12 January 2009

Three Movies and a Genre Problem

I watched three movies (well, more than three, actually) over the weekend, and--taken together--they've caused me something of a genre problem. Let me explain.

On Friday, I watched The Bank Job, a 2008 British heist film starring Jason Statham and a solid supporting ensemble. Based (I don't know how closely) on a true story, The Bank Job follows a crew of small-time criminals who pull off a big-time bank robbery and, in so doing, drop themselves right in the middle of a sordid knot of international intrigue and organized crime. The movie was essentially everything you want in a heist flick--a bold plan, lots of close calls, and several satsisfyingly outrageous plot twists, topped by a cool protagonist (Statham at his raspy voiced--and raspy chinned--best) and a sexy love interest (or two).

On Saturday, I watched Wanted, a 2008 American shoot 'em up thriller starring a dweeby James Macavoy, an impossibly sexy Angelina Jolie, and some other people (including Common, who I would have introduced as "impossibly sexy," too, if it wouldn't get me in trouble with my more homophobic friends, who would start to form incorrect suspicions about me). The previews looked pretty darn cool, but--as is so often the case--the clips spliced together for the trailer constituted all of the best moments in the film. In Wanted, poor Wesley Gibson is Ed Norton's character in Fight Club (right down to the Ikea reference and sad-sack voiceover narration)--he's unfulfilled, he hates his job, and he's such a dweeb that he buys his best friend condoms even though he (Gibson) knows his best friend will use them to shag his (Gibson's) annoying girlfriend. All this changes when Gibson meets his very own Tyler Durden, played by Angelina Jolie, who introduces him to a cult of assassins who, like Liam Neeson's army in Batman Begins, kill for the greater good--keeping the world's balance of power, well, balanced. Throw in a little Matrixy action and some other movie rip-offs (including a fight scene where Gibson is slashed by an unseen assailant who darts in and out of clouds of smoke and shadow, a la Gangs of New York--click on the link and skip to about 6:18), and the movie has just about nothing to offer.

Finally, tonight, I watched the allegedly classic Western, Rio Bravo (1959). I was sorely disappointed. It's often included in lists of "greatest Westerns," and director Howard Hawks is a legend. But the movie was so typical that it was actually boring--I decided I could afford to do some chores around the house while I watched. Part of the problem is that I simply refuse to drink the John Wayne cool-aid. He's just not an impressive actor--certainly not impressive enough to carry the non-actors that Hawks loads on his back in this film, including Dean Martin (who's actually not that bad) and Ricky Nelson (who is). You know the plot (even if you don't)--bad guy in the town jail, guarded by the sheriff (Wayne, of course) who has only a cripple and a drunk (played knowledeably by Martin) to help him out. Fortunately, he's eventually joined by Nelson's young gun. Meanwhile, Angie Dickinson shows up and immediately falls in love with the elderly, wooden sheriff for no apparent reason. Also meanwhile, the imprisoned bad guy's rich, evil, rancher brother cooks up lame scheme after lame scheme to bust his brother loose. Wayne says tough, brave things. The bad guys sneer, shoot badly, and die. The old cripple (Walter Brennan) laughs cookily. The Mexicans are loyal and kind of cute but not too bright. And, of course, Nelson and Martin sing. Yadda yadda.

So, I liked The Bank Job, I didn't like Wanted, and I was unimpressed by Rio Bravo (although it wasn't bad, per se). But my reasons kind of confuse me. There's no real doubt that the heist movie genre is one of the most constrained genres ever--all heist plots are very similar. There's a place (usually a bank) that gets broken into (usually by tunneling) by a gang of crooks (each with a criminal speacialty). For all that, though, I rarely walk away from a heist movie saying, "that sucked because it was just like every other heist movie I've seen."

In the other two instances, though, that's very close to what I did walk away saying. With Wanted, I think it would be kind of fun to do one of those Blu-Ray commentaries and keep track of every moment in that film that was stolen directly from another movie. And I say that derisively. I didn't like how derivative Wanted was. Same thing with Rio Bravo; it was so hackneyed. You can say that this is because Rio Bravo is the movie that later Westerns are based upon, but that's simply not the case. In fact, Rio Bravo comes kind of late in the history of classic Westerns. So late, in fact, that the movie kind of "jumps the shark" by casting pop music stars like Dean Martin (for the middle-aged folks) and Ricky Nelson (for the youngsters) and by giving them a sing-a-long scene right in the midst of any suspense the movie hopes to develop! This is the cheesy kind of late-stage, middle-aged, soulless Western that Sergio Leone was reacting against when he made his so-called "spaghetti Westerns" of the mid- to late-1960s. It's the kind of movie that looks dangerously similar to late-twentieth century Western spoofs like Rustler's Rhapsody, where the good guys where white hats, sing, drink milk, and shoot the guns out of people's hats and the bad guys...well, you can figure out the rest. Suffice it to say that Rio Bravo suffers because it's like so many other Westerns.

So why does one genre film succeed while another fails? Why does it seem like some genres produce more bad movies than others? For instance, really bad heist movies or films noir seem so much rarer than really bad Westerns. Why?

I really don't know, and I'd love to hear your thoughts on the matter.

I'll venture a few fragments of ideas.

  • In the case of the heist movie, I think the rigid genre expectations are actually an advantage. Because you know so particularly what you're going to get from a heist movie, rather minute surprises can be very satisfying. With an action movie--like Wanted--there's more leeway, and so the expectation of novelty increases. In other words, the heist plot is pretty much pre-fabricated, so there's little chance you'll muff the plot. Your success will come in little things, like the style of the main actors, the dialogue, and the quality of the plot twists. But there's not as much of a pre-fab action movie plot, so there's more opportunity to screw up the plot. But that doesn't explain why it's so easy to make a bad Western.
  • Maybe it's easy to make a bad Western because Westerns are so mythic. Even a good Western pushes the boundary of tolerance because it so obviously embodies American mythologies--ideas about good and evil, civilization and savagery, destiny and doom, etc. Push that iconic sign system a little too far and it easily becomes parody. Especially to post-modern eyes who don't trust a white-hat-wearing good guy who seems overly confident about where the line between good and evil falls.
  • The strange case of Quentin Tarrantino. What do we do with Q? Here's a guy whose movies consist of fragments of other movies and genres smashed up together into something kind of new and kind of old. But I never leave a Tarrantino movie saying, "that sucked--it was just a Japanese kung fu movie re-hashed in an American setting." Why do I like Tarrantino and mock Wanted? Again, the answer is complicated, and it's time for me to go to bed, so I'd love to hear your thoughts. But I'll venture a brief stab at it. In this case, it seems to have something to do with how self-conscious Tarrantino is in his many homages to movies from the past. He loves B-movies and marginalized genres, and he turns them into blockbuster, critically-acclaimed feature films that, often, feature knowing, ironic dialogue and imagery that clue the viewer into the fun Tarrantino's having with old movies. In Wanted, there's no irony, self-consciousness, or "send-ups," and who pays homage to very successful movies of the past decade, anyway (except for the makers of sequels)? It's "cool" to make clever references to Sonny Chiba's body of martial arts flicks; but it's not "cool" to copy scenes you liked in huge recent blockbusters like Batman Begins, Fight Club, and The Matrix.
Anyway, all of this goes to show that genre is a tricky theoretical concept in film criticism, and that it's much harder than it seems to explain why I like or dislike a movie.

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