakes a claim to instinctive heroism when she manages to rescue a wayward toddler who’s wondered into the temple during an artillery barrage, seconds before a shell knocks the structure flat. Meanwhile the Baroness is injured when she brings in the load of supplies she managed to purchase with the necklace only for a brokered ceasefire to suddenly collapse, and she dies under Steinfeldt’s care. The film takes an interesting approach to the Baroness, despite the fact that Gardner always feels miscast as an exotic and multivalent Russian aristocrat if not so much as a love goddess incarnate, as she’s revealed to have both sacred and daemonic power over men, able to incidentally destroy her husband and also able to make rooms full of men fall in love with her, including the aged and cynical Steinfeldt. Again there’s something in common here with Ray’s fascination for characters like Rebel Without A Cause’s Jim who possess a lustre, however endangered, that draws people to them.

Ironically, only Matt seems at all ambivalent about the Countess, in part because he is intimate with her, knowing the sordid story of her background and only able to come to terms with her appeals for help when he declares “a soldier’s pay buys a soldier’s woman,” that is, a prostitute. After the Countess dies, Matt is accosted by a working class English soldier (Alfred Lynch) who became one of her worshipful wards for failing to appreciate her, leaving Matt, who has also just failed to bring his injured comrade back in time to save his life, is left cringing in the shadows, a battered remnant amidst a collapsing historical epoch. It’s odd to strike such a queasy and stricken note in such a movie, and signals for Heston in particular a crucial moment in his screen career, playing the character who seems anointed as the cavalier hero but who is ultimately left confronting his own damaged and damaging machismo, lost within the carnage he cannot end. Some anticipation here of how Sam Peckinpah would make use of him in Major Dundee (1965), as well as his general shift to playing flailing titans in films like Planet of the Apes (1968) and The Omega Man (1971). The ultimate lifting of the siege comes with a return to the musical motif of the opening as what seems to be a last-ditch charge by the Boxers proves instead to be them fleeing before advancing foreign soldiers.

The soldiers enter Peking accompanied by various specific marching tunes, flowing together suite-like as the besieged citizens dash to embrace their soldiers, representing the highpoint of what Matt and Sir Arthur muse upon as a brief episode of international cooperation. Of course, the inevitability of the accord’s collapse is quickly signalled when the victorious forces parade and resume the cacophony of clashing sounds, and the touch of humour in the Japanese Imperial force primly marching in and the very honourable and upright Shiba saluting the leader of the new contingent contains an appropriate undercurrent of foreboding. By contrast the Imperial majesty of China is envisioned as shattered, as the Empress Dowager, dressed in common clothes in preparing to abandon the palace, meditates on the end of the dynasty. But the ultimate potential for nations working for a common end is the far-off but tantalising anticipation of 55 Days At Peking, casting its mind forward to the founding of the United Nations once the great spasm of the new century’s conflicts fall still. The very last moments of the film look forward to the collapse of barriers and the hope for synthesis, as Matt finally reaches out to Teresa as he and he men prepare to march out, taking her onto his horse and accepting his fate at last to be her father. One of my favourite final scenes in a movie and one that again feels very Ray-like, a final, fragile connection between generations and tribes that can grow to something new and splendid.

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1980s, 2020s, Action-Adventure, War

Top Gun (1986) / Top Gun: Maverick (2022)

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Directors: Tony Scott / Joseph Kosinski
Screenwriters: Jim Cash, Jack Epps Jr / Ehren Kruger, Christopher McQuarrie, Eric Warren Singer

By Roderick Heath

Here there be spoilers…

The release of Top Gun: Maverick has proven a striking moment in contemporary pop culture. That is, it’s a blockbuster movie release capable of wringing the same reaction out of grown-up audiences usually reserved these days for the 14-year-olds flocking to see the latest comic book movie. Top Gun: Maverick is the belated sequel to the 1986 blockbuster Top Gun, a movie directed by Tony Scott but designed and implemented by its producer team of Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer as a precision-tooled star vehicle for Tom Cruise, who was 24 years old at the time of release. Top Gun’s long-simmering cult following is both a little surprising and not surprising at all. It made Cruise, already a fast-rising young star, a major-league big screen heartthrob and instant generational avatar. Its glitzy, glibly stylish look and hit-churning soundtrack pinioned it to a very specific moment in the cultural survey, a flagship of the 1980s cinema movement where pop movies were closely wound in with pop music, both in terms of their look and in their constant deployments of songs, and their mutual celebration of adolescent fancy. Now Cruise, who turns 60 this year (although Top Gun: Maverick has been delayed a couple of years because of the COVID-19 pandemic), returns to his first real signature role. Apart from the Mission: Impossible series which has proven an archipelago of popularity for him amidst the stormy waters of a late career and current screen culture, Cruise long resisted such backtracking.

Cruise has been a curious product of our love of movie stars right from the early days of his career. At once he was the inheritor of handsome ingénues from the dawn of time, the kind who set teenage girls (and quite a few boys) aquiver in their stomachs and itchy in the pants. But Cruise swiftly evinced far more canniness than most in establishing and protecting his stature. He seemed to emulate the careers of stars like Paul Newman and Jack Nicholson, who could for the most part effortlessly step between popular, image-cementing vehicles and artier, riskier, more challenging fare. Cruise has never quite gained their flexibility and reputation as an actor, because he remained first and foremost a star, but it’s precisely that quality which remained his advantage. Acting cred was always a far-off citadel he could storm when he felt like, but his real business was making movies for the widest possible audience, at a time when many a potential rival was sabotaging themselves by acting as if being called a movie star was an odious travail. Whilst Cruise had emerged playing relatively familiar kinds of young male starring parts – a football player in All The Right Moves (1983), a horny teen out for action in Losin’ It (1983) and Risky Business (1984) – Top Gun saw him emerge from a chrysalis as the perfect emblem of the yuppie era. Ahistorical in persona, white bread in ethnicity but disconnected from any sure sense of social identity, he morphed into a blank slate of Reaganite ambition.

With his carefully honed body, his capped teeth, his notoriously intense work ethic, and his air of self-willed exceptionality able to easily straddle personal ambition and embodiment of a creed, Cruise embodied the yuppie ideal perfectly. Cruise’s remarkable resistance to aging, his aerodynamic features only very slightly thickening and hardening over the years, has only amplified his strangeness, the way he seems to embody that essence of the movie star as something disconnected from normal life processes and inhabiting an exalted realm. After decades of having his character, sanity, even sexuality rifled from afar, the verdict has finally come fully down on the side of Cruise being perhaps the last common avatar of that ideal, and the very qualities that once made Cruise the most normcore and antiseptic of movie stars for all his occasional gestures towards stretching and perverting his image, have now become proofs of his specialness, his gift-from-the-movie-gods electness. Top Gun: Maverick is interesting in this regard but it finally evinces that Cruise is at least vaguely aware of his own mortality, especially when it showcases the ravages of aging inflicted on his Top Gun costar Val Kilmer. Both Top Gun movies are, both literally and metaphorically, about defying gravity, but finally must admit that gravity always wins.

Top Gun was based on a magazine article about the new elite training methods adopted by the US Navy air wing during and after Vietnam to improve dogfighting skills in their fighter pilots. Cruise was cast as Pete Mitchell, whose piloting call-sign is Maverick, a cocky but sublimely talented young fighter pilot. The film’s lengthy opening sees Maverick and his Radar Intercept Officer (RIO), Nick ‘Goose’ Bradshaw (Anthony Edwards), on deployment on an aircraft carrier in the Indian Ocean, off some purposefully vague conflict zone where their squadron of F-14 Tomcats encounter enemy pilots flying the flashy new (and imaginary) MiG-25 fighters. The MiGs outmanoeuvre the American pilots and seriously rattle the flight leader, Cougar (John Stockwell), by successfully targeting him, only for Maverick to expertly reverse the humiliation by flying more cleverly and making sport of the foes. After Cougar elects to quit flying, their CO, ‘Stinger’ (James Tolkan), chews Maverick out for his impudent and insubordinate antics, only to then inform him that with Cougar out he and Goose will take his place in the elite training scheme known as TOPGUN where they’ll be pitted against fellow hotshots, based at Miramar, North Island, near San Diego.

At TOPGUN Maverick encounters his one great rival as a pilot, Tom ‘Iceman’ Kazansky (Kilmer), and makes waves with his risk-taking tendencies, earning Iceman’s haughty assurance that he’s “dangerous,” and tangling with tutor ‘Jester’ (Michael Ironside), and program boss and Vietnam-era ace Mike ‘Viper’ Metcalf (Tom Skerritt), particularly when he violates the “hard floor”, that is the minimum altitude allowed during training, in his relentless chases. He also finds himself involved with another of the program tutors, Charlotte ‘Charlie’ Blackwood (Kelly McGillis), who he first meets in a bar and tries to pick up, only to learn her true identity later. Maverick’s close encounter with the new MiG gives him distinction and makes him a valuable source of information for her. As she gets to know him Charlie learns Maverick is haunted by his father’s fate as a fighter pilot, having vanished during an operation in 1965. During a training exercise where Maverick is playing wingman to Ice but the rival hotshot can’t nail a target, Maverick is caught in Ice’s engine wash, sending his plane careening out of control, and when he and Goose eject Goose hits the canopy and dies. Maverick is cleared of responsibility, but his friend’s death hangs heavily on him, and he considers leaving the Navy. He eventually turns up for graduation, just as he and the rest of the class are called to action back in the conflict zone and are flung into a deadly air battle.

One immediately eye-catching aspect of Top Gun is the burgeoning talent of its moment it ropes in, including Cruise, Kilmer, Meg Ryan (as Goose’s wife Carole), and Edwards, as well as notable also-rans like McGillis, Rick Rossovich, Adrian Pasdar, and John Stockwell, and counterbalanced by experts in surly elder attitude in Skerritt, Ironside, and Tolkan. Composer Harold Faltemeyer, straight off providing one instantly iconic theme for a new Hollywood hero on Beverly Hills Cop (1984), here provided the score and attached to Maverick a canoodling guitar theme that recurs every time Maverick does something cool, almost to the point of self-parody. The film opens with consciously glorifying images of the Naval pilots and their ground crews preparing to take off in shots drenched in a sunrise glow, men and machines made equivalent in their adamantine, architectural function in the buzzing enterprise. Segue into shots of the sky-thrashing pilots cavorting to the strains of the Kenny Loggins-sung, Giorgio Moroder-penned rock song “Highway To The Danger Zone.” Moroder also helped write the soundtrack’s other big product, “Take My Breath Away,” performed by the band Berlin, which captured the year’s Oscar for Original Song, and Scott does use its pulsing, breathy, deathless romantic quality to effect, interpolating it over a sex scene for Cruise and McGillis shot exactly like some high-end aftershave ad, complete with fluttering white curtains in a steely blue room.

As a movie, Top Gun belongs to a venerable subgenre. Films about the rarefied world of daring aviators date back to classic Hollywood flyboy flicks like Ceiling Zero (1936), Only Angels Have Wings (1939), Test Pilot (1940), Dive Bomber (1941), intersect with war movies like Twelve O’Clock High (1949), and continue through the likes of Toward The Unknown (1956), Jet Pilot (1957), and The Right Stuff (1983). The popularity of this kind of movie is obviously rooted in the basic thrill of flying really fast, an inherently spectacular and dramatic business not many people have access to experience for themselves. But it also constantly touches base with an essential dramatic dynamic: such movies depict the hermetic, rivalry-filled, thrill-loving world of pilots assigned to push the limits and the constant wrestle required to balance such necessary roguish will and the needs of the hierarchies they nominally belong to, be they civilian or military. In this regard the flyboy movie is an ideal one for exploring the tension between individualism and group identity, a theme immediately interesting and compelling for a vast bulk of the audience who experience that tension daily. Many older movies were concerned with the wildcard having his burrs shaved down to more cleanly fit in with the group or die in failing to heed the lesson, befitting products of an age when conformity was required by mass mobilisation and imperial emergence.

Top Gun, by contrast, explicitly taps its potential as a metaphor for different fantasies promulgated by a new epoch. Maverick’s nickname encapsulates the idealisation of the main character as someone whose exceptionality and independence are ultimately affirmed as virtues. He embodies the dream of being at once undisputed as an individual whilst fitting into an institution, free but also dedicated, cool and square at the same time. He is the personification of a particular tide-mark in American culture, balancing the individualist ideal, both as manifest in classic American mythos and also post-counterculture anti-authoritarianism, and the new conservatism that insists that yes, that individualism can be achieved, but can and must be suspended when higher duty calls. Maverick as a character, like the film’s depiction of the American military in its moment, is rooted in a haunted sense of generational severing involving the Vietnam War that both bent things out of shape but also informs a new determination to get back on top. Only the nostalgic evocations of the former era’s music is retained – “The Dock of The Bay”, “Great Balls of Fire,” and “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling” are wielded as shared touchstones, a lingua franca connecting new to old – but washed clean of any former meaning. Like the film about them, the songs have no specific meaning save as rhythmic variations for what the film is expressing about Maverick.

Maverick himself is offered as a vehicle for perceiving military service as a geopolitical equivalent of a football game, cemented by shared signs and gestures, expressions of both team identity and individual triumph. The film’s most famous catchphrase, recited by Maverick and Goose after a gruelling training session and facing down the snootiness of their rivals and bosses, “I feel the need – the need for speed!” is cemented with a high-five, a summation of this fantasising. Maverick and Goose are idealised in the film’s first half as the quintessential pair of wild-and-crazy guys who know how to make a party happen anywhere, with set routines for flirtation and a penchant for sitting at the piano banging on the keys and wailing Jerry Lee Lewis off-key. These moments are a recognisable point of descent for this kind of movie: some of those old flyboy pics I mentioned were directed by Howard Hawks, who was constantly fascinated by the rituals of close-knit groups dealing with specific pressures, and scenes of characters gathered around pianos. And yet the differences are very telling. Top Gun is Hollywood product at its most unrefined, much more the offspring of the desire to sell its star as simultaneously unstoppable and relatable and the producers’ mental check-list of how to ensure that, than it is of any authorial voice. Maverick’s friendship with Goose is positioned purely to impact upon Maverick’s journey. Goose’s death occurs to invest the last act with some emotional weight, and yet its real purpose seems to be to allow Cruise to be photographed in some different emotional registers. Here’s Tom Cruise looking moody. Here’s Tom Cruise still looking great in tighty-whities whilst mourning. Here’s Tom Cruise nobly resolving to lift from the ashes.

Similarly, the rest of the TOPGUN team are barely characterised beyond their postures of general antagonism with Maverick, and their inevitable shift to obeisance before his awesomeness. One of the film’s most famous/infamous vignettes sees Maverick and Goose playing Ice and his RIO Ron ‘Slider’ Kerner (Rossovich) playing a gleefully competitive game of beach volleyball, a moment beloved by many for its unabashed celebration of male physiques attached to charismatic actors. A brief interlude of carefully crafted pizzazz that says nothing about the characters beyond what we already know – they’re young, hot, and macho show-offs – when it might have been crafted to demonstrate the evolving camaraderie and inner natures of the heroes, as another potentially Hawksian moment. All of these are however illustrations of the postures the movie wants the audience to take towards the on-screen elements, and thus exist in a realm closer to advertising than drama, the audience being sold on the need to be/have/watch Maverick. Ice is the only rival graced with solidity, and Kilmer tries to give the character sharp angles of behaviour, particularly when he tries to console Maverick after Goose’s death, as if fighting to pierce a membrane of tension between the two of them. But even he’s essentially a one-dimensional foil, a locker room big-mouth with frosted tips and representative of the onus of establishment judgement. There’s some inherent irony in the casting insofar as Kilmer and Cruise as cast in roles the other might, given their career arcs and general ethos, more reasonably have played.

Top Gun is essentially Star Wars (1977) for jocks, mimicking that film’s essential story arc but removing its mythic element, not just by resituating it in the present day, but by reconfiguring the Luke Skywalker figure – the far-flung dreamer who realises brilliant potential – and substituting a state of already-achieved perfection, a hymn to narcissistic self-appreciation and fuck-I’m-good-just-ask-me posturing. The only quality Maverick needs to learn is humility, which Goose’s death finally instils – he learns to look outside of himself to a voice from beyond. The film plays an interesting game in this regard. The story makes much of Ice’s conviction that Maverick flies dangerously, but when there is a deadly consequence to his flying it’s carefully contrived to not really be his fault, but a by-product of several different forces converging to create a tragedy, of which Maverick and Ice’s competitiveness is only one. Maverick feels responsible because he finally learned he does not have godlike control in the air: he is graced both the gravitas of loss but relieved of the pressure of definite culpability. Maverick’s budding relationship with Charlie is both impaired and given new heat when she criticises one of his risky aerial moves, sparking a show of childishly argumentative behaviour from them both – they careen individually through traffic in their his-and-hers choice of vehicles – that inevitably leads to the sack. I’m sure there are more boring and asinine romances in cinema than that between Maverick and Charlie, but I’m not quite sure where. And yet Scott simply takes that emptiness as an opportunity to unabashedly sell music video-like fantasy, picturing the pair riding around on his Kawasaki and pashing on it in artful magic hour shots, much in the same way that Cruise’s general acting response to his situation is to flash his million-dollar super-cocky grin.

There’s no nice way of saying this – not that I feel any desire to be nice – but Top Gun is not a good film. Certainly from a technical filmmaking viewpoint it’s still mostly impressive, and the sheen of Jeffrey L. Kimball’s photography retains its gorgeous, high-end magazine-shoot gloss. And yet it’s a curiously patchy work that scarcely has a plot, has assemblages in place of characters, and almost dissolves into a succession of shots roughly accumulating into scenes, illustrating a script so shallow it can barely pass muster as a bubblegum wrapper. Nonetheless Top Gun proved a vital pivot and permanent landmark in Tony Scott’s oeuvre, and indeed in recent years the general affection for Tony, following his tragic death in 2012, amongst movie fans who grew up on his big-budget, big-flash movies has begun to rival that being shown for Cruise. The younger brother of Ridley, Scott’s career mimicked his elder sibling’s, graduating from the same art college and moving into advertising at Ridley’s invitation, similarly investing heavily stylised visuals into commercials he directed. After forays into directing television, Scott made his feature filmmaking debut with the 1981 Horror film The Hunger, a movie that bombed at the box office but won some attention for its style, including from Bruckheimer and Simpson, who had begun their rise to eminence in Hollywood by shepherding the successful Flashdance (1983), directed by Adrian Lyne, another flashy Brit talent the duo brought over.

Bruckheimer and Simpson hired Scott for Top Gun, and a lot of the film’s success is certainly owed to his arch use of flourishes like sunset backlighting and delight in gleaming fuselage – both human and aircraft. By contrast with his brother’s woozy ambition and genre-hopping, Scott essentially and happily remained a maker of slick B-movies, investing them with a superficial intensity of look and sound. But I’ve never been able to get on board with the belated Tony Scott cult. Apart from a handful of top-level works like True Romance (1992), Crimson Tide (1995), and Enemy of the State (1998), which were mostly distinguished by relative stylistic restraint, most of Tony’s films represent the glibbest form of chic. The phrase “style over substance” doesn’t quite cut it in summarising Tony’s aesthetic: the substance exists purely to serve the style. Tony’s later movies like Domino (2004) are insufferably gimmicky in their shooting and cutting. The Hunger is the most boring lesbian vampire movie ever made, and whilst it presaged Top Gun in establishing Scott’s comfort with extolling various forms of homoeroticism, it also established his airbrushed approach to such things, wrapping everything in a haute couture glaze. Rather than erotic, it’s a post-sexual world he inhabits, where all things are permitted so long as they have no definable weight and can be made to look really cool. Top Gun does at least move, but there’s a weird jerkiness to its construction, as if the film had a troubled shoot and what we see had to be laboriously patched together (a problem that would become more defined on the production team’s follow-up, Days of Thunder, 1990).

The most effective scenes in the film are its two real character moments, both of which revolve around Maverick’s troubled relationship with his father’s memory. When Maverick tells Charlie about his father’s disappearance, Scott performs a simple, effective tracking shot that slowly moves around Cruise as the actor expertly shifts from laughing nostalgia to musing introspection, a clear signal that Cruise is a performer who knows what he’s doing. Later, Viper takes him for a walk on the beach and explains that he was a part of the mass dogfight that claimed his father’s life, which was hushed up because it “took place on the wrong side of some border,” and assures Maverick his dad really was a hero. This scene certainly gains a lot from Skerritt’s expertise as a grizzled character actor. These flashes of substance are however quickly disposed of. They serve less to tell us that Maverick has psychological issues than to have one of the last impediments to understanding himself as awesome have been removed. The inevitable action climax, in which Maverick is sent out to rescue Ice and others from an ambush by MiGs and saves Ice by shooting down three of the enemy planes, is spectacular stuff in a jumpy sort of way. Where in the training scenes Scott and his filming team do a good job of establishing the relationships of the various aircraft, in the combat the editing turns chaotic. The film’s most truly outstanding element remains the flying, when you can see it properly, which is almost entirely authentic.

Top Gun concludes triumphantly, of course, with Ice and Maverick cemented finally as mutually appreciative if still sardonically rivalrous comrades, and Maverick reuniting with Charlie after she seemed to choose her career over him, whilst Maverick contemplates turning TOPGUN instructor himself. Flashforward to the present day. Top Gun: Maverick has the difficult task of locating any form of seriousness in the inherited material, and its main choice in doing so is to make Goose’s death a cross Maverick has been carrying throughout his 30-plus-year flying career. Maverick is rediscovered working as a test pilot on the Darkstar, a prototype plane that can hopefully go to Mach 10. That’s, like, really fast, yo. When he learns the project is being shut down early by its overseer Rear-Admiral Cain (Ed Harris), Maverick, hoping to save the project and its employees from the scrapheap, takes the plane up and goes for broke, busting Mach 10 before crashing. Maverick earns a customary chewing-out, and it’s made clear he’s never risen above the rank of Captain because of his habits of insubordination, and only has a place in the Navy still thanks to Ice’s protection, as his former rival turned eternal pal is now an Admiral.

Maverick is nonetheless saved once again when, through Ice’s intervention, he’s called to TOPGUN to quickly school a select group of graduates for an extremely dangerous mission: they’re assigned to attack and destroy a clandestine uranium enrichment facility in some other (or the same) unnamed rogue nation, an installation built in a remote and rugged locale and heavily defended to the point that Maverick describes as needing “two miracles” to destroy. Maverick soon has to deal with blasts from the past upon returning to Miramar, most agreeably in the form of Penny Benjamin (Jennifer Connelly), one of his former girlfriends (who is mentioned in a running joke but not glimpsed in the first film) and the daughter of an Admiral who now runs a bar at North Island for pilots. More disturbing is the presence of Goose’s son Lt. Bradley ‘Rooster’ Bradshaw (Miles Teller), who has become a top pilot in spite of Carole’s wish for him not to follow in his father’s footsteps, a wish Maverick hesitantly tried to enforce by failing to recommend him for the Naval Academy when it was in his power. Maverick also chafes under the watchful eye of the Naval Air Forces honcho ‘Cyclone’ Simpson (Jon Hamm), who has no time for Maverick’s loose cannon antics, dammit.

Perhaps taking some heed of how angrily many fans took to the borderline contemptuous use of the classic Star Wars heroes in the new Disney-backed trilogy, and perhaps also thanks to Cruise’s ever-rigorous grip on how to manage his screen image, Top Gun: Maverick resists making sport of its hero’s condition of arrested development. When, in the opening minutes, Maverick is glimpsed sweeping the canvas cover off his old Kawasaki and dashing across the desert to work like he’s still the same flashy kid he was in the original, it’s not to service any humour but for the audience to delight in the way Cruise-as-Maverick still embodies their fantasies – in this case to still act like a 24-year-old when you’re pushing 60. Top Gun: Maverick’s most vital theme nonetheless quickly proves to revolve around fear of obsolescence, as Maverick stares down his last real chance to make a mark in the Navy. Maverick’s opening escapade is very obviously based on The Right Stuff, and director Joseph Kosinski acknowledges the model by casting Harris. Cain is nicknamed “The Drone Ranger” and wants to shut down the Darkstar specifically to channel its funding into his drone warfare projects, an offence to any self-respecting, old-school warrior. Thus, the onus of hierarchical command’s paternalistic authority and sometimes blind verdicts Maverick faced in the first film is here also conflated with the threat of the new, a newness that’s blandly impersonal, technocratic, and, well, just plain unmanly.

Not that piloting is strictly a manly business anymore: Maverick’s trainee squad also includes female pilots Natasha ‘Phoenix’ Trace (Monica Barbaro) and Callie ‘Halo’ Bassett (Kara Wang), as well as the braggart  Jake ‘Hangman’ Seresin (Glen Powell, stealing scenes with his smugly louche alpha act), whose rivalry with Rooster echoes Maverick’s with Ice. Hangman is more of a provocateur and bully than either of them were: Phoenix comments dryly that his call-sign stems from his habit of leaving his comrades “hanging out to dry” in tough situations. There’s even a dorky non-alpha named Bob – just Bob (Lewis Pullman) – who serves as Phoenix’s RIO. Throughout their training Rooster’s resentment of Maverick clashes with Maverick’s fear of sending Rooster off to his death, compounding the Bradshaw family tragedy. Hangman eventually catches wind of Rooster’s spurring loss, which also purposefully echoes Maverick’s in the first film. The film hits many of same basic story beats as the original, even going so far as to have Maverick sent on his way to TOPGUN by a bald character actor, before entering into some deliberate doppelganger moments, building to a strong vignette as Penny notices Maverick staring into the bar with a stricken look whilst Rooster within bangs out “Great Balls of Fire” on the piano for his pals just as his father used to. Arguably this is going a few steps too far in positing Rooster as a chip off the old block, considering he was an infant in the original film, but of course it gives both Maverick and the audience familiar with it a hot dose of instant nostalgic connection.

Top Gun: Maverick keeps in mind lessons from some of the more successful extensions of venerable franchises or “legacequels” of recent years. There are detectable likeness to Rocky Balboa (2006) and Creed (2014), Skyfall (2012) and Spectre (2015), Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008), and Kosinski’s own Tron: Legacy (2011), from which it repeats the idea of positing a generational interchange as, basically, a father-son tale. This is one of the best aspects of Top Gun: Maverick, but also an exasperating one, as the film avoids giving much information about just what kind of relationship Maverick and Rooster had as the young man grew up. Their relationship is also defined in a way that resembles the original film in skipping around the issue of responsibility: Rooster’s anger at Maverick for holding him back is used as a stand-in for the audience’s awareness of Maverick’s role in Goose’s death whilst also dismissing that as a lingering issue. The film also generally still exists to affirm Cruise as the fount of all awesomeness. When the hat is tipped to the original’s volleyball scene as Maverick and his students play football on the beach together, it’s mostly to draw the viewer’s admiration for how good Cruise’s physique is still, rather than celebrate those of any potential replacements, and Kosinski avoids filming with the same soft-core sheen that Scott so readily indulged.

Kosinski is one of the more interesting talents to break into big-budget filmmaking in the past decade or so. He started off as a would-be screenwriter but gained attention working with CGI on advertisements and cutscenes for video games, developing a fine eye, a sleek sense of style and function, but also emerging as a film director with a good feel for actors. He’s more classical and has a finer touch than Scott ever had – he cares that Cruise and Connelly seem to really get along on camera where in the original Cruise and McGillis seemed to be thrown together because of their clashing eye hues and bone structures. But he also lacks the fetishistic clamminess that clung to Scott’s imagery, the quality that, for better or worse, defined Scott as a premiere Dream Factory stylist. Scott’s film also belonged to an era when filmmaking was strongly attuned to physicality, which Scott took to typically hyperbolic lengths by coating just about every actor in sweat to catch all the lighting hues but also give the impression these are guys feeling extremes at all times. Top Gun: Maverick by contrast has no such feel for hothouse climes. Kosinski links his shots together better than Scott, but lacks his pictorial intensity. Kosinski settles for reproducing the opening of Top Gun in his edition, down to the backlit crew and planes and playing “Highway To The Danger Zone” on the soundtrack, as if this isn’t some epic years-later revisiting but maybe the first or second imaginary sequel that might have come down the pipeline in the late ‘80s if Cruise had been so inclined. Perhaps if I was more nostalgic for the first film this would pinion me with Pavlovian sense-memory, but apart from mildly liking the song it doesn’t have that leverage over me. This sort of thing is instantly reassuring to fans but it also signals just how derivative and unimaginative this take is going to be. The film doesn’t even have some of the eccentric qualities Kosinski invested in the generally underrated and trend-setting Tron: Legacy.

Similarly, Top Gun: Maverick also reproduces the original in failing to sketch the members of the pilots beyond a couple of basic traits. Kosinski tried his best to invest a definably Hawksian sensibility in his firefighter drama Only The Brave (2017) through portraying group dynamics in difficult, cut-above jobs: he failed – who wouldn’t? – but it was a nice try. He makes a similar play here, introducing the pilots in the trainee team in a lengthy sequence in Penny’s bar as they josh and jibe, compete and party. This sequence is also clever in the way it remixes Maverick’s meeting with Charlie in the original, with the young pilots mistaking Maverick for just another old fart, only to cringe when he strides out before them at TOPGUN. But despite Kosinski’s best efforts everyone remains locked into their specific, generic functions, barely fleshed out or given characteristics, except for Hangman, whose preordained act of redemptive rescue is both delivered with a dash of humour and again tips its hat to Maverick’s role in the original’s climax. And that’s ultimately both what distinguishes and hampers Top Gun: Maverick. Whilst it’s both much more of a real movie than its predecessor, it’s also a simple, straightforward, unambitious one. That sort of thing can be a relief in today’s blockbuster zone filled with multiverses and cross-promotional tie-ins, and it’s plain by the general, initial reaction it’s proven exactly that for many.

Still, I can’t help but wonder when the mass audience became so undemanding. Despite being a paean to unruly willpower, there’s nothing of the like to the film’s crisply ordered, very familiar plot progression, nor anything daring about its approach to its characters and their stories. Where the original at least made gestures towards complicating its morality and destabilising the aura of its hero before reconfirming it, Top Gun: Maverick only goes through the motions of character conflict. Maverick’s calls this time are far more insubordinate than they were in the first film but the movie assures us they’re the right ones (even in the opening vignette where he destroys a multimillion-dollar aircraft). His skirmishes with Rooster are ultimately straw-dummy headbutting. Maverick’s relationship with Rooster is essentially the same as his with Penny – they knew each-other back when, they’ve been through some stuff, and despite the superficial spurning and sparring they all still like each-other, and we don’t have to go to any effort making them connect. Those connections are just there.

Cruise and Connelly bring a decent level of chemistry to their scenes together, convincingly portraying a couple who have been around the block a few times but still have the fire of their younger selves guttering within. Kosinski works in some amusing flourishes that give some flickers of life: Penny takes Maverick out on her yacht and has to teach him basic seamanship despite him being the career Navy man, and later he has to sneak out of her bedroom to avoid giving the game away too early to Penny’s teenage daughter Amelia (Lyliana Wray), only to drop down directly before her expectant gaze and stern warning, “Don’t break her heart again.” None of this escapes the bonds of a standard-issue C-plot romance, and the scene where Penny consoles Maverick through a crisis of confidence feels like it copy-and-pasted from the script of Rocky Balboa, which also dug up an obscure character from the franchise opener to serve as the fill-in for a previous love interest. The film’s best scenes are calculated in divergent ways. The first comes when Maverick goes to visit Ice, who, like the actor playing him, has been debilitated and left almost voiceless by cancer. Maverick confesses his worries and doubts to his old comrade and defender, who tells him by computer that “it’s time to let go” when it comes to Rooster, and then huskily pronounces, “The Navy needs Maverick – the kid needs Maverick.” It’s virtually impossible not to be moved by this, even given what stick-figures the actors played in the original. Part of the new gravitas comes from time and affection for these two actors who remind us for good or ill that more time has passed since the original than anyone involved would care to remember.

Kilmer’s strength as an actor still glows under the ashes of illness, his bond with Cruise has a genuine feel, and the scene ends with a deft flash of audience-tickling humour when Ice then prods Maverick with the question “Who’s the better pilot, you or me?” and Maverick responds dryly, “This is a nice moment, let’s not ruin it.” Later in the film Ice dies from his illness, leaving Maverick defenceless before the military hierarchy, but he decides to take another risk after Cyclone decides to dump him and try a more conservative approach to the raid when it seems no-one can traverse the twisting terrain in the necessary span of time to avoid detection on the impending bomb run. Maverick takes a plane and puts all his piloting legerdemain on the line to prove it can be done, convincing Cyclone that only he can effectively lead the team into battle. This sequence is certainly on point, exploiting both the sophistication of the aerial photography and flying and the straightforward rah-rah of seeing the old hero get his mojo back and prove the world still bends before the awesomeness of Maverick. The actual bomb run proves almost a little too straightforward, despite the inevitable little foul-ups like failing laser guidance that requires so old-fashioned down-home shooting skill.

Both Top Gun movies are inarguably about celebrating the legend of American military strength. The first film, famously, generated a 500% spike in applications to become pilots. The narrative through-line of both movies, whilst preoccupied with Maverick as, well, a maverick, his arts nonetheless simply make him the apex predator in this kind of warfare. But the movies’ pitch also comes with the curious caveat that it is above all just that, a legend. That military strength is rendered a trope, as inconsequential in its way as the realities of Charlemagne’s empire to the stories of Roland or Dark Age Britain to the Arthurian Knights, or the Bengal Lancers in some 1930s Hollywood-made film extolling British imperialism. The abstraction of the enemy in both films, with their menacing black aircraft and face-covering helmets, underlines this legendary conception, even as it also highlights a worrying aspect of military thinking. The “enemy” becomes an amorphous thing, detached from all geopolitical immediacies, turning politics and war into an eternal duel pivoting from foe to foe. Both movies tap tension in anxiety that American military capability isn’t really that much – the MiGs in the first film and the “fifth generation” enemy fighters in the sequel are both described as being formidable and more sophisticated than the US fighter planes – and it’s the calibre of people flying them is what really counts. In the original Top Gun the enemy starts shooting first, and the American pilots are forced to fight for their lives, placing them not only in an underdog position but also in the right. In Top Gun: Maverick they’re engaged in a covert operation and pre-emptive strike.

The potential repercussions of this, and how the pilots feel about it, could be very interesting, but aren’t investigated at all. “Don’t think, just feel,” Maverick instructs Rooster and the rest of the team, which is supposed to relate purely to the required surrender to pure instinct in the heat of jet-powered flying, but also describes every other aspect of their roles. Ours not to reason why, etc. The similarity of Top Gun: Maverick’s basic plot to a host of older war movies is also hard to miss. The bombing run is closest in nature to Mark Robson’s The Bridges at Toko-Ri (1953), and indeed it’s basically the same film, down to Maverick getting shot down after successfully completing the seemingly impossible mission. Except that where Robson took a risk and kept the downbeat ending of James Michener’s source novel in which both pilot hero and his would-be rescuers were shot dead, Kosinski sets up the same situation but delivers crowd-pleasing stuff. Rooster returns to save Maverick from a helicopter that pursues him across the snowy wasteland, only to be shot down himself, forcing the duo to make their way across country together.

Teller, not an actor I’ve felt much liking for thus far in his career, proves surprisingly effective in his role, as far as it goes. With a scruffy moustache he looks enough like Edwards but with a slightly burlier, overcompensating edge. His interactions with Cruise are however more stated than felt. The last portion of the film sees Maverick and Rooster trekking across the snow-crusted landscape and electing to steal a vintage, surplus F-14 from a hanger bay. As far as fan-pleasing touches go this is again pretty good, setting up a finale that wrings excitement from this twist, as Maverick has to not just outfly but outthink two far more modern and formidable opponents in the ultimate dramatization of his career doldrums. But the situations are robbed of what should be some of their tense and immediate impact by the blankness of the setting and the absence of enemy soldiers. It remains as bland and plastic and straightforward as a mid-2000s video game. Which is a significant lack considering that what distinguishes Top Gun: Maverick up until this point is the remarkable beauty and immediacy of the flying sequences, which mostly eschew special effects enhancement as much as the first film and indeed go a few steps further, utilising the cutting-edge camerawork and lensing to show the audience the cast in the planes, and giving a potent sense of the thrills and dangers of weaving a path up a narrow gorge in a plane going hundreds of miles an hour.

The visual drama and immediacy of the flying and filming throughout have been immediately celebrated by viewers and critics alike, and it feels like it could be an important moment in the history of current big-budget cinema, if anyone cares to learn the lesson. At the very least, Top Gun: Maverick is, quite genuinely, an islet of old-school cinema values: putting good-looking people on screen and having them do interesting, spectacular things – an essentialist approach to making popular cinema going back to Pearl White. For all the advancing sophistication of CGI-era cinema, the human eye retains a capacity to tell what’s real from what’s bogus, as Hollywood has begun using its computers as a catch-all for all its efforts, but Kosinski and his crew and actors provide ample evidence that approach to making movies need not be the whole future. Top Gun: Maverick also manages the rare feat of improving enormously on a facile precursor and using it as a solid template, which might well be because that template in turn is rooted in primeval Hollywood lore, however bastardised. Top Gun: Maverick aims to summarise and provide apotheosis for Cruise as a star, but it does so in a manner that confirms just how much of the star’s ambition has waned, and how much the audience expects of him, taking this mostly bland, efficient, solid programmer as some sort of grand return.

Standard
1960s, Action-Adventure, Crime/Detective, Thriller

Bullitt (1968)

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Director: Peter Yates
Screenwriters: Harry Kleiner, Alan R. Trustman

This essay is offered as part of the Sixth Annual Allan Fish Online Film Festival 2022, a festival founded by Jamie Uhler and hosted by Wonders in the Dark, held to honor the memory of the late cineaste extraordinaire Allan Fish, considering films in the public domain and/or available to view online

By Roderick Heath

Words like classic, iconic, and seminal are very often overused, but feel entirely right in describing Peter Yates’ Bullitt. It’s a film that wielded vast and immediate influence – it’s doubtful William Friedkin’s The French Connection or Don Siegel’s Dirty Harry (both 1971), or a host of hard-driving action-thrillers in the 1970s and ‘80s, would have been made. It’s difficult to imagine Michael Mann’s oeuvre without its example. Both Robert Altman (in Brewster McCloud, 1971) and Peter Bogdanovich (in What’s Up, Doc?, 1972) would lampoon the title character and his famous car chase. But Bullitt was the hit no-one saw coming. Like Point Blank from the previous year, which plays like Bullitt’s fractured, psychedelic sibling, Bullitt saw an established Hollywood star court a rising British directing talent. In this case Steve McQueen followed the advice of co-screenwriter Alan R. Trustman, who went to see Yates’ Robbery (1967) whilst writing the screenplay, and enthusiastically suggested Yates as director for the project. Yates himself suspected he had been hired just to keep the demanding McQueen busy and out of Warner Bros’ hair, at a time when nobody thought of British directors as action filmmakers. The Aldershot-born Yates, son of an army officer, was a RADA graduate who cut his teeth in British theatre, and also gained some surprisingly consequential experience when it came to fast cars by working as a manager for some racing drivers.

After drifting into film work and becoming a reliable assistant director working under heavyweights like Mark Robson, J. Lee Thompson, and Tony Richardson, Yates made his film directing debut with the Cliff Richard film vehicle Summer Holiday (1963). After Bullitt made him an A-list filmmaker, Yates famously resisted becoming pigeonholed in any particular genre, a resistance that has ironically perhaps diminished his reputation in posterity for the lack of a clear auteurist project. Yates instead oscillated between the kind of hard, realistic, atmospheric crime and action dramas he made his name with and more interpersonal and modest movies. Yates however could find the flexibility within genres too – technically works like Bullitt, The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1974), The Deep (1977), Suspect (1987), and The House on Carroll Street (1988) exist within the boundaries of the thriller but are all very different, and those all seemingly a world away from the like of Breaking Away (1979) or The Dresser or Krull (both 1983), and genre-straddling exercises like Murphy’s War (1971) and Mother, Jugs & Speed (1976). Except perhaps in Yates’ gift for carefully-paced, slow-burn tension, and his attitude to their central characters, with Yates’ admitted fondness for rule-bucking, underdog characters who take chances to ensure their personal vision will win through, sometimes succeeding, sometimes not. That facet to Yates’ sensibility was certainly key to the success of Bullitt, which enshrined the heroic figure who is at once an authority figure and also detached from the establishment as an essential one in pop culture.

Bullitt also became the quintessential relic of McQueen himself, as the film sees the actor paring his persona and performance down to its root DNA with the perfect character to inhabit, one who generally only registers the most powerful and profound emotions through the contraction and dilation of his glacial blue eyes and degrees of tautness to his lips. McQueen’s personal passion for fast vehicles and borderline-neurotic obsession with minimalist efficiency in life and art likewise infuses Bullitt, which presented in 1968, and still does in a way, a perfect style guide for cool. The opening credits, which unfold over events cryptic in meaning but eventually explained as the movie unfolds, are themselves a tight thumbnail of iconographic cool, as Lalo Schifrin’s ice-cold jazz theme strums away over credits that slip and slide and leave distorted impressions in the imagery that become portals into the next shot, and swaps between colour and black-and-white. The film title proper is projected over a quartet of impassive, tensely waiting hoods, bathed in cold blue light, like they’re cast for a zombie movie rather than a thriller, the hard lines and clean angles of the modern architecture promising geometric order but laced with tear gas and sweltering under the gaze of Willim A. Fraker’s cinematography.

As this game of aesthetics unfolds, a story also commences, as the hoods smash their way into a suite of chic offices: Johnny Ross (Pat Renella), hiding within, is a Chicago underworld lieutenant who’s embezzled a fortune from his organisation’s wire service, and now that he’s been rumbled he eludes his would-be assassins and escapes in a car. One of the hoods (Victor Tayback) lets Ross get away; this is Ross’s brother, indulging his kin one last time. A couple of days later in San Francisco, a man who looks and dresses like Ross and uses the same name (Felice Orlandi) goes through a series of enigmatic encounters, including with a hotel messenger service that proves bewilderingly negative, and a long-distance phone call listlessly observed by the cabbie he’s hired (Robert Duvall). Not long after, this individual is presented to SFPD lieutenant Frank Bullitt (McQueen) and his partner ‘Dell’ Delgetti (Don Gordon) by Senator Walter Chalmers (Robert Vaughn): Chalmers, hoping to make a big splash by presenting this Ross as a special witness before a senate crime committee has arranged with Frank and Dell’s Captain, Sam Bennett (Simon Oakland), to protect Ross until the hearing, as Frank’s been recommended as a smooth operator.

Robert L. Fish’s source novel (written with the pseudonymous last name Pike) was entitled Mute Witness; Bullitt on the other hand places its hero front and centre, partly no doubt because it’s a thoroughgoing star vehicle, but also because thanks to the intricate collaboration of script, director, and actor, Frank Bullitt emerges as an intriguing and detailed protagonist. His last name seems to inscribe him through polysemy as an innate man of action, and yet Yates permits our first sight of the great urban swashbuckler as a man tired and cranky and a little pathetic. Here’s the great detective irritably limping downstairs to let Dell in, startled like a nocturnal creature when Dell lifts his blind and lets sunlight in, and warming a cup of instant coffee with a bedside heating gadget. Dell, plainly used to the vicissitudes of Frank’s lifestyle, helping himself to canned milk from his fridge and reading his newspaper. Immediately Frank is posited as a person with an identifiable life, as the film perhaps takes some licence from Sidney J. Furie’s The Ipcress File (1965) which similarly, carefully constructed its tough hero as nonetheless an opposite to a James Bond-ish playboy. Bringing in a class-conscious British director to an otherwise very American milieu served McQueen’s penchant for depicting ambitious men who have found themselves adrift or alienated in a social sense, elevated through their talents and smarts or general refusenik cynicism, but still retain strong working class traits. Frank’s head-butting with Chalmers is laced with sociological as well as temperamental and professional tension, Chalmers representing a nominally respectable but actually rapacious ruling class for which Frank is supposed to play sentry.

In other respects Frank pointed to an ideal for an onscreen authority figure that echoed back to James Cagney being cast as a streetwise operator turned FBI agent in “G” Men (1935), as a cop who seems vaguely like a congruent member of the community rather than a member of an occupying army. Frank straddles two zones: he’s fairly young if weathered, good-looking, and has enough good taste and savoir faire to date commercial artist Cathy (Jacqueline Bisset) and possessed of enough hip attitude to own a Mustang and dig a little cool jazz with dinner, illustrated when he and Cathy go out for the night. He has his own sense of style, his distinct dress and way of wearing his gun separating him from the pack. That McQueen based his characterisation on the film’s technical advisor Frank Toschi, a serving SFPD detective who later, famously investigated the Zodiac killings, gave extra credence to the portrayal. And still Frank keeps at least one toe on the ground, calling in to his station so he’s on call before settling down to eat, and living a most humdrum, borderline vagrant life when he’s not on the job. Yates extends this aspect as he depicts Frank, after a long and gruelling night of work, using a little sleight of hand when he realises he doesn’t have any small change to steal a newspaper, with a furtive glance around to make sure no-one’s seen him, and then going into a corner grocery store, from which he plucks a stack of TV dinners without any inspection and carts them to his apartment.

Whilst Bullitt certainly isn’t a character study of a suffering policeman a la Sidney Lumet’s The Offence and Serpico (both 1973), or Richard Fleischer’s The New Centurions (1972), Yates laces these droll moments of scruffy, very human behaviour into the film partly to give it convincing texture and to back up the core narrative, which is preoccupied less with the danger Frank faces from criminals, although he certainly does, than the danger from Chalmers. Chalmers is the pure embodiment of the asshole politician, a prince of darkness often followed about by his own personal golem, Police Captain Baker (Norman Fell), a glowering lump of animated clay who, like many others, obeys this Mephistopheles because Chalmers holds out lying promises (in the police’s case a promise for political support) on one hand and threats of hellfire on the other. Yates makes a motif out of associating Chalmers with social rituals and public meeting places, waylaying people and finding their pressure points for enticement and coercion. He’s introduced holding court in a gathering of high society ladies amongst which Frank looks entirely absurd, later intercepts Captain Bennett when he and his family are going to church, watching for their arrival like a well-suited gargoyle, and dogs Frank in the hospital and at an airport.

Frank becomes increasingly uneasy in his assignment when he finds the hotel room Chalmers has stashed Ross in is exceptionally vulnerable to snipers, but leaves Ross in the care of another of his men, Stanton (Carl Reindel). Danger doesn’t need a good aim: two hitmen, Mike (Paul Genge) and Phil (Bill Hickman), using Chalmers’ name, come up to the room. Ross surreptitiously unlocks the door as if expecting someone friendly, only for the killers to shoot Stanton and then Ross himself. Yates’ staging here is brutally impressive, in allowing what was then a potently graphic edge touched with peculiar grimy beauty, globs of spurting blood erupting from Ross as he’s gunned down and hovering for a split second in focus whilst the man is hurled away by the blast, whilst the gunmen remain shadowy, almost monstrous figures, their cool, ultra-professional efficiency noted as the gunman immediately disassembles his shotgun and hides it in his overcoat and removes balls of cotton wool he was using as earplugs to stifle the deafening noise. Opponents truly fit for another ultra-pro like Bullitt. The grievously wounded Stanton still manages to put Frank on alert about Ross’s strange action, and both men are taken to a hospital where Ross is operated on.

The rest of the film unfolds with the tick of a relentless metronome as Frank tries to understand what has just transpired and why, whilst resisting Chalmers’ aggressive attempts to either get Ross on the witness stand or nail down a fall guy for the failure, preferably Frank himself. “Lieutenant, don’t try and evade the responsibility,” Chalmers drones with tightly controlled smugness when Frank tries to ask him about what dealings he had with Ross: “In your parlance, you blew it.” Chalmers also makes clear he doesn’t care about the wounded Stanton, and tries to get Ross’s black surgeon, Dr Willard (Georg Stanford Brown), replaced by someone “more experienced.” Yates offers a brilliant vignette, very subtle in playing but laced with dimensions of socio-political meaning requiring no dialogue to explicate, where Frank, eating a sandwich and sipping a glass of milk, and Willard, washing his hands, give each-other knowing glances as both understand they’ve both made Chalmers’ enemies list – a noble fellowship of victimised factotums at The Man’s mercy despite their aspirations.

Yates’s carefully mediating visuals, often playing with foreground and background, occasionally crystallises potent visual vignettes, as when he spies Frank watching Willard operating on Ross through the OT window, vigilant in electric silence, knowing full well the avalanche that will fall if Ross dies, and a semi-surreal tracking shot as Frank strolls through the ER patients and monitoring equipment surveyed in sworls of white and mechanics, until a young woman’s face enters the frame – Stanton’s girlfriend in tired, listless vigil over the sleeping, injured man, in a moment of low-burning empathy. The hitman Mike makes a foray into the hospital to take another whack at killing Ross: he attempts to be casual in asking directions but the doctor he asks still reports the encounter to Frank. A nurse interrupts the killer before he can use a secreted ice pick on Ross, and Frank tracks him through the labyrinthine corridors of the hospital in a sequence that feels like a powerful influence on the paranoid visions of Alan Pakula and Michael Crichton’s Coma (1978), a place of glistening utilitarian forms that is nonetheless eerie and ambiguous. Yates and Fraker include a baroque shot of Frank walking into a therapy room, in the shadowy background of the shot, whilst the tracking camera pans onto the hiding hitman, ready with ice pick in hand, in the looming foreground of the shot, the imminence of danger revealed to the audience, all filmed into blue chiaroscuro with rippling pool water flickering on the far wall.

Whilst Bullitt as a film resists some of the more overtly distorted argots of film style of the period, such moments come charged with both efficiency as visual exposition and a glaze of enriching technical prowess and artistry. When Ross dies without extra help from the killers, Frank, knowing Chalmers will shut down the operation and make him the scapegoat if he learns this, talks Willard into keeping this a secret to give Frank time to investigate. Bennett, trusting in Frank’s judgement despite warnings to walk the straight and narrow, plays interference for him, resisting Chalmers and Baker’s pressure. Meanwhile Frank begins assiduously tracing Ross’s movements, working with Delgetti in jaded but capable good cop-bad cop pressuring the desk clerk (Al Checco) of Ross’s hotel to overcome his reluctance after and give up information, then following the trail on to Ross’s cab driver, whose own attentive streak proves vital. Frank also talks to an informant, Eddy (Justin Tarr), who fills him in Ross’s background and the events in Chicago. Frank’s efforts to fool Chalmers also have the unintended but lucky consequence of obliging the hitmen to follow Frank around town in the belief he can lead them to him. When the cabbie drops Frank back at his Mustang in a parking lot, Frank soon realises he’s being tracked, and begins a nerveless process of leading the hitmen on and then using his knowledge of the city streets to turn the tables and get behind them. At which point the hitmen fasten their seatbelts and step hard on the gas.

Thus begins the most famous and consequential scene of Bullitt, as the hitmen try to outrun Frank up and down the hills of midtown San Francisco before making a break for the highway out of town. Where Don Siegel, in The Line-up (1958) and again in Dirty Harry found obsessive fascination in San Francisco’s ravioli explosion of freeways and overpasses in their stark, charmless modernity and frenetic functionality, and Alfred Hitchcock for Vertigo (1958) had stuck to the dreamy precincts of the bay, Yates decisively found the vertiginous slopes of the Mission District the ideal landscape for car chase action, at once like they’re dancers in a ballet, and as if the earthbound drivers are nonetheless trying to mimic astronauts and take off for space every time they fly over a shelf and careen down a slope. Editor Frank Keller won an Oscar essentially for his work on the scene. Car chases were of course nothing new in action movies, having been a constant since the days of Mack Sennett in Hollywood. What made Bullitt’s chase cutting-edge then, and still-thrilling now, was the immersive fierceness of Yates’ and his crew’s staging and filming. Where what would once have been filmed all at a distance on some cleanly flowing road here exploits the tyranny of the unsuitability of the topography an aspect of the action, and completely avoiding rear projection, camera speed tricks, and other gimmickry, complete with close-ups of McQueen driving at high speed.

Yates toggles between manifold camera angles including shots taken within the cars moving fast down chassis-jarring angles, zoom shots moving and in and out to emphasise a documentary veracity, sometimes allowing the cars to move out of focus or become momentarily lost in hose-piping shots that at once add to the visual excitement and turn the action into semi-abstract art, whilst the editing discontinuity seems right in the age of the action replay. The whole sequence, including the cat-and-mouse stalk and then the roaring of the motorised lions, takes 10 minutes. One irony behind the scene’s impact lay in Yates and team forgoing precise realism, splicing together as they did multiple takes to amplify its symphonic impact, with attendant continuity goofs, with damage to the cars coming and going and one green Volkswagen Beetle that seems to be looping in a time warp. Yates’ feel for realism is nonetheless still crucial – the streets are quiet but not suddenly, conveniently empty, as Frank is briefly frustrated by cars blocking him at first from giving pursuit. The bucking bronco moves on the sloping streets give way to fast, flowing motion once the two cars get onto a parkway, as Mike takes the chance to shoot at Frank with his shotgun. The ultra-pros in their element, stalking each-other on the tarmac veldt, with only the very faint smile Bill gives when he thinks he’s lost Frank behind providing a hint of emotion.

But action is also characterisation: Frank swerves to avoid hitting a toppled motorcyclist, almost losing his prey as he crashes onto the dusty verge, but manages to catch up again. The chase has a structural and figurative similarity to the chariot race in Ben-Hur (1959), its mock-ancient equivalent, with Mike’s attempts to shoot Frank’s car like Messala’s use of a whip in the earlier film proving a recourse that invites self-destruction in breaking the informal rules of the chase, Frank forced to ram the assassins’ Dodge off the road, and the killers crash into a gas station, blowing up with it, whilst Frank skids to a halt. This climax to the scene was almost a total disaster due to an accident in the filming, but Keller saved it with clever cutting. Another smart touch here was removing music scoring from the actual fast chase portion, instead allowing the tyre squeals and engine grunts to provide music of a kind. Yates might well have been thinking of Jules Dassin’s silent heist scenes in Rififi (1955) and Topkapi (1964) in ironically making the suspense sequence the one that doesn’t need amplification in that fashion. The sequence did wonders for Mustang sales, too. The streamlined form of the Mustang seemed to combine the sleek aesthetic of modern, often European design with the muscle of a good American roadster, and so is the perfect style object for the film, as Yates blends aspects of cinema cultures to create a sleek and chitinous new form. Of course, movies are deceiving: in actuality the villains’ Dodge Charger was so much faster than the Mustang Hickman had to keep slowing down to let it catch up.

Bisset’s presence signifies a similar fruition, emblematic posh British beauty transplanted somehow to American shores, bringing a fresh gust of Swinging London chic. Cathy provides Frank with his anchor in the everyday world and also one who elevates him out of it. Bisset’s role in the film isn’t large and yet her character provides genuine substance as a presence in Frank’s story. Their growing relationship is given an amusing underlining when, with his own car wrecked after the chase, Frank gets Cathy to drive him in her trim primrose roadster in tracking down a lead. This however proves to invite trouble, as Frank finds a murdered woman at the end of the trail, and Cathy accidentally becomes witness. Cathy also provides Yates with another pole to explore his own dualism: as a transplanted artist she finds Frank immensely appealing but is also repelled by the things he countenances every day, embodying Yates’ own oscillation between warm and intimate stories and jagged tales of violence and exile. Observing that the murdered woman barely causes Frank to bat an eyelid, demands to be let out of the car on the drive home and runs down to a stretch of shoreline where, once Frank catches up to her, she plaintively notes they live in different worlds, and wonders what would happen to them in time if they continue together. “Time starts now,” Frank responds simply.

Yates films this exchange in extreme long zoom shot, lending a voyeuristic aspect but also a gauzy lacquer of romanticism despite the fraught and ugly feeling being invoked. Purposefully oblique framing hides Bisset’s mouth by McQueen’s shoulder, illustrating the potential for emotional disconnection between them, where when he reverses the shot Frank’s calm, simple answer is entirely clear, assuring Cathy that however taciturn he acts the one advantage is gives him, far from being emotionally anaesthetised, he knows rather what he wants and needs with a special rigour denied the more frivolous. Cathy and Frank’s exchanges have a structural similarity to Frank’s contretemps with Chalmers, in that both demand surrender from him, if with entirely different motives, Chalmers demanding obeisance and fault, Cathy prodding Frank to be a loving man, each on a ticking clock. The real source of tension for most of Bullitt is Frank’s efforts to keep moving, like an ice skater who’s ventured onto dangerously thin ice but can only keep driving for the opposite side, before the hammer Chalmers so desperately wants to drop lands. This is also a source of sour humour, particularly when Chalmers, having dragged Frank out of the shower to make more demands over the phone, then puts Baker on the line to emphasise the threat: “Now you listen to me,” Baker utters, only to hear dial tone.

Bennett’s stalwart defence of Frank as his actual boss sees Yates expertly using Oakland’s stocky physique and accompanying terse performance like a rampart, fending off the wicked. The film’s true climax then isn’t the car chase or the shoot-out finale, but the concluding scenes between Frank and Chalmers. Frank’s diligence and risk-taking are finally justified as, after finally revealing that Ross has died to Chalmers and Baker, Frank waits for the dead man’s fingerprints to be relayed to Chicago and their identification returned via laborious 1960s faxing. Chalmers, Baker, and Bennett wait in silent expectation whilst Frank’s expression turns concertedly pokerfaced, except with his eyes ablaze, betraying his awareness that his entire career and life will hinge on the next few minutes and what comes out of the fax machine. What emerges, as Frank by this time plainly already suspected but needed to prove, was that the dead man calling himself Ross was actually a used car salesman named Renick, a lookalike hired by the real Ross to pretend to be him long enough to take the heat off him: the murdered woman was Renick’s wife, killed to silence her and let him leave the country on Renick’s passport. Frank’s tone barely changes as he informs Chalmers he had him guarding an imposter even as he delivers the killer blow.

Chalmers is not so easily defeated, however, as he insists on following Frank as he and Del head to the airport in hope of netting Ross before he can fly out, still hoping to get him to testify. By this point Frank abandons any further pretence of putting up with the politician when Chalmers suggests the case has all the trappings for a publicity coup for them both, telling him point blank, “I don’t like you,” and riposting to Chalmers’ sanguine suggestions that “Integrity is something you sell the public” and “We all must compromise,” with a curt statement: “Bullshit.” Here Bullitt managed something borderline miraculous in presenting a cop hippies could cheer for. The notion that the truest public servants are the ones who take the lumps from both ends of society without much reward beyond their own inner satisfaction is of course a romantic one, and one that’s been through endless variations since, to the point where it may have outlived its worth.

It was also one becoming more fashionable in the late ‘60s, a time when, then as now, leadership as a broad concept had taken awful blows. Where, say, James Bond was the revenge of the primitive in a world balanced on the edge of a mad future, Frank Bullitt provided a full-proof blueprint for his spiritual opposite, a romantic hero tailored for a cynical age, someone who actually gives a damn about the public good but also under no illusions about what society actually is – that is, Chalmers is the face of society, venal, corrupt, predatory, and masked with righteous stances. Bullitt’s relative lack of interest in its official villain Ross only more firmly emphasises this as the real drama, but Ross is also the naked face of it, greedy and murderous and manipulative, throwing up doppelgangers to distract and confuse: Renick is his patsy but Chalmers is his real puppet, used and discarded once he’s provided the necessary distraction. At the same time Yates constantly suggests the soul-wearying strain all this puts Frank under, as he must keep operating after seeing friends maimed and deal out death himself. Of course, McQueen’s face was carved by the movie gods to convey existential distress. The film’s ending is another intense, slow-burn sequence that uses similar elements to the car chase to very different effect, again spurning music and filling the soundtrack with incessant airplane racket.

Frank and Dell comb the airport for the real Ross and find he’s boarded a taxiing plane: when the plane is called back and Frank ventures aboard, he spots Ross, who jumps off the plane and leads the detective on a chase across the runways, the bizarre sight of monstrous metal planes with their churning turbines making enough noise to make the dead, and make tracking by ear impossible, cruising by as Ross eludes Frank in the scantly-lit precincts between the brilliant runways, and Frank barely avoids being shot and run over by a 707. Mann paid obvious homage to this in the finale of Heat (1995). Ross manages to get back inside a terminal, and almost reaches the doors as Frank and Dell close in: Ross guns down a cop as he tries to make a break, demanding that Frank shoot him turn, leaving Ross’s very dead form splayed on broken glass and the airport in panicky chaos. Chalmers, eventually cheated of his prize, drives away to the next opportunity in the back of a limousine, whilst the sirens echoing about the airport gain a strange, amplified loudness, as if mimicking the dizzy ringing in Frank’s ears. The weird, queasy brilliance of the film’s final moments lies in the way it confirms Frank did what he had to to a very bad guy, making him at last victorious in this tale, whilst also making clear it still costs him something vital. He returns home to find, by way of salutary grace, Carol asleep in his bed, having elected to remain with him for at least another day, but also faced with the eyes of the killer in the mirror.

Bullitt is available to watch on many streaming services, including Apple TV, Amazon Prime Video, and Redbox.

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2020s, Action-Adventure, Drama, Fantasy, Historical

The Northman (2022)

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Director: Robert Eggers
Screenwriters: Robert Eggers, Sigurjón Birgir ‘Sjón’ Sigurðsson

By Roderick Heath

Here there be spoilers…

Emulation and synthesis are eternal processes in art as young talents arise and pick and choose touchstones and heroes and try to find new ways of appealing to audiences. Since the millennium’s turn we’ve seen many a new talent positioning themselves, or being positioned by studios and the media, as cinema’s next Scorsese, Coppola, Spielberg, Lynch, Cronenberg, Kubrick, Malick, or Woody Allen. More intriguingly if not always satisfyingly, in the past few years a fresh cadre of filmmakers has tried to blend styles in moviemaking once thought irreconcilable, mating art house, independent film, and Hollywood hit inflections in novel fashions, each commenting on the others. But the spark of real creativity that turns such busy remixing into authentic original art, on whatever level, is something much more rarefied. Native New Yorker Robert Eggers emerged with a bang in 2015 with The Witch, a Horror movie that proved a substantial box office success on a modest budget, made an instant star out of lead actress Anya Taylor-Joy, and Eggers, in his attempts to mate art house movie-style textures, the simultaneously vivid and dreamlike approach of directors like Werner Herzog and Lynch, to a period tale of supernatural menace broadly conforming to the Horror genre, announced he belonged to the gathering wave of directors similarly trying to fuse aesthetic modes and genre presumptions once thought irreconcilable, and in particular a specific wing of this tendency labelled “Elevated Horror.” The main connection of many of the Elevated Horror directors lay in their efforts at quoting classic Horror movie imagery and metaphorical potential but atomising them in a narrative sense, trying to evoke states of dread and fragmenting psychological states.

That said, Elevated Horror very quickly became a set of cliché stylistic gestures, and what was often greeted as groundbreaking in the movement was, to anyone with a strong grounding in the genre as it was in the late 1960s and early ‘70s, rather old-hat. But Eggers also evinced a strong visual imagination and a fascination with surrealism-touched imagery in common with other directors like Ben Wheatley, Peter Strickland, Panos Cosmatos, and David Lowery, filmmakers who, whatever their individual qualities, certainly all seem to share a desire to annex the stature once by filmmakers like Herzog or Kubrick, and reinvest some of the stylistic freedom and atavistic power to cinema that inflected periods in the medium’s history as in the heyday of German Expressionism and late 1960s psychedelia, at a time when both mainstream models and independent alternatives are all but exhausted of personality and visual imagination and potency. The Witch, a film that was certainly exceedingly well-made and impressively styled, nonetheless wielded a contrived brand of onerousness too many seem to automatically accept as artistry, and strikes me as fussy, over-managed, and dead to the touch. I hesitate to say that stylistic instability is, far from a failure in moviemaking, is the essential source of art in the medium, and excessive control is its slow death. But I still often feel it’s true. Eggers’ second film, The Lighthouse (2019), highlighted both his specific strengths, expertly exploiting strong acting performances in depicting a crisis of besieged personality, and his potentially aggravating weaknesses, as he wrapped the central character tale in imagery and Horror movie teases that refused to resolve into much more than student film showboating, an extended stab at trying to have your art house cake and eat your genre film too.

Nonetheless Eggers seemed like a director of promise who could be forgiven the contemporary critical tendency to latch on to the new voice as the greatest thing ever. The Northman sees Eggers taking a leap most of his contemporaries have been unwilling or unable to execute so far, in making a big movie – the budget of The Northman is somewhere in the $70-$90 million range – and trying to bend the mindset of the mass audience to bold and challenging vision, much as, say, Kubrick managed with 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). The Northman is also a Viking movie, a perennially popular movie subgenre stretching back through the likes of Richard Fleischer’s The Vikings (1958), Roger Corman’s The Saga of the Viking Women and Their Voyage to the Waters of the Great Sea Serpent (1958), Mario Bava’s oddball Norse Westerns Erik the Conqueror (1961) and Knives of the Avenger (1966), Jack Cardiff’s The Long Ships (1965), Robert Stevenson’s The Island At The Top of The World (1974), Charles B. Pierce’s The Norseman (1978), John McTiernan’s The 13th Warrior (1999), and, for some actual Scandinavian input, Nils Gaup’s Pathfinder (1988) and Nicolas Winding Refn’s Valhalla Rising (2010). One could even stretch this to include works like John Milius’s Conan the Barbarian (1982) and Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy, being as they are film drawing heavily on Norse myth for their more overtly fantasy settings.

More recently all things Viking have been hugely popularised by TV shows like Vikings and The Last Kingdom, and now also permeate music genres and subcultures. Those include, rather controversially, sectors of the far right and white supremacists, which has some basis in the idiotic cultural theories and ideals of the Nazis. I suspect the greater part of their penchant for the imagery Norse culture and mythology is essentially the same as everyone else’s at the bottom of all: it’s really cool. The Viking mystique is at once deeply alien and peculiarly familiar, violent and menacing and contemptuous of the more pastoral visions of medieval Europe and the evolving structure of its power and institutions, but also reflects a folk culture defined by powerfully appealing things like camaraderie, macho virility, and rowdy boozing in the mead hall. That Eggers wants to examine the charisma of the old Norse culture more incisively, unsentimentally, and palpably than many such precursors is signalled not just in the sturm-und-drang he invests in his movie’s look and sound, but in the material he takes on to give his project form. The Northman adapts the Danish folkloric tale of Amleth, which William Shakespeare annexed for Hamlet. The Northman isn’t the first film to bypass Shakespeare for the source stories: Gabriel Axel’s Prince of Jutland (1998) also took them on, although, despite featuring a notable cast including Gabriel Byrne and Christian Bale, it didn’t make a cultural ripple.

Amleth’s story might be sourced in lost bardic poems and sagas from Norse culture, but no extant version comes to us earlier than the versions found in two 12th century texts, by the historian Saxo Grammaticus, who included it in his Gesta Danorum, and another, slightly different version in the Chronicon Lethrense. Both versions contain scenes familiar from Hamlet, like the crafty protagonist rewriting an execution order carried by two guardians during a voyage to Britain. Eggers and his coscreenwriter, the Icelandic poet and musician Sjón, by contrast only utilise the loosest outline of the tale, as if trying to peel away the layers down to some presumed origin point as a Viking campfire tale, a myth of bare-boned moral reckoning emerging out of a wild and savage time and culture. This also gives him leave to work in a myriad of harvested movie likenesses. Nonetheless, the basic story is hazily recognisable. Young prince Amleth (Oscar Novak) is overjoyed when his father, the king of the island of Hrafnsey, Aurvandill War-Raven (Ethan Hawke) returns from war, badly injured and weary. He’s reunited with Amleth, his wife Gudrún (Nicole Kidman), and brother Fjölnir (Claes Bang), and resolves to initiate Amleth into the mystical secrets of being king in a rite overseen by Heimir (Willem Dafoe), who is also the Fool in Aurvandill’s court and under the guise of lampooning suggests Gudrún is sleeping around. As father and son walk together, Aurvandill is struck with arrows by a hidden sniper, and Fjölnir and henchmen surround him and slay him, even as Aurvandill curses his brother.

The henchmen chase Amleth through the woods, but he manages to cut off the nose of the one who catches him, and he glimpses his mother being carried away by Fjölnir. Amleth reaches the beach and rows away from Hrafnsey, vowing revenge. “Years later,” as a title card puts it, Amleth, now grown into the hirsute beefcake bodaciousness of Alexander Skarsgård, has become a mercenary berserker in a band of marauders who attack a village in Rus’, slaying many and taking others for slaves. When he hears that some slaves are going to be shipped to Fjölnir, who has since been dispossessed of Hrafnsey and has relocated to Iceland with what’s left of his clan, Amleth slips aboard the ship transporting the slaves and pretends to be one of them: one of the Rus’ prisoners, Olga of the Birch Forest (Taylor-Joy), sees him come aboard and becomes his helpmate, chiefly because she also intends escape: “Your strength breaks men’s bones,” she comments, “I have the cunning to break their minds.” Brought to the homestead of Fjölnir and Gudrun, who now have a son together, Gunnar (Elliott Rose), as well as Fjölnir’s snooty adult son Thorir (Gustav Lindh), Amleth believes his mother feigns affection for Fjölnir to protect Gunnar. He and other slaves are pressed into playing knattleikr, a brutal field sport, during a celebratory meeting of clans in the district, and when Gunnar gets too excited and invades the pitch he is knocked down by a hulking rival player (Hafþór Júlíus Björnsson), who then in turn is beaten to a pulp by Amleth, a sign that Amleth feels some familial attachment to his half-brother. This thorny situation demands Amleth chart a careful path to his retribution, but also earns him a level of privilege amongst the slaves, including being allowed to marry Olga.

From its earliest frames The Northman declares its ambitions with volume, as Eggers’ camera swoops over long ships sailing towards the Hrafnsey coast with the booming, drum-and-dissonance-laden scoring of Robin Carolan and Sebastian Gainsborough immediately establishing a mood of strange, jagged grandeur, and scarcely lets it up for the next two-and-a-bit-hours (the quality of superficial weirdness is as prized by the current crop of would-be film artists and cineastes as much as it was in pop music in the early ‘90s). One distinct facet of The Northman, and the one that Eggers seems most intent on putting across to make this something more than just your average muscleman revenge movie, lies in the way Eggers tries to anatomise Viking culture, to force the audience to share the viewpoint of these almost primeval people who peek over the edge of civilisation before burning it down. In this regard The Northman reminded me less of all those other Viking movies than it did of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s versions of Oedipus Rex (1967) and Medea (1969), and Sergei Paradjanov’s Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (1964) and Sayat Nova (1968), with their usage of relic narratives less to tell their stories than to recreate the societies in their customs and philosophies and the forgotten cultural precepts lurking behind the plotlines.

Applying this approach to The Northman, stripping away the psychological qualities of modern drama and instead immersing itself in the way such things were conveyed and explored in myth, in symbols and archetypes, is a potentially very interesting one, particularly given that Hamlet is one vital source point for modern psychological drama. To radically deconstruct a couple of millennia of western art is certainly no small project. Rather than adapting Amleth’s story straight from the original sources The Northman harvests ideas and images from a variety of classical myths – Eggers and Sjon introduce hints of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra, The Odyssey, Beowulf, Medea, and more. Less elevated influences are apparent too: Amleth’s habit of repeating his to-do list of revenging recalls that of Arya Stark in the novel and TV series Game of Thrones, whilst at time I suspected Eggers was somewhat desperate to play Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song” but couldn’t as it has recently been profaned by use in Thor: Ragnarok (2017). The Northman also reminded me of Darren Aronofsky’s Noah (2014) as an odd and fulminating blend of a specific personal lexicon of images and concepts with the blankness of mythical metaphor and the pressures of modern blockbuster filmmaking. Eggers also follows David Lowery’s The Green Knight (2021) in applying a similarly self-conscious style to illustrating an almost equally archaic but very different tale. If The Northman is a much less insufferable a film than The Green Knight, it’s because at least it seems to know what it wants to say about the artefact it tackles, and adds up to more than a succession of stylistic gestures. On the other hand, it lacks the kind of grand synthesising reach of parable Aronofsky achieved. Where he linked the ancient and futuristic and ages of human development with his approach to Flood tale, Eggers is stuck fetishising rites that at times look like a really far-out men’s encounter group session.

Eggers dedicates himself to portraying the hallucinatory religion and ritual that pervades Amleth’s life and world and strongly suggesting an intended dialectic. Early in the film he dedicates a lengthy sequence to depicting the Aurvandill and Heimir inducting Amleth into a mystic union where they bring him through a process of mimicking and animal and making music with his body – burps and farts – before he then ascends to the status of man and then leaves his body. This ritual cements Amleth’s love for his father in terms both physical and spiritual. It’s echoed later when the priest of the berserkers (Magne Osnes), who took Amleth under his wing, leads the rampaging band in a dehumanising rite. Other visions are proffered as portals of understanding for his psychological functions. This is particularly notable when, sent by a He-witch (not to be mistaken for a Manwich; anyway he’s played by Ingvar Eggert Sigurðsson) to claim Draugr, a magical sword, from its owner known as the Mound Dweller, an undead being who resides on a throne in a buried barrow: Amleth battles the Mound Dweller when he comes to life for the sword, and finally bests him, only for the camera to return to Amleth standing before the dead man and simply pluck it from his hands, the battle we saw representative of Amleth gathering to courage to risk the taboo and take the weapon. Whether Eggers really nails what he’s aiming for is another thing entirely.

One problem is how he purveys it, with some special effects visions of Valkyries and the mystical family tree that bears forth its progeny living and passed like so many apples, that sway towards the CGI generic in execution, and spoil the integrity of physical solidity he pursues elsewhere. But the feeling of jammed gears also stems fromt he way Eggers approaches the story. Eggers and Sjon try to situate the tale in an overtly realistic and fetishistically authentic depiction of his world, but then lace it was aspects of magic and irrationalism, full of wise seers and preternatural animals. One can see the intellectual project Eggers tries to articulate, but then won’t stick to. He strips away all hint of depth from Amleth and then tries to reinvest it as the story unfolds. Eggers justifies this in part through Amleth’s single-minded project and his berserker schooling, which is depicted in a scene early in the film as he and other warriors whip themselves up in ritual manner to become animal beings who unleash bloody mayhem on the Rus’: Amleth is so dead-eyed a being in this state he doesn’t notice when he fellows seal the village children up in a hall and set it on fire, a casual act of genocidal contempt for anyone weak enough to fall prey to the Viking marauders. By contrast his journey of bloody revenge is an act of a civilised and rational man, insofar as it involves honouring bonds of identity and some basic code of ethics. This leads Amleth to experience a prototypical tragic experience, as seeking revenge commits him to acts that seem self-defeating.

Eggers takes definite risks with this film. Several people walked out of the film during the screening I attended during interludes of violence and overt weirdness, which, whilst perhaps not great for the movie’s bottom line, is a sign that whatever else you can say about it, The Northman is not yet another toothless mass media product. Eggers’ view of the Vikings is hardly exalting: he portrays this world as squalid and replete with brutality and oppression, and leaves you with the impression no sane person would want to live in such a world. The Northman serves the cult of the Viking with a hot dose of undiluted junk. Eggers tries with all his might to force the viewer into the atavistic zone he describes, to enter into a world where codes of speech and behaviour obey their own, peculiar, ritualistic rhythm. Trouble is, Eggers’ manner of doing so courts ridiculousness and a brand of stilted ye-olde-isms and rejected Death Metal lyrics that lack a compensating poetic quality, offering a parade of rasping-voiced men who say things like “I will meet you at the Gates of Hell!” and “Furnish this fierce heart and slayer of men with a drink that I might drink to him!” with a straight face. Eggers and Sjón pull off an interesting flourish however as Gudrun speaks consistently in a more elegant and sophisticated manner than those around her, even employing quasi-Shakespearean metre and metaphor on occasions (“Let my words be the whetstone for your mighty rage.”), befitting her status as a former slave stolen another culture as well as a power behind thrones.

Throughout, Eggers exhibits cinematic traditions he’s eager to annex. There are repeated nods to Conan The Barbarian, particularly in Fjölnir’s attack on Aurvanduill, and later when Amleth battles the Mound Dweller, which takes the scene in the Milius film where Conan discovers the Atlantean sword a few steps further. The sequence of the berserker attack on the Rus’ village is staged in a series of fluid tracking shots and culminates in a long single shot that variably does artful tracking and then pivots from a fixed position, whilst pseudo-objectively capturing acts of carnage and chaos, in a technically impressive but arch imitation of Andrei Tarkovsky’s shooting style on Andrei Rublev (1966). Vignettes like Amleth encountering a Rus’ shamanka (played, in a most inevitable in-joke, by Icelandic singer Björk) wearing funny stuff on her head echo Pasolini and Paradjanov in portraying pagan creeds. Hell, the climax, which situates the final battle of revengers in the midst of flowing lava with the seething magma mimicking the protean moment for civilisation as well as two warring psyches and bodies, directly mimics Star Wars – Episode III: Revenge of the Sith (2005). There’s nothing wrong with homage and magpie borrowing in filmmaking, but like many younger directors of the moment, Eggers’ mix-and-match approach struck me as if he seems to be seeking a fast track to being hailed as a great artist, when the actual meat of the film is prosaic and straightforward, the human-level gestures by and large blunt and obvious, and the images have a contrived quality, so desperate to knock your socks off and yet so often arriving as lumps of conceptual show-off.

Eggers’ Tarkovsky-quoting tracking shots, for instance, don’t wield the same immersive feeling of being a wandering tourist in another world the Russian master achieved, but rather simply feel strenuous in technique and distancing from the horror it portrays rather than making it more immediate. His desire for flamboyance sometimes even hurts the story he’s trying to tell, like the long, mobile take of young Amleth sneaking about wearing a purloined robe amidst slain bodies of his father’s loyalists and glimpsing Fjölnir carrying his mother. Amleth then steals away in full view, rather bewilderingly paid no heed at all by Fjölnir’s men. It’s clumsy staging purely because Eggers doesn’t want to cut yet. Elsewhere Eggers’ barrage of surrealist visions occasionally made me feel like I was watching an especially long music video. The Northman is also one of the most stringently humourless films I’ve ever watched, perhaps out of fear even the most casual gag or moment of ordinary human interaction will spoil the desired credulity for this stylised world, and disrupt the texture Eggers labours to weave. I could have some sympathy there, but even the less heaviosity-charged interludes are encaged by style, as when Amleth and Olga meet to bump uglies in the forest in good pagan fashion, filmed with a kind of iconic import and inescapable aesthetic that chokes off any depiction of real sexual ferocity and feel for the strange catharsis of two fearsome personalities meeting in a place of tenderness.

Amleth begins terrorising Fjölnir and clan by chopping up some of the guards and also two priests of Freyr, acts of violence that seem present mostly because it’s been a few minutes since we had some baroque violence and so Eggers can work through his obsession with imagery of mangled flesh. One of the few sequences that effectively varies the onslaught of ostentatious style is an interlude depicting a mating rite for the younger Vikings, a male and female pair of singers performing for the gyrating lovers. Just for a moment a different sensibility gleams out of the muck. Eggers makes a point that this world is cruel and rough, and otherwise evokes virtually nothing but cruelty and roughness. Still, Eggers attempts through Amleth’s journey to chart the one real force that counteracts such barbarity, the bonds of family and lovers, but even these gets seriously stress-tested. Most broadly, The Northman can be described as a critique on the classic revenge tale, substituting Hamlet’s careful, intellectualised ethical contemplations for Amleth’s more visceral confrontations with the ironies of his quest. Self-professed critiques on revenge tales are pretty common these days, and, again, something of a short-cut to being taken seriously. Most classical revenge tales end nonetheless with varying forms of self-defeating mayhem unleashed.

Eggers’ main twist on this most ancient and hallowed realm of cliché is to essentially present everyone in the film as standing at some point on the timeline of a revenge path because everyone has some spur to seek payback and play such games, because everyone is aggrieved in an endless chain of power. Whilst the film is officially bracketed by the course of Amleth’s, it is also revealed that we’re in the end game of Gudrun’s and see other revenges launched and delivered or deflected. Amleth’s “heart of cold iron” and washboard stomach, honed in his years as a mindless berserker, give him the tools to pursue his end, but they have simultaneously retarded aspects of personality that need reawakening. In a pre-modern world like the one Eggers tries to portray matters of justice, like every other human value, has no greater muscle or strength in the world than the individual human holding them, and the radial of their connections to others, family first and foremost, then whatever can be called their community. Fjölnir’s act of treachery towards his brother is, in a manner never really fleshed out, partly inspired by a general feeling that Aurvandill has failed as a king, but this in turn leads to Fjölnir being labelled “The Brotherless” and tossed out of his kingdom by another, greater king.

The film’s vital story and character pivot comes when Amleth finally manages to sneak into his mother’s rooms in her and Fjölnir’s homestead, believing he’s bringing her the promise of rescue and righteous revenge. But Gudrun instead explains to her son that she pressed Fjölnir to kill her husband, who took her as a slave and then to bed, and far from being her beloved progeny Amleth is the last tether to that slavery and doesn’t care if he lives or dies as the product of her body’s colonisation by a hated foe. Kidman delivers a neat lesson in star acting cunning in her role here, erupting with feral energy as the formerly idealised maternal figure of Amleth’s faith suddenly reveals herself a ruthless and equally primal character even with her greater word power. This scene hits a note of volatile and unexpected emotional perversion but also one that wreaks subtle havoc on Eggers’ theme and approach to it. Rather than taking on Hamlet’s Gertrude as a clueless, sensual thrall, he remakes Gudrun after other Shakespearean archetypes like Queen Tamora and Lady Macbeth, a cunning embodiment of will to power aimed at what engendered it, who is also, to boot, rendered a rather demonic figure, laughing mockingly and employing incestuous appeal to dazzle and disorientate her son-foe.

Trouble here is Eggers nonetheless insists on straying into the kind psychological narrative he was supposed to be avoiding: he presents in Gudrun a furious counter-avenger created by the world’s evil and paying it in kind, one who wields a knowledge of how to manipulate men to control them. Olga, meanwhile, is an earthier archetype, a witchy woman who has cunning arts of her own but uses them more precisely, driving the Vikings to crazed fits by feeding them hallucinogenic mushrooms and keeping Fjölnir from raping her by showing off her blood-smeared crotch. Eggers makes a point about differently gendered forms of payback and power-exercising in this world, the women using guile, stealth, and manipulation to achieve their ends, but just as invested in their aims. At the same time despite his hardening to an engine of insensate wrath Amleth is saved from becoming a self-satisfied princeling like Thorir. Thorir reminded me strongly of the character Senya in The Saga of the Viking Women  and Wigliff in The 13th Warrior, both similarly peevish, hysterically insecure and fey princelings trying to prove their strength in a forbiddingly patriarchal world. This indicates the thematic preoccupations of the Viking movie as a subgenre are more codified than one might expect, and more than Eggers quite realises: they’re all fascinated by definitions of masculinity and the strange weeds that grow in the family plot in the shadow of virile patriarchs.

I couldn’t help also but think back to Bava’s Knives of the Avenger, a film which similarly used a Viking-age setting to explore the moral ambiguity of revenge, masculine rage, and fatherhood, in the character of Rurik, a man who in a fit of madness after his family’s slaughter avenged himself by leading a rampage of his warriors and raped the wife of one the enemy’s leaders, and years later inadvertently becomes protector to her and her son. Most crucially, Bava, despite much smaller advantages of technical resources and budget, casually delivered the kind of complex blending of mythological starkness and dramatic complexity depicting the evolving human psyche that Eggers here labours to execute. Late in The Northman Amleth is distracted very briefly by the sight of Olga running away, giving his enemies a chance to to capture him. ‘Twas beauty killed the beast. There’s some guff about Amleth being just like his father, but I’m not sure what that means beyond the very obvious: they’re both dumb enough to be captured by Fjölnir. Anyway, here Eggers tries a pivot of perspective as Fjölnir, confronted by Thorir’s slaying by Amleth, is filled with paternal wrath, wrath Gudrun tries aim properly, whilst Amleth, when captured, manages to delay Fjölnir’s execution of him by taunting him over the whereabouts of Thorir’s heart. Cue a scene of Amleth being tortured and making an escape that nods to another evident model for Eggers, in Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo (1961) (or is it A Fistful of Dollars?). Except that Amleth’s freedom comes thanks to some ravens who peck at his blood-soaked bonds – with the hint it might also be Aurvandill’s spirit animals to the rescue.

Eggers also resorts on occasion to very hoary suspense-building tricks, as when Amleth crouches out of sight behind a hut hiding from some of Fjölnir’s men only to be barked at by one of their dogs, and Amleth is only saved from discovery by that time-honoured mistake of villains not to advance one or two steps more or turn their heads slightly. The film’s last act is enabled when Amleth and Olga, after she has helped spirit him away from the homestead elect to leave Iceland to together, only for Amleth to experience a vision telling him Olga is pregnant: deciding he needs to protect his incipient brood from any chance of Fjölnir hunting for them, he leaps off the long ship, swims ashore, and starks wreaking havoc at the homestead, carving up henchmen. Amleth dealing death to the same warrior whose nose he cut off as a lad feels indicative of the film as a while – cleverly done, wince-inducing in its gory verve, and lacking any true irony or purpose. Bang, a Danish actor who has brand of dark charisma well-suited to playing superficially charming but rather seedy characters, catches the eye as Fjölnir, even if he’s not really present that much in the film.

At least as the film veers towards a climax Eggers ventures into morally abyssal climes as Amleth, on the hunt for Fjölnir, is attacked by his mother, and then by Gunnar who tries to defend her, and Amleth kills them both. Both acts are done in self-defence but spring directly from his resolve, having fully accepted that, if they’re not encompassed within the aegis of his nominally defensive wrath, then they must be sacrificed to it as a matter of course. Eggers captures the spectacle of violently contradictory emotional impulses as Amleth later pays homage to their bodies where Fjölnir has laid them on the volcanic ashes below the Gates of Hel – an erupting caldera – that serves as the primal temple of their mutual fury. There’s a contradiction in here that’s potentially, endlessly rich, in presenting Amleth as at once a lover and a killer, the force of destruction and the seeder of soil contained with his bulbous body, that doesn’t fully emerge, in part because by this point we’ve seen so much death a little more doesn’t make much difference. Amleth and Fjölnir’s battle amidst the lava floes, as well as the likeness I’ve mentioned, is foiled in part because it wants so desperately to finally and fully anoint the drama in a perfect mythic tableaux, two naked men waging a perfectly symmetrical war of motives and heaving abs. But, again, this tries so hard to be instantly iconic that I couldn’t give myself up to it, particularly as the glossy, digitally-enhanced look of the scene and its calculated silhouetting robbed it of the kind of concussive physical immediacy it needed. It’s hard to deny The Northman is a compelling, intermittently fearsome piece of work. But I was left with the feeling the would-be visionary’s reach still exceeds his grasp.

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