On The Changing Face of Heroism

I’ve been dealing with some un-fun aspects of Life’s Rich Pageant lately. That means that in a duel between Watching Movies To Relieve Stress & Also Believe Once Again Life Is Capable Of Good Things, or Writing Something Worth Reading About Those Movies, stress relief won. I don’t think you’d blame me for that.

So let’s get started.

Rio_Lobo_1970Rio Lobo (1970) is not regarded as a very good movie, and sadly, it really isn’t. The final film of the legendary Howard Hawks, it’s yet another retread of 1959’s Rio Bravo (one of the best westerns ever made), the other being 1966’s El Dorado (which is, I will admit, another of my favorites). El Dorado, at least, had script problems and Hawks elected, mid-production, to pirate from himself, to good result. I’m not sure of the reasons for returning to that particular trough four years later, but reportedly John Wayne asked, “Do I get to play the drunk this time?”

No, this time Wayne will be playing Cord McNally, a Union colonel still seeking the traitors who sold the secret schedules of trains carrying Union payrolls. McNally pursued the Confederate squad responsible for the robberies, and was even their prisoner for a time, but he turned the tables on them and captured their leaders, Cardona (Jorge Rivero) and Tuscarora (Christopher Mitchum). The three actually wind up respecting each other, and Cord buys the rebels a drink when they’re released after the War ends a few months later. They tell Cord what they know about the traitor and his men, and promise to get in touch if they find out anything else.

4370_5As luck would have it, the traitor and his men, under new names, have taken over the Texas town of Rio Lobo, where Tuscarora’s father Phillips (Jack Elam) has a horse ranch. Phillips is one of the few landowners resisting the new robber baron, and Cordona has journeyed to Texas to help his old friend – when he sees a familiar face, and telegraphs Cord. Mayhem will ensue. G-rated mayhem.

For all the bobbles, this is still identifiably a Howard Hawks movie, mainly for the rapid-fire, witty banter. There are some trademark Hawks women, too, though Shasta (Jennifer O’Neill) isn’t given much to do outside of using a derringer that’s apparently loaded with elephant rounds, and to be a somewhat reluctant love interest for Cardona. Really, the ballsiest female character is a Latina named Amelita (Sherry Lansing), who Cordona surprises while she’s changing (in a G-rated movie, remember. 1970 was amazingly open about such things), and manages to help our heroes on a couple more occasions. Why the hell Cardona is gaga over the rather more vanilla Shasta is puzzling to me.

amelita

Cardona, you idiot.

(Then again, I was puzzled by her in more ways than one, as I was going “Sherry Lansing, Sherry Lansing, why do I know that name? Not much of a filmography, but I’m sure…

(Oh yeah. She gave up on acting, then ran Columbia, then 20th Century Fox, then Paramount in the period from 1977-2005. Cardona, you idiot. Also, she’s married to William Friedkin, who knows talent when he sees it.)

Eventually we get to the mandatory siege-in-the-jailhouse, but that’s rather short-lived as Cord is outmaneuvered by the bad guys, and we head to the other standard that El Dorado managed to forego, a big shootout, this time with the townsmen helping to repel their oppressors. Jack Elam enters the picture at roughly the two-thirds mark, and proceeds to steal the movie right out from underneath its star. Wayne didn’t much care for that, and never worked with him again.

elamRio Lobo did pretty dismal box office, and Hawks felt it was largely due to Wayne’s age – 63, at the time. Rio Bravo had been the first movie to really deal with an aging Duke, and this is the movie where Shasta cuddles up to him for warmth in the desert night because he’s “more comfortable” than the hot-blooded Cardona. This leads to Cord bitching about being “comfortable” for the rest of the movie. Wayne wasn’t doing well health-wise during filming, and apparently had some difficulty getting on and off his horse due to some torn ligaments.

"COMFORTABLE?"

“COMFORTABLE?”

But there is one moment when the Wayne of old shines through. The crooked Sheriff and his deputies accuse Tuscarora of horse stealing, beat him up and slap his girlfriend across the street when she tries to intervene. As they prepare to take Tuscarora to the jailhouse, the Sheriff (being evil) says, “Bring the girl, too.” And Cord McNally, standing tall over the sobbing girl, says one word, loudly: “Why?” It is the single most righteous moment in the movie, Cord willing to throw away his entire mission and possibly his life to protect one person, and it is everything such a moment in a movie should be.

It’s an entertaining enough movie, but light. It’s not going to knock anything else off your playlist when you suddenly remember you have a copy of it, but it’s a harmless way to spend a couple of hours. It mainly looms large in my legend because George Plimpton has a bit part in it, and the resulting TV special held thirteen year-old me rapt:

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I tried to relate that fading 50s-60s concept of heroism to my next couple of movies, which were Kingsman: The Secret Service and Deadpool. Good luck to that, though, since Deadpool is satire, and Kingsman is satire that wants to subvert its subject while still glorying in it.

posterWhen you play the “#NowWatching” hashtag game on Twitter, you find out pretty damned fast what movies people downright hate, and Kingsman fits that bill. It’s the story of a super secret organization of highly-trained troubleshooters with fancy gizmos; they’re all basically 007 without the government oversight.

This seems to be the prime area of peoples’ ire: it is a lovely copy of a fun spy flick from the 60s up to a point. Most people who hate Kingsman weren’t properly prepared by being aware that it is based on a comic written by Mark Millar, and I think Millar’s middle name may be “Piss-taking”. Using the major plot’s opening gambit – as sure a parody of a James Bond opener that ever was – of killing who we think the hero is going to be, and the resulting drive to find his replacement from a hand-picked group of young people, Millar gets to deconstruct the spy novel the same way he deconstructed superheroes in Kickass.

The Kickass movie was quite successful, and after its director, Matthew Vaughn, helmed the pleasantly surprising X-Men: First Class, he dedicated himself to taming another Millar book. I’ll be honest with you: I didn’t bother with the Kickass movie because I despised the book, but seeing how Vaughn has rearranged this particular graphic novel for the better, I’m thinking it’s time to get over myself and watch it.

Firth. Colin FirthThe Kingsman we’re most concerned with here is code-named Galahad, played by Colin Firth – and who knew Mr. Firth had such a butt-kicker hiding inside? Galahad recruits the son of another trainee who died years earlier protecting Galahad and two other Kingsmen. The kid is Eggsy (Taron Egerton), who has potential, but much of it has been short-circuited by a bad home life scarred by his father’s death. Much of the movie is spent turning a chav into a gentleman, and Eggsy proves he has the right stuff, up to a point: in his final exam he refuses to kill a dog (the dog is a pug, so good on you, Eggsy). Still, everything goes pear-shaped and Eggsy is going to wind up in a tailored suit in the bad guy’s secret lair, hoping to stop doomsday.

Kingsman-ValentineThe bad guy is another of the facets of Kingsman that draws ire. He’s Valentine, a billionaire tech wizard played by Samuel L. Jackson, and, like most twisted geniuses, he wants to save the world by killing four-fifths of the world’s population. He will do this by first providing everyone with free cell phones, then broadcasting a low-frequency wave that turns everyone in the vicinity of a cell phone into a homicidal maniac. He tests it out in a Mississippi church full of a hate group meeting – and, not very coincidentally, Galahad in a field investigation. The ensuing bloodbath in the church is another thing that I recall people not liking, because it was too shocking. People need to watch more kung fu movies.

"It's a bulldog, right? It'll get bigger, right?"

“It’s a bulldog, right? It’ll get bigger, right?”

What bugs people about Valentine is that Jackson chose to play him with a lisp. Matthew Vaughn, in the disc’s bonus features, talks about Jackson bringing this up, and saying that he thought this would be a prime motivation in Valentine’s actions, and Vaughn basically said, “What the hell, you’re Samuel L. Jackson, let’s do it.” It was another absurd thing in a movie full of absurd things, and I didn’t mind it. There was something about that year… I think a bunch of actors got together and said, “This year, let’s do all our funny voices. That’ll mess with them.” So you’ve got Jackson in this, Jeff Bridges in Seventh Son and RIPD

It’s a romp. Not sure why people hate it so.

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But going from John Wayne standing in a sun-baked Texas street saying “Why?” to Colin Firth being so well-trained he can be the sole survivor of a room packed with 200 maniacs is saying a very ugly thing about what our heroes have become, and moreover, what have we become. In the current world of blockbuster entertainment, heroism tends to be measured by who can punch who through the tallest building, or who has access to the most endless supply of ammunition.

If you will forgive my saying so, that is a very jock-centric way of looking at things.

So I, ladies and gentlemen, am now going to head into the nerd direction.

interstellarLet’s start with Interstellar.

Christopher Nolan likes to be all mysterious in the run-up to his movies’ releases, and Interstellar was not an exception; all we knew was that it was about corn and rocketships and Matthew McConaughey. And it turns out, that is it: in a near-future America, climate change is slowly shutting down farms. McConaughey is Cooper, a former astronaut turned farmer. We find that current textbooks claim that the Moon landings were faked to bankrupt the Soviet Union, so now we need to concentrate all our attention on Earth – not that it’s doing much good. This is all propaganda, as mysterious messages left by a “ghost” haunting his daughter lead him to a secret facility, run not by a shadowy secret cabal, but what is left of NASA (being run by Michael Caine, of course), operating in secret, trying to save the human race.

There is a wormhole near the orbit of Saturn that leads to another part of the galaxy (if not another galaxy altogether). Three expeditions have gone through this anomaly to find other planets suitable for us to move to, because the current one is dying. NASA wants Cooper to fly a new mission, the Endurance, to confirm the prior expeditions’ findings, and hopefully by the time a new planet is found, Caine will have solved “the riddle of gravity” and we can all play Oklahoma Land Rush on another world.

Here’s the problem: physics and relativity is a tricky thing, and Cooper will be leaving his son and daughter for years. There seems little choice, though, and Cooper agrees.

interstellar-movie-still-20The desire to stay consistent with current science runs throughout Interstellar, with helpful bursts of information along the way. Accompanied by Caine’s daughter, Dr. Brand (Anne Hathaway) and two others (David Gyasi and Wes Bentley), they first must take two years to get to Saturn, then have to deal with the hazards of alien planets and a black hole. This is scary, frontier stuff – the crew is on their own, and when bad choices are made, somebody can and will die. Even the sole survivor of one of the prior expeditions, Dr. Mann (Matt Damon) presents unfortunate complications of his own.

"We've made this spacecraft out of TARDISes - that may help."

“We’ve made this spacecraft out of TARDISes – that may help.”

Dealing with time dilation as a plot device hasn’t been used much in cinema; the only one I can really think of is the anime Gunbuster. I’m sure there’s more, but it’s a difficult concept to visualize in a way that doesn’t confuse or make viewers turn away in annoyance. Cooper watching archived video messages from his children, growing older without him, is very affecting.

Articulated machine to the rescue!

Articulated machine to the rescue!

You may ask, yes, but it’s science fiction, are there robots? Um, not really, what there is is two “articulated machines”, CASE and TARS, which have a fair range of artificial intelligence. They look like slabs of metal with a TV screen inserted, but can unfold in a variety of utilitarian forms. I was ready to hate them but quickly warmed to the concept. The fact that puppeteer Bill Irwin is behind them, doing his damndest to make simple geometric forms personable, probably helped.

interstellar-film-cooper-station-cylindrical-spinning-space-colonyThen the moment you’ve all been waiting for: to make it to the third planet, the damaged Endurance has to slingshot around that black hole, and Cooper sacrifices himself so Brand and the cargo of seed and frozen embryos can make it, and we finally come to our IMAX-mastered “trip” portion of Interstellar. Now, I know that this is Nolan doing Kubrick, and I was expecting to have my mind blown – and then it was blown in an entirely unexpected direction. I wasn’t entirely satisfied, but it did wrap up everything much more neatly than the climax of 2001 so there’s that.

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martian posterThen I guess we have to forgive Matt Damon for all the trouble he caused in Interstellar so we can root for him in The Martian. This time around, he’s Mark Watney, an astronaut on a manned mission to Mars. A habitat has been set up, experiments are being conducted, when bad luck rears its ugly head: a freak windstorm far beyond the safety protocols aborts the mission and the astronauts struggle through a hurricane made of dirt clods and rocks to get to their launch vehicle. Watney is hit by debris from a communications tower, skewering him and his biometer. Receiving no life readings, he is presumed dead and left behind. The launch vehicle nearly doesn’t make it as it is.

Watney survives, though, and finds himself alone on Mars. After performing emergency surgery on himself, he sets to finding a way to survive. He does have the rations for a full six man crew, but that won’t last forever. Luckily, he’s a botanist, and he sets out to find a way to make potatoes grow in Martian soil.

damonnautSharp eyes on Earth eventually note that the Rover vehicle is moving about the surface of Mars on their satellite feeds, and various pieces of the survival story start arranging themselves; Watney’s potatoes start to grow. He finds ways to maximize the battery life on the Rover, and salvages a Pathfinder probe to set up communications with Earth. All the steps that are taken are so nerdy and so, as Watney puts it, “Sciencing the shit out of it,” that you cannot help but be swept along in the story, thrilled by the sheer ingenuity. The frantic work being done at NASA and the JPL, Watney’s own efforts, all these are beautiful examples of what heroism should be, along with the people who accidentally abandoned Watney, who have not been informed of his survival so as to keep their minds free from regret and second-guessing themselves on the trip back.

martian-gallery13-botanistA radical plan is hatched to rescue Watney, but it would mean that the returning astronauts would have to basically pull a U-turn around the Earth, capture a resupply vessel, and then head back to Mars, essentially spending another two years in space. And it is only with the slightest of hesitations that they agree.

Of course, nothing will go as planned, and some extreme measures have to be taken. This is probably why NASA couldn’t endorse The Martian, even though it is basically a love letter to the organization; there are too many bad ideas acted upon that put everybody in danger just to – once again – rescue Matt Damon.

the-martian-1024x1024-best-movies-of-2015-movie-matt-damon-6528I remember back during Blade Runner when director Ridley Scott said he wanted to become the John Ford of science fiction movies. What became of that, I wonder? Well, Prometheus aside – and I didn’t hate that quite as much as a lot of people did – it’s fine by me that he seems to be back on that track.

Having not read the source novel by Andy Weir, I can’t really say if the callbacks to earlier science fiction movies are actually there, or simple tricks of my nerd perception, even beyond the obvious comparisons with Robinson Crusoe on Mars. Watney manages to survive the breaching of his suit at the beginning by way of the very harshness of the environment, out of Journey to the Seventh Planet. Of course, his eventual escape vehicle must be lightened a la Destination Moon, and there is a bit of jiggery-pokery with improvised thrust in the vacuum of space also reminiscent of that old warhorse.  I was really beginning to expect It! The Terror from Beyond Space or at least a ratbatspider. But noooo, they had to keep on being realistic and rational.

Don’t care. Good movie. Hell of a cast. I understand people don’t like it. Don’t care. Go watch Expendables 19 or something. These guys – all of them, right here – these are my heroes. Simple solutions like guns and super punches are quick and satisfying, but largely inadequate for increasingly complicated problems in a world that is itself complexifying by the moment. We have more than enough heroes that can blow stuff up, we need to recognize the heroes we already have that can build and rebuild stuff, and do so, over and over.

We need heroes that can science the shit out of it.

Although, I will tell you one thing: if I am ever on a space mission with Matt Damon, I am not letting him anywhere near the airlocks.

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6 Comments

  1. Excellent post. I got a chuckle from The Martian when that storm hit and I had a Prometheus flashback of the storm from that film. I didn’t hate all that hard work, but man… it has issues (Lindelof!).

    I wrote up a lengthy dissection on it similar to the one I did for the last version of The Thing, but my old laptop keeled over and wiped out that file and everything else on the HD. Rewrote it again at a friend’s place and saved it to a USB stick… that fell out of my pocket when running for a bus and got crushed by a taxi.

    I’m still thinking about a third attempt.. but I don’t even want to know what’s going to happen once it’s done.

    • There’s a part of me that wants to urge you to try, not only because I want to hear what you have to say (Lindelof, indeed), but because I’m perversely interested in what tack the Universe would take to squelch it this time.

      Better yet, don’t… I don’t need that on my conscience!

      • Oh, I generally hate rewriting stuff because the original brain work gets lost, but it’ll get done. I’ve run into a few people who have the same issues with the film that I did/do so I may as well get them grinning and grimacing again.

      • Yeah, rewriting from scratch blows, I agree. Better luck to you next time.

        Oh, hell, that means I’ll have to watch Prometheus again, doesn’t it? Small price to pay.

  2. I come very near to agreeing with you on “Kingsmen”, but I’m still in the hater camp. I thought Jackson was great (lisp included), loved the John Woo-zy church scene, and generally enjoyed everything after the rather silly opening credit sequence… but the bit of Busby Berkeley that popped up in the climax, and then the utter frat-boy sensibility of “Hero collects reward from Princess” scene banged a stake through the film for me. I could have dealt with the former, but not the latter.

    I agree ENTIRELY with you on “Interstellar,” and now feel an unconquerable urge to get at “The Martian.”

    • Yeah, the end (hurr) bit with the Princess had me pinching the bridge of my nose and muttering, “Millarrrrr…” (the man seems positively obsessed with anal sex).

      I was VERY impressed with “The Martian”, and I think you will be, too.


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