Thursday, June 11, 2009

When movies were movies

The other day I went through the bargain dvd bin and came home with Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, among others. After watching it I couldn’t help but ask, what has happened to Kevin Costner? There was a period of time there when he put out The Untouchables, Field of Dreams, Bull Durham, Prince of Thieves, and Dances with Wolves. I personally liked The Postman, but some people didn’t. Maybe you can argue that the two baseball movies have a lot of feelings and sensitive stuff, but that’s still a pretty good list of movies that either a guy or a girl can put on their shelf without embarrassment. Who else can match that over the last twenty odd years? Bruce Willis and Mel Gibson, but has anybody done it lately? The last Die Hard makes the cut of recent movies, but I can’t think of anything Gibson has done as an actor I’ve watched since The Patriot. Costner made some sort of businessman/hit man movie a couple years back; I don’t remember it as being a hit though. Christian Bale might be included in a few years, but who knows. Marky Mark has a couple, but tends to end up as second banana. Russell Crowe came up big in Gladiator and Master and Commander, but that just isn’t enough to get him to the guy movie elite.

Anybody who chimes in with Tom Cruise is probably a girl. Bob the welder isn’t sitting on a barstool saying “Oh wow, Cruise has a new one coming out, let’s go see it.” Even though Tears of the Sun didn’t live up to expectations, me and a buddy went and saw it simply because it was Bruce Willis in a movie with guns. The average guy on the street, if asked, would say heck yeah, I could beat Tom Cruise up for his milk money and put an atomic wedgie on him too boot. Given enough special effects he can do cool stuff though, plus chicks love him, and I think that brings us to the main differences between movies of the late eighties/early nineties and the ones made today.

Special effects are supposed to be special. Bruce Willis may have been indestructible in Die Hard, but when it came time to battle the king sized Aryan, he didn’t have to resort to computer generated jump kicks or cameras pivoting around him. He took his beating until he came up with a way to win. Same thing when Costner fights Little John in the river. Sure, they do things beyond the normal, but they come off as normal guys doing it. I fell asleep during the one where Cruise played a midget ninja, but woke up in time to call bull when he got into sword fights against guys who grew up in a culture of swords. I liked Matt Damon in the first Bourne movie, but at some point along the line the pause, spin the camera and then fast forward, high speed kick boxing ninja stuff started making me miss the days of two guys just staggering around slugging each other. A hero can get tricky to win a fight, but shouldn’t need special effects just to stay in the fight.

When Bruce Willis takes down a helicopter with an electrical transformer, or a jet by using a truck, it works because 1. It’s cool, and 2. He’s laughing afterwards, letting us in on the joke. That also applies when Robin Hood and Azhim take a catapult ride over the castle wall: they’re already joking before they launch, and everybody involved is surprised when it works. But when somebody uses the effects during the entire movie so they can wear a Jon Voight mask and show how clever the writers can be thinking stuff up, it loses what makes it special. It’s the same sort of thing that makes it get old when the hero has to use them in every fight.

This brings us to our last difference: a good movie star doesn’t appeal to just one gender. Lots of girls like to check out Gibson, Costner, or Willis, but that isn’t the only reason they’re out there. They can deliver a one liner, they can throw a credible looking fake punch, and they can deliver the inspirational speech before the climactic battle. That way all the audience members go home happy. They may get the girl in the end, but that’s not the point of the movie. If they win the girl it’s because they won her, not because they cried about losing her. If they lose the girl it’s because they spent so much time being a manly hero that she divorced him and moved to California, or because the bad guy kills her. Everybody is ok with this. On the other hand, if Brad Pitt is in a movie, we know that somebody in a meeting spoke up and said “Hey, let’s get Pitt so that girls will drag their boyfriends to come see it. Think of the free publicity we’ll get, he’s on every magazine at the checkout line.” It’s like a way of cheating to get guys’ butts in the seats. Make it something less than an out and out chick flick, put a Clooney or a Pitt in it, tell the sponsors and advertisers that guys will love it, and sell some multi gender product placement. There’s a fine line between the two sets of actors; one group may make some guys think it would be nice to have girls slobbering over them, but everybody wants to be a hero.

I guess in the end, the good movies are about heroes, and the rest of them just have heroes in there somewhere, among all the other stuff.


  1. Nathan Fillion can do it, given a chance, but he tends to enjoy it too much. :) Plus, he admits that he's basically channeling Harrison Ford, and it's true--when he's in a fight, he does that weird pout that Ford does. But he gets how a fight scene is supposed to work. He says Ford was one of the first guys he saw who really looks like he's losing the fight when it's not going his way, and Fillion has that, too. When he gets punched in the gut, it HURTS.

    Christian Bale is basically there, too, in my opinion. I wouldn't want to have a beer with him, the way I might Fillion or John Wayne, but he helped save Batman for me.

  2. The only thing holding Fillion back is that we live in an imperfect world, and not enough people know who Malcolm Reynolds was. I'm hoping Castle works out well for him.

    I'd like Bale a lot more if he seemed to enjoy himself half as much as Fillion.