Spoiler Warning

Always assume Spoilers and possible profanity in context. These are often adult themed movies.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Top Ten Charles Bronson Anti Heroes

Charles Bronson is the best example of a particular type of movie tough guy. He isn't fancy and doesn't even bother with the wisecracks. One look is all it takes to let you know he's serious. Not one to rely on his good looks, he looked as if he'd been chiseled out of a mountain and then etched his whole life into his face. He wasn't afraid to go over the top with violence in his movies but he always gave of a sense of decency, balancing with that cold blooded stare. He's not an aimless psychopath who enjoys shooting people, but typically someone who thinks vigilantism is the only valid form of mourning. He never did well with the critics, but certainly knew how to connect with an audience. Regarding that disconnect, he once said, "We don't make movies for critics, since they don't pay to see them anyhow.'' True to his word, he wasn't in the habit of going for Oscars, but he sure was good at making a film entertaining. I know he always struck a chord with me and I'm sure we'll never see another like him. Here's my top ten, although there are many more I'd love to fit in the list.

10. The Dirty Dozen

Major John Reisman (Lee Marvin) is in charge of a suicide mission during World War II. Because of the extreme danger a plan is devised to turn death row inmates into a fighting squad to handle it. In the unlikely event that they survive, their sentences will be commuted. Needless to say, they don't anticipate having to hand out many pardons. In a film almost absurdly full of tough guys including Lee Marvin, Telly Savalas, and Jim Brown, Bronson made his mark. coming across as one of the most formidable of the group. It gave an interesting spin to the role of the "good guys" as all of the dozen were imprisoned for good reason. A suicide mission isn't as grave when you're due to executed anyway. The concept has been used many times since then, but "The Dirty Dozen" paved the way for movies such as "The Wild Bunch" showing a more complex world than white and black hats.

9. Link, Red Sun

Red Sun is a very early cross cultural buddy cop movie. Teaming up the American Charles Bronson, Japanese star Toshiro Mifune and French star Alain Delon (as well as Swiss star Ursula Andress) Bronson plays Link, a member of Gotch's (Delon) outlaw gang who intend to rob the train carrying the  Japanese ambassador and his valuables, under the protection of samurai led by Kuroda (Mifune) Of course, Gotch double crosses Link in order to keep his money, causing Link and Kuroda to team up to take him down. Bronson delivers a great representation of the gunfighter half of the duo.  There have been enough of these culture clash cop movies since, that it won't be any surprise that their initially somewhat hesitant alliance eventually leads to a more friendly rivalry, each learning from and accepting the others different methods while working to get the same guy. Worth a watch just to see Bronson and Mifune together.

8. George "Machine Gun" Kelly, Machine Gun Kelly

No movie tough guy's career is complete without a proper gangster movie. For Bronson it was his first lead role. Loosely based on a true story, George Kelly is a petty crook looking to be big time, in order to impress his girlfriend Flo (Susan Cabot.) He robs banks to make money and headlines. Bank robbery leads to a grand kidnapping scheme. Flo pushes his buttons causing him to take risks despite his paralyzing fear of death and prison. Kelly's courage (or lack of courage) is tested  when the FBI shows up to take them down.

7. Pardon Chato, Chato's Land

Pardon Chato is a half Apache man, visiting a town that doesn't care for Indians. He's forced to kill the Sheriff to protect himself before leaving town. Capt. Quincey Whitmore (Jack Palance) gathers a group to pursue Chato. They do't realize until it's too late that Chato is leading them into Apache territory which he knows like the back of his hand. When members of the posse start dying one after another, they start to realize they've made a mistake, but things only get uglier from there. A notable film in that Bronson barely speaks at all, letting his glares and his actions do the talking for him, certainly a talent seen to a lesser extent in all of his roles.

6.Vince Majestyk, Mr. Majestyk

Vince Majestyk is an ex Army Ranger who served in Viet Nam, now simply trying to run his watermelon farm. Local mobster, Bobby Kopas (Paul Koslo) realizing that Majestyk needs to harvest his crop, tries to make some money by having Vince use his useless and drunk workers. Vince strongly refuses instead gets his own workers. Koslo, however, has Vince arrested for assault. In jail, he runs into mob hit man, Frank Renda (Al Lettieri) and ruins Renda's escape plans, deciding to ransom Renda to the authorities for enough time to harvest his crop, even turning down Renda's offers to pay him off handsomely to let him go. Not surprisingly Renda hold a grudge and when he does escape, he joins up with Kopas and makes the mistake of going after Vince.

5. Major Grigori Borzov, Telefon

The KGB started operation "Telefon" a scheme which relied on Russian sleeper agents, who believe they're Americans, hearing code words (from a Robert Frost poem) which will trigger them into acts of sabotage against the US. When Russian activist Dalchimsky (Donald Pleasance) goes rogue with the "Telefon" plans, intending to use them, the Russian military has to act to avoid starting a war. They send KGB Major Grigori Borzov to locate Dalchimsky in America and stop Telefon.    Assisted by CIA agent, Barbara (Lee Remick) he races to outsmart Dalchimsky before it's too late. Bronson was the perfect KGB agent, his silent stoicism really fitting the part. He handled espionage as well as he handled action films.

4. Paul Kersey, Death Wish

Death Wish begins with Kersey as a mild mannered architect, who lives in a city teeming with violent crime. He thinks little of it, as he's in the habit of defending the underpriveleged in the area, being labelled a bleeding heart liberal by co workers. However, the crime wave soon hits close to home costing him his wife and leaving his daughter in critical condition. The cops offer little hope for catching the criminals, and watching his daughter's condition get worse, he resolves to start taking care of it himself. He gets a gun and starts going out at night and luring criminals to attack him, only to shoot them when they do. The police start looking for the vigilante, although he's celebrated by much of the public. We find that while the police can't allow his activities, they're not entirely unsympathetic either.

3. Arthur Bishop, The Mechanic

Arthur Bishop is the best hit man around. He's a meticulous planner skilled at making his hits look like accidents. He's been in the business a long time due to his family history, and one day gets an assignment from "The Organization" to kill Harry, an old friend who was close to his father. Harry's son, Steve (Jan-Michael Vincent) starts hanging around with Bishop after running into him at his father's funeral. Bishop reluctantly takes him on as a protege. This make the Organization unhappy as he didn't clear it with them. It soon becomes clear that Bishop himself is not above having a contract put on him, and the Organization is likely to pick a killer close to him to do the job. It's also likely that they underestimated Bishop.

2. Chaney, Hard Times

Chaney is a gifted bare knuckle brawler, who can take a hit as well as give one out. During the Depression, he ends up in New Orleans without any money and stumbles onto the underground fight circuit. He's quickly noticed by Speed (James Coburn) who promotes him and quickly puts money in Chaney's pocket, while he gets a cut for himself. In arranging fights, Speed gets himself in debt to the mob. Chaney doesn't need to fight anymore, but has no choice when Speed's life is at stake for one final bout, the toughest one he's ever had. A riveting look at the depression era and the fight game, where men are treated like animals and money is everything, but some still keep their dignity.

1. Harmonica, Once Upon a Time In the West

The man knows as Harmonica appears at a train station where he's greeted by a group of outlaws that work for "Frank" (Henry Fonda.) He shoots them all down and heads for the next town. We see Frank killing the whole McBain family in the meantime, including a little boy. McBain's new bride, Jill is on her way to the ranch.  Harmonica runs into an outlaw named Cheyenne (Jason Robards) who's gang is being framed for the McBain murder. All of their paths intersect leading up to a final showdown where we learn why the mysterious Harmonica won't stop until he faces off with Frank. Perhaps the best Western of all time, Harmonica is the part that Bronson was born to play.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Bringing Out the Dead

What About It?

I'm not sure why "Bringing Out the Dead" hasn't received much attention compared to Scorsese's other films. I feel it stands up to them all, or more accurately, fits right in with them. Of course you set a rather high bar when you compare any film to "Goodfellas" and "Taxi Driver" (even if it's the same director) but it belongs in their company. For a film that simply follows an ambulance around for a good part, the ambulance sequences are thrilling, showing us the world as it may look to those who strive to move like sharks to save lives, although each stop drains something away from them.

Scorsese gives us the too bright lights at Our Lady of Perpetual Mercy Hospital where patients line the hallway, as others who can't get in bleed in the waiting room. It's remarkable that people function in this setting, but they do, as if it's just another place to work. The city is as dark as the hospital is bright, and of course the ambulance running back and forth brings it's own lights with it, and music too, as if the rides back and forth from the city to the hospital are simply possibility. Once you get there, what's done is done, but there's a kind of faith at work between the two stops. Every ambulance ride is about the effort to save and the energy comes through visually.

I think of Scorsese's work with Paul Schrader as it's own body of work (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, and The Last Temptation of Christ) all dark movies, concerned with the intricacies of the lost and tortured soul. It's interesting that Schrader studied theology, and Scorsese makes no secret of being a Roman Catholic. While I would not call any of their works "religious" they are all very focused on man's inner life, variation's of "God's lonely man." and what makes him tick, and what he carries around.

In "Bringing Out the Dead" Frank's NY is Travis Bickle's NY, only a little further down the road. It has a behind the scenes feeling, like this is what happens after Travis Bickle goes home at night.  Frank is a man, who unlike Bickle isn't searching for a calling, as he already has one. Like a prophet in the old testament, being in the desert too long is wearing him down. We catch him in the middle of a "dark night of the soul." Since he lost "Rose," a homeless girl, on a call, he can't seem to save anyone. When he resuscitates Mary's father, you could  argue that he's saved someone but it doesn't hit him that way. As we see later in the movie, this act is simply a matter of buying time, keeping the body alive, more for the benefit of the family than the man, which ties in with his own thinking about his role.

When he's on call, driving around NY is like descending into hell to give out ice water. It's also like gambling, taking calls in hopes that one of them will pay off, and he can be god again. Until that happens, he functions as a "grief mop" bearing witness to people's most trying times. Like Dante, Frank needs a guide to get where he's going, and here he has three of them, his paramedic partners; Larry who can still treat the job as a job, Marcus who has turned to faith to cope, and Wolls who has turned psychotic, (if he wasn't that way to begin with.) In a way, they also resemble Scrooge's ghosts, their presences suggesting a past, present and future. Well adjusted Larry makes sense as the past and sociopath Wolls as the future. Marcus as the present isn't as obvious, but if we take a close look, especially at Marcus' favorite story, of almost falling before being caught by god, and compare this to Frank nearly falling when he saves Cy the drug dealer, the parallel makes more sense. They both function on a kind of faith, but Frank's faith is more of a grounded one, trusting in the physical rope rather than waiting for the supernatural. Frank doesn't need more of the supernatural, as it is, he can't stop seeing the ghost of Rose on every corner. His solution to this is a physical one, to save somebody.

His turning point isn't resuscitating Mary's father, but bringing Mary home from Cy's after she falls off the wagon, and getting himself some sleep on her couch. He feels like he's saved somebody because, not unlike Orpheus, he went into Mary's darkest place and brought her out. She tells us she's been clean for years, but the prospect of her father dying is too much for her. Despite her dislike of Cy, she can't help but seek him out for his help. The man/ woman dynamic here has little to do with the romantic either, which is part of what makes it work. Frank falls asleep on Mary's couch, because after he's retrieved her, he feels companionship which isn't tied only to doing his job. From there, it's not as far to go to feel like god again, and when he saves Cy, we can see that he's on an upswing. He's able to let Mary's dad go at this point, which is presented as a service to the man as if he doesn't need the life saving "technicality" anymore and knows that the right thing is to let him go.

We're not sure if Frank can really hear the thoughts of Mary's dad, but we know at least that he thinks he can, and they do seem logical enough. And we don't need to wonder if that's really Rose he sees everywhere. The important thing is that he sees her. He's a guy surrounded by ghosts, because some people for some reason just stick with you more than others. We don't even always know why. In Rose's case, it may have been his difficulty in trying to revive her, or something about the way she looked, likely a combination of factors. When he takes drugs at Cy's place we see that he has other ghosts on his mind, but Rose is the central one, she puts a face to his failure.

Scorsese does a remarkable job making this dreary world an engaging place. His use of music and bright lights makes these ambulance rides like none we've ever seen. The adrenaline rush of saving lives comes through in the filming as does the let down of living between calls. This role is perfect for Nicholas Cage and one look at him sells the idea that he's falling apart. He plays Frank like a sleep walker who is almost nudged awake every now and then. Surrounded by the dead, and those dealing with the dead makes him a very lonely guy, and watching him try to connect with the world, the awkwardness of it all is obvious.

John Goodman is a great contrast as Larry the most stable of the paramedics we meet here. He has everything in it's place and serves as great contrast to show us that in this film, we're not pretending that every paramedic is like Frank. They do all have their own ways of coping, and Larry's method of choice is food. His presence when Frank fails to save Rose adds gravity to the situation that using the other more unhinged paramedics wouldn't have done. Ving Rhames is also great to watch. His evangelist persona combined with his fixation on being a ladies man, makes him an entertaining character. While he certainly likes to push the Holy Ghost, he's not above cheap theatrics worthy of a tent revival preacher. His solution to the angst is not one that interests Frank at all, being as intangible as his story of almost falling off a building. Tom Sizemore is a standout here, his performance gives us a guy so disturbed it's uncomfortable to watch him. He's as likely to kill someone as he is to save them, and if not for Frank's second thoughts, he would've killed Noel. He's the most cautionary tale of Frank's partners.

The rest of the supporting cast is terrific. Patricia Arquette gives us a Mary who's temporarily as lost as Frank is. She's consumed by regret that she hadn't made peace with her father, and faced with his possible death, her years of sobriety are tested. Her verbal assault on Frank, who walks her to Cy's place, reveals that she's well aware she isn't doing what she should. She gets back to a more sensible place and having Frank as a kind of sounding board seems to help her as much as him, although we sense that this could well be just a temporary universe to get them through the worst of it. Cliff Curtis gives us an original drug dealer. He presents himself as an alternative doctor, out to make everyone relax. His conversation with Frank when he's stuck on the railing is one of the most interesting scenes in the film. The sparks from the torch look like fireworks, as Cy considers his mortality. Despite it all, he loves the city, even knowing that it's going to kill him.

Marc Anthony's portrayal of Noel is central to the film. And he does  a wonderful job playing a man who is mentally damaged in a way that makes him entirely unpredictable. Frank keeps crossing paths with him as if Noel is the embodiment of what he doesn't know. Every time they bring him to the hospital, he's released and ends up back there again. He screams for a cup of water, but the doctor informs us that water is the last thing he needs. Still, he ends up getting the water, as people can't absorb the idea that water could hurt him. Giving him the water seems an attempt to make his treatment less inhumane, but in fact that attempt at kindness hurts him. His situation is similar to keeping Mary's dad alive. It seems the kind thing to keep him from dying, but at the same time, they're overriding what his body wants to do, until finally Frank lets him go.

Frank sees himself as a part of "God" when he's saving lives. He tells us, "Saving someone's life is like falling in love. The best drug in the world. For days, sometimes weeks afterwards, you walk the streets, making infinite whatever you see. Once, for a few weeks, I couldn't feel the earth - everything I touched became lighter. Horns played in my shoes. Flowers fell from my pockets. You wonder if you've become immortal, as if you've saved your own life as well. God has passed through you. Why deny it, that for a moment there - why deny that for a moment there, God was you?" However, he also tells us that no one can bear the other side of that, and take the blame when things go wrong, even though we watch him doing just that, because whether he admits or not, playing god requires someone taking the credit to take the blame as well, certainly one of the oldest theological dilemmas.

Frank tells Mary "We're all dying." and more than most, he knows that no one is exempt. Who he can save or not, is often outside his control. As he points out, all of his training is useless on most of his calls. People live and die and which is better isn't always clear cut. It's certainly not always up to Frank. While he loves the feeling of saving a life, by acting as god, he's setting himself up for responsibility that he can't handle. Finally, he lets himself off the hook, and Rose appears at the end as if to confirm it. She says "It's not your fault. No one asked you to suffer. That was your idea." He finally understands that he's just a guy trying to do his part, he doesn't make the decisions, and as a result he can get some rest. He can find his own suffering, he doesn't need to carry everybody else's.

What Happens?

Frank Pierce (Nicholas Cage) and his fellow EMT's serve as NY's clean up crew. Frank sees the dead and dying every day and it takes its toll on him. He's overworked as there's more than enough misery to keep whatever crew is available going around the clock, and he can't turn away. He visits people at their most vulnerable times, and tells them what he thinks they need to hear, but it's a one way transaction. His only sense of companionship is with those in the field, his fellow paramedics and the staff at the "Our Lady of Perpetual Mercy" hospital.

Frank is sleepwalking through the middle of a bad spell, where he can't seem to save anybody. One case in particular, a homeless woman named Rose (Cynthia Roman) sticks with him, giving a face to every recent failure. He sees Rose's ghost everywhere, in random street scenes, and women he's looking at seem to turn into her. Frank is another version of "God's lonely man" although unlike Bickle, he has a calling as much as he might like to abandon it. He tells us "Saving someone's life is like falling in love. The best drug in the world. For days, sometimes weeks afterwards, you walk the streets, making infinite whatever you see. Once, for a few weeks, I couldn't feel the earth - everything I touched became lighter. Horns played in my shoes. Flowers fell from my pockets. You wonder if you've become immortal, as if you've saved your own life as well. God has passed through you. Why deny it, that for a moment there - why deny that for a moment there, God was you?"  But given his bad luck, he reevaluates his role, concluding that he's a "grief mop," whose main purpose is to bear witness to all the suffering he visits.

He doesn't have to do this alone (at least not in a physical sense) and his partners are a good gauge for Frank's condition. His first partner in the film, Larry (John Goodman) is a paramedic who doesn't what he does as a calling, so much as a job. Larry plans to have his own ambulance outfit one day and doesn't appear bothered by any of their calls. Not having the same thing for lunch two days in a row, is as important to him as any injured person they're responding to. Goodman really gets the part down, and it makes sense that we start the journey with his stability as a balance to Frank's sure sliding off the rails. He's with Larry when they get a call about a man having a heart attack. When the man appears to die, Frank tells the man's daughter, Mary (Patricia Arquette)  to put on some Frank Sinatra when she says that's the music her father likes. Against all expectations, Frank gets a heartbeat from the dead man, as if he can turn his bad luck streak around by force. He uses the same approach with the hospital. They tell him they have no room, but he wheels in new patients anyway. In this case though, he has no other options, he can't keep them in the ambulance.

He runs into Mary several times at the hospital as she waits on her father with the rest of the family. He develops an interest in her, although he has no real sense of social skills. It doesn't really matter though, since this isn't an everyday exchange, Mary is having a hard time coping with the sudden tragedy, and is so wrapped up in her own grief, she's unapproachable to Frank, except in his role as a part of the medical system. Frank doesn't seem to really know the difference though, as his attraction to her seems another part of him trying to break his bad streak, maybe he can help her. Mary takes pity on a man, Noel, strapped down at Mercy, screaming for a glass of water. We're informed that water is the last thing Noel needs, as he has a kidney problem, and water could have serious consequences. Mary doesn't hear that though. She can't get over the fact that her friend is screaming for a little water and no one wants to help him. She lets him go and Frank doesn't even think to stop her. Larry and Frank run into Noel on the street, covered in blood and making a scene on the street. Frank is able to calm him down by assuring him they have a room at the hospital where they can kill him if he wants. Frank stops by the station and expects to be fired, even demanding his captain fire him. "I'll fire you tomorrow." he says, which Frank has certainly heard before.

Frank's second partner is Marcus (Ving Rhames) more of a character than Larry was. Marcus can't stop telling a story about almost falling off a ledge, but miraculously being pulled back. He loves to talk about women and Jesus. Frank knows how Marcus works and times the resuscitation of an overdose victim so that Marcus can present it as a supernatural healing for the benefit of the kid's friends. Marcus can't help but try and flirt with the dispatcher (Queen Latifah) who doesn't seem terribly amused by him, but can't stop giving out the calls. Mary's Dad starts showing cognitive signs and gets moved out of emergency. Frank stops at Mary's place and lets her know. Back out on calls, they find a woman who's about to deliver a baby, but insists that she hasn't had sex and can't even be pregnant. They deliver two babies, the one Marcus delivers is healthy, but Frank delivers one that's dead. Marcus gets a rush from the experience and tells Frank he wants to start working more nights. Frank pleads with Marcus not to take another call, but Marcus is energized and ready to go so ignores him. Marcus speeds off and narrowly avoids hitting a cab, but still ends up flipping the ambulance on it's side. Frank gets out and walks away, telling Marcus "I quit." Marcus tells him "It doesn't work that way. You need the Holy Ghost."

Frank checks on Mary's Dad and runs into Mary and follows her to a building nearby. She tells him how frustrated she is with the situation and asks him to wait outside for her since it's a dangerous building. He suggests that he come in with her but she insist that he stay outside. After waiting a while he knocks on the door and finds it's a drug dealer, Cy's (Cliff Curtis) apartment. Cy welcomes him in and tells him that Mary told him to pass on the message that she'd crash there for a while. He notices that Frank could use some relaxation himself, and after finding Mary sleeping peacefully, he agrees to take something that Cy offers. He starts feeling the drugs, but rather than relax he imagines himself pulling ghosts out of the ground, and then thinks of Rose, recalling his attempts to save her. He starts screaming upsetting everyone in Cy's house. He then grabs Mary and carries her out. He walks Mary home, ad she tells him that she knows Cy has hurt people, and could have been the one to put a bullet in Noel's head, making him crazy. She asks him what he wants from her, but he has no answer. He falls asleep on her couch while she tells him he can't stay. He wakes up refreshed feeling "as if I've turned a corner." He reports to the station and is assured he'll be fired tomorrow.

Hi last partner is Tom Wolls (Tom Sizemore) a paramedic in a worse place than Frank is. Tom seems an outright sociopath. He tells Frank that he admires his ambulance because "I can't kill her." illustrating by busting a headlight. He and Frank know each other very well and were even partners at one time. Wollis is completely unhinged. Frank visits Mary's dad in the hospital and finds his heart has stopped. A nurse tells him to shock him, as "he always comes back." Frank hears the man talking in his head however, telling him not to do it. Unable to help the nurse takes over and revives him again. They're called to a suicide attempt in the homeless community. Noting that the attempt is an unconvincing one, Tom makes the mentally disturbed man a patch to keep on his forehead to eliminate his suicidal tendencies. Frank loses his temper and scolds the man for not really trying. They're next called to the drug dealer Cy's apartment, where there was a shooting  that left Cy impaled on a railing many stories above the street. Frank cuts the railing with a torch, almost falling when he cuts it free except that his coworkers strapped him to the building, enabling him to save Cy and himself.

At the hospital, Cy thanks him for saving his life. Frank checks on Mary's Dad again, finding they've shocked him fourteen times and are considering implanting a defibrillator to shock him when he needs it. He runs into Mary who apologizes for her stoned behavior. She asks about her father and tells him. "I think about how tough he was and now I know he had to be that way, to make us tough. Because, this city, it'll kill you if you're not strong enough." Frank tells her, "No, the city doesn't discriminate. It gets everybody." Before catching up wit Wolls, he tells her "We're all dying Mary Burke." Frank starts seeing Rose on the street again, after telling Wolls they have to keep moving, saying "No stopping. We're sharks. We stop. we die." Frank suggests they go break some windows, and Wolls tells him they need a reason first. They see Noel on the street again, breaking car windows with a bat. Wolls suggests they work him over. Frank insists that Noel is mentally ill and can't help himself. Wolls insists that noel knows exactly what he's doing and that they should team up to catch him. Frank approaches Noel who offers him the bat suggesting he take a few swings which he does. Wolls tries to sneak up on Noel, who runs when he sees him. They both chase him independently. Wolls finds Noel first and beats him savagely until Frank stops him and threatens to call for back up unless Wolls helps save him. Frank gives Noel CPR and they get him to the hospital.

Frank visits Mary's dad again, who is still being shocked regularly to stay alive. He hears him in his head again, asking him to "let me go." Frank puts the wires on his own chest and puts the breathing tube in his mouth to fool the monitors and let him die. He then starts attempting CPR, knowing it's too late. The doctor tells them to stop CPR and let him go. Frank offers to tell the family. He walks over to see Mary, and tells her about her father. In mid conversation, he sees her turn into Rose. He tells her "Forgive me Rose." She answers "It's not your fault. No one asked you to suffer. That was your idea." SHe then turns back into Mary, and he tells her that Noel will be alright. She asks him to come inside and he falls asleep with her.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

The Sword of Doom

What About It?

From the start of the film, we're shown that Ryunosuke is not your average samurai. He just happens to be at a mountain top shrine at the moment an old man is praying for death and seems to delight in helping to answer the prayer. As far as that action goes, it could be argued that his first action was a just one. The Grandfather did seem sincere, but facing a man with a sword he didn't seem quite as ready as he claimed.

Ryunosuke is basically denounced by his own father, telling us what we've seen a glimpse of that his son is consumed by cruelty.He tells Ryunosuke, "I don't fully understand your sword form. You draw out your opponent. Then, in an unguarded moment, you cruelly...And the cruelty doesn't stop with your sword. It seems to have seeped into your mind and body. It frightens me." Once we actually see him with his sword it's very clear what his father meant. His "Kogen style" or "silent form" is deceptive. Hyoma, the brother out to avenge himself on Ryunosuke sums up the style, saying "I push, he retreats. I retreat, he lowers his sword. Seemingly off guard, yet alert. How can I defeat his form?"

His form confounds everyone he meets, it's strength being based on his opponents actions. It's a reactive style and we see this same quality in Ryunosuke many times. The first man he kills the grandfather, essentially asks him to do it, by praying for death. The second man he kills, Bunnojo Utsuki attempts to kill Ryunosuke first with an illegal tsuki thrust. He is only killed by Ryunosuke's parry, which could certainly be seen as self defense. Of course, it isn't quite that simple. Bunnojo resolved to make their match into a death match, when learning that Ryunosuke had slept with his wife, another situation which he caused reactively. Ohama, Bunnojo's wife begged Ryunosuke to have mercy and throw the match. To illustrate the gravity of her request, he tells her "A swordsman prizes his skill like a woman prizes her chastity. Would you surrender your chastity?" The comparison soon becomes a deal and he agrees to throw the match once he sleeps with her. However the attempted fatal strike from Bunnojo changes the deal, as he didn't agree to die. It's quite possible that not only was Bunnojo bothered by the infidelity, but by the idea that his wife would without his knowledge, beg his opponent to spare him. Bunnojo tells Ohama that he found peace with the idea of the match by resolving that win or lose he would follow the rules. Her secret mission to beg for mercy is certainly outside the rules, but still it's important to him that before the duel, he presents her divorce papers.

After the duel, he's confronted by many men upset that he killed Bunnojo. He assures Ohama, who is now sticking with him, that no one would carry a grudge about the duel as he followed the rules. He's wrong however, and despite the fact that he reacted to his opponents lethal force, he's attacked as a villain just the same. This doesn't bother him much either, as their attack justifies him killing them. One thing that's very clear about Ryunosuke is that the act of killing doesn't bother him at all. Everyone he encounters recognizes his skill. He makes those around him nervous because of that skill, and because he makes no attempt to show compassion or humility. It seems to be accepted that few people are a match for him. He isn't devoted to social skills but to his sword. The character of Ryunosuke has much in common with the Albert Camus' character Meursault in his novel "The Stranger" who is sentenced to death on a murder charge, not so much for the murder, but because he didn't care enough about the recent death of his mother. Ryunosuke kills, but many samurai kill, he's unnerving because he gives the act of killing no gravity.

When he tells Ohama that the sword is his family, he's not exaggerating, his sword style is who he is. He waits for an action and then strikes. He never seems to desire a family at all but in reacting to events he acquires one. While he could hardly be presented as a loving husband he follows the rules, staying in the relationship, until Ohama has had enough and tries to kill him. He reacts by killing her. We don't know what happens to his infant son, but he does show some regard for him, hoping he'll grow up safe, which is more regard than he shows for anyone else.

Even his knowledge that Bunnojo's brother Hyoma is after revenge for the death of his brother doesn't cause him to change his behavior. He even sends a message to Hyoma apologizing that he'll have to kill him in one blow. He says much the same to Ohama in private, presenting it as a fact that Hyoma will challenge him and as a result he'll have to kill him. He waits for the challenge rather than seeking out Hyoma himself.

The sword teacher Shimada is the only one presented as a match for Ryunosuke. He's everything that Ryunosuke is not, most significantly, in that he's reluctant to take life and angry when he's forced to do so. Where Ryunosuke's style is deceptive and cruel, Shimada's is forthright and mercifully quick. He tells Shimada "The sword is the soul. Study the soul to know the sword. Evil mind, evil sword." Seeing him in action, effortlessly killing all of Ryunosuke's group, we see that his confidence in his own abilities is profoundly shaken, a fact which Shimada notices as well.

Even though all of Ryunosuke's actions are reactions that doesn't eliminate the consequences from them. We see that forces ally against him. Hyoma crosses paths with Omatsu, the girl whose grandfather he killed and they start working against him. Within Ryunosuke's group of samurai, a movement begins against him as well.  There's also the idea of the ghosts of his past working against him. We could perhaps dismiss the ghosts as his imagination if Omatsu hadn't witnessed them. When he lashes out against the ghosts, we see him break his form, slashing wildly at foes who aren't there when he strikes. He attempts to take on the dead and the living at the same time and despite his shaky appearances he appears no less formidable against either. Nobody can stand against him, except Shimada, who doesn't seem to feel that it's his fight. We don't see a resolution to Hyoma's revenge, or even of the fighting with the other samurai, but that isn't the point anyway. What we do see in Hyoma's quest is the idea that he had a debt trailing after him, and since he's a man not a real force of nature, it will keep pushing until he acts, which is exactly what does happen. He finally snaps and it's an explosion which looks like it will completely wear him out.

"The Sword of Doom" is dark for a samurai movie, and director Kihachi Okamoto's black and white presentation really serves it well. While sword fighting  is a crucial element of the film, your average sword fight happens so quickly that not even the referee can see what really happened. To illustrate Ryunosuke's mastery of the sword, he needs many opponents to take him on as each adversary is dispatched in a moment. There are two scenes where Ryunosuke takes on far greater numbers, and one where Shimada does the same. This sets the two of them in a class apart. They are not true enemies however, as much as counterparts. Ryunosuke imagines he will challenge Shimada one day, but instead gets surrounded by his own life and what comes of his own sword style. The last fight scene is a one of a kind experience. Watching Ryunosuke fight madness, ghosts and endless living samurai is as strange as it sounds, and even more affecting. The supporting characters all carry themselves perfectly, Michiyo Aratama gives us a more complex mistress/wife than I expected. She negotiates some difficult moral area and ends up being more of a match for Ryunosuke than many of his fellow samurai. Even knowing his cruelty, she doesn't keep quiet, telling him exactly what she thinks of him. Yuzo Kayama is great as the likeable and eager Hyoma, who has good intentions, but never really feels like he has a chance against the greater swordsman.

Tatsuya Nakadai gives an amazing performance. With his eyes alone, he gives Ryunosuke a haunted look that tells us he's capable of anything. When he witnesses Shimada's abilities, he barely moves yet we can see that he's about to implode from the weight of what he's just seen. We can believe that up until that point it's never even occurred to him that someone could beat him. Toshiro Mifune is one of few actors with enough presence to make Shimada believable as the only swordsman with enough skill and presence to halt Ryunosuke in his tracks. Where Ryunosuke absorbs everything from an opponent, including the thrill of making a strike, in order to strike back cruelly and decisively, Shimada doesn't engage at all, only killing as a last resort, and relying on speed and power rather than trickery. Killing happens all the time, but the cruelty is what makes Ryunosuke different and loathed by everyone he meets.

Whether or not he's "evil" is another question. Although he's very cruel, he doesn't typically act out of malice, unless a malice towards the world in general. Ohama seems to feel that's the truth, and she tells him to "kill the whole world" because that's what she sees in him. Yet, he doesn't turn Ohama away when she has nowhere else to go, and he does have some feeling towards his son, even saving him from his mother on one occasion. He also spares Omatsu towards the end, although perhaps not knowing what Serizawa had planned. Certainly Hyoma's grudge could be looked at more closely, as his brother first attempted homicide.

To reduce the story to "good" versus "evil" reduces the world around these men. While there's clearly a kind of karmic balance at work, it's much bigger than the usual "what comes around, goes around" understanding of the concept. He isn't punished for doing something bad, he's simply followed by the pain he's had a hand in contributing to. His general lack of humility and compassion make him difficult to like and he's too skilled to be easily eliminated, so naturally people fear and hate him. His actions do lead to good outcomes at times, such as Hyoma and Omatsu crossing paths, which would likely make her grandfather happy. We're not shown what happens to his son but in his life there are possibilities. It's also worth considering that if the more mild mannered Hyoma had killed a man in a duel in the same way that Ryunosuke killed Bunnojo, it's unlikely that anyone would have attacked him for it.  Shimada says "evil sword, evil soul" but this is just a simplification of the concept that the sword style and the man's soul reflect each other. Beyond good and evil, there's a sense that some things are good for a time and then their use is passed. It's not a coincidence i think that in Ryunosuke's match with Bunnojo, Bunnojo tries a tsuki strike, the same method that Hyoma and Shimada determine is the only way to defeat him. He then witnesses Shimada at work, and it's as if the means of his defeat have become a concept that the world is working on.

His real crime is that he's not willing to be "his brother's keeper." He feels he owes nothing to anyone or anything but his sword and so ends up alone with his sword in the end, along with everything he set in motion with it. This isn't a redemption story, simply a character trying to live in his own skin, using a code that ensures this will only get more difficult the longer he lives. Some have complained that subplots were unresolved and the freeze frame ending is abrubt, and it should be mentioned that originally this was to be the first in a series of films. Personally I think it ends at just the right spot, nothing sums up the character more than his sword about to come down.

What Happens?

 As the film starts, the titles tell us, "Spring, 1860, The Sakurada Gate Incident" We see an elderly Buddhist man visit a mountaintop shrine with his granddaughter, Omatsu (Yôko Naitô) He tells her a story of two rivers being started at the shrine long ago, before she leaves him to refill her grandfather's water container. Shortly after she leaves him the old man prays for death, to stop his being a burden to his granddaughter. He's surprised when a man with a sword, Ryunosuke (Tatsuya Nakadai)  appears and obliges his prayer, quickly killing the shocked old man with his sword. He leaves and the old man's granddaughter soon finds the body.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Red Rock West

Michael Williams (Nicholas Cage) is a drifter, the kind that hotel fires are often blamed on. His car is the closest thing he has to a residence. At the beginning of the film, he's off to see about a job that a friend has already lined up for him. He's surprised that he has to fill out an application, but his friend assures him, "it's just a formality." It probably is, but moments later when Michael walks out of the interview without a job, we learn that he couldn't help but tell his prospective employer about a leg injury, It wouldn't be right to keep it from him, as the boss would find out eventually, he tells his disappointed friend. His friend reasons, "yeah, but you'd already have the job." Clearly, that's not good enough for Michael. In another instance, we see him stopping for gas, with five dollars left in his wallet. The station is empty and the cash drawer is open, but again Michael resists temptation and so arrives in the town of Red Rock, Wyoming completely broke.

Stopping into a bar, he talks to the bar owner, Wayne (J.T. Walsh) who thinks Michael is "Lyle from Dallas" a man he has a job for. The prospect of work, entices Michael to play along. The relaxation of his honesty is rewarded by a thick stack of cash. It turns out, Wayne needs his wife, Suzanne (Lara Flynn Boyle) killed. Michael hears him out and agrees to do the job. However, rather than kill her. he surprises her at home and tells her what he agreed to do. Suzanne doesn't seem at all surprised, and makes him a proposition, she'll pay him to kill her husband. Michael agrees, and gets a second payment, although rather than kill anyone, he decides to leave Red Rock, after writing a note for the Sheriff, telling him all about the murder plot. Unfortunately, it's tough to see on the road, and Michael accidentally hits a man with his car. Unable to fight his good nature, he returns to Red Rock, to get the man to a hospital. He waits to see about the man's condition and learns that the man was more injured by a couple of bullets, than he was by the collision. The Sheriff arrives to make an arrest, and we see that Wayne from the bar is the Sheriff too. He's not happy that his wife isn't dead. Michael comes clean and tells him he isn't Lyle. When Wayne pulls over to take care of the problem, Michael manages to escape and after a chase, tumbles onto the highway in front of a car with Texas plates. The Texan turns out to be the real Lyle (Dennis Hopper.) Lyle is a fellow ex Marine and insists that Michael have a drink with him, and after that he'll help Mike get his car back. Of course they're parked in front of Wayne's bar, so Michael knows it's a bad idea, but Lyle is so insistent he can't get out of it. "You too good to let me buy you a drink?" Lyle asks and there's nothing he can do but agree. Wayne gets to the bar while Michael's in the bathroom, prompting a bathroom window escape. Michael is on his way out of Red Rock again, but he has to warn Suzanne, that Lyle is on the way.

Michael helps Suzanne get away and they decide to escape together, getting out of Red Rock again, only to return when Suzanne recalls half a million dollars that Wayne keeps in a safe, an attractive proposition since all of Michael's money is in his car, which the Sheriff has now. Returning to Red Rock for the money, Michael learns that both Suzanne and Wayne share a secret. Lyle also finds out about the secret, and decides that he and Wayne should partner up, which to him means that Wayne can live if he splits that half a million dollars with him. Everything leads to a final four way confrontation which can only get smaller, since nobody wants to split the money four ways.

"Red Rock West" is as direct a nod to the classic film noir plots and characters as there is available. While there is a lot of maneuvering going on, the characters are exactly what they seem to be. Cage's Michael is an honest guy who's down on his luck. You can sense that his being broke is like Red Rock, a place he keeps trying to leave but can't get out of. He really tries to be honest, but being perpetually broke wears on him. After just losing a prospective job due to his honesty, he's offered another one, if he'll only claim he's someone he's not.  It seems a pretty harmless thing to do, until he learns that the job is to commit murder. Even then he doesn't miss a beat though, he keeps the money, and warns the victim, who pays him again. Things are looking up, he thinks, he can just leave town with all the money, leave a letter for the Sheriff, and all will be fine. We see Michael at a gas station, proudly filling up his tank and filling grocery bags with everything he's obviously denied himself for a long time. The guy at the counter seems amused that someone would do such heavy shopping at his gas station. Michael doesn't care, he's wasting money because he finally can. Splurging at the gas station is the best he's had it for a long long time.

His alliance with Suzanne is not that different either. He knows she was the object of a murder plot and he helps her get away. All it takes is a little attraction between them to sell him on the idea that things can work out alright. Chances are he hasn't been pursuing women in some time, being too busy travelling around trying to figure out a way to keep his car in gasoline. Nicholas Cage plays the role perfectly. This was a while before he became a caricature of himself and although he has a few outbursts, they're believable ones. For the most part he plays a kind of everyman here. The interesting thing here is that on paper, Michael shouldn't come out ahead. He isn't smarter, tougher, or more ruthless than the other players involved. His leaning towards honesty also initially appears to be a handicap. If he had been willing to leave the man he'd hit with his car on the side of the road for example, he'd have been able to escape Red Rock, and been able to live pretty well for some time. That isn't in his character however. It doesn't appear he even considers doing that. At that point he doesn't know that Wayne is the Sheriff, but even so, Michael couldn't leave the guy to die on the side of the road. It's his character that pulls him back to Red Rock over and over again. The only talent that Michael has that keeps him in the game is his adaptability, and his reasonable expectations. While Wayne, Lyle and Suzanne all seem to be overcome by dollar signs, Michael is perfectly happy to be better off than he was. The other three wouldn't bother on a gas station shopping spree. That would be a waste of time, as they each want everything.

 J.T. Walsh is great here, as a businessman type of villain. He doesn't seem to take anything personally, but at the same time doesn't like having unresolved problems. When he arrests Michael at the hospital and stops to get rid of him, we along with Michael see that he's figured out his course of action and isn't about to be argued with. This problem however, gets away from him. He couldn't have anticipated what Michael's unexpected involvement would do to complicate his life, or that Lyle would get frustrated with what should have been a simple job and take advantage of new information that's revealed when he's in town. Lara Flynn Boyle is cast perfectly too, as from the first moment she's on screen we sense that she's more than she appears to be. Michael would realize that too, if he wasn't so attracted to her. Of course, he's also introduced to her knowing she's in peril, which certainly causes him to get more involved, pushing his good guy buttons a little bit.

Dennis Hopper does what he does best here, playing a psychopath with his own peculiar set of manners. His main concern even above money, is that he doesn't want Michael thinking he's "better than him."  although everyone knows that he is. When Lyle and Michael first meet and commiserate over being Marines, he can't help but mention that he heard about the accident that led to Michael leaving the service. "I'm no hero" he tells Lyle, mentioning the men that didn't make it, but it's too late for that. Lyle's inferiority complex is already engaged.

Michael is the unknown element in the group of four converging on the big take. He can't be accounted for because to him, there's little difference between $500.00 and half a million dollars. They can all play him to a degree, but that ability is limited, because while he's a good guy, he isn't really naive, just not quite smart enough to be too far ahead based on what little information he has. He smiles and adapts, the way you'd imagine a drifter would. He tries to be honest as well, but there are limits, since he can't fill up his gas tank on nothing.

While Michael's adversaries are grasping for everything they can get, he stands outside it all in a way, acting only when it becomes necessary. He is both doomed and saved by his character, which keeps him running in and out of Red Rock. Ultimately he gets out because he's the only one of them that can let go. Unlike the others, he's so used to not having anything, that he doesn't want anything badly enough to kill for it. He ends not that differently from where he started, and while that isn't great, it's more than you can say for anyone else.

"Red Rock West" is a film with lots of twists, but all reasonable within the set up. There's no mystery that you're challenged to solve, just pieces that change motivations. Everything looks straightforward and then something is dropped in to complicate it. Each new fact makes sense once we learn it, but that doesn't mean the complications are simple. We've seen these characters before; the femme fatale who knows where the money is, the hit-man looking to get a bigger cut, the shady husband with a secret past, and the drifter who stumbles into the situation. We've seen them before because they're characters that work, and they're all brought to life very well here. The scenery is also a big part of the film, the harsh Wyoming landscape is impartial to what anybody wants, but at the same time reminds you that there are consequences. It's easily believable that the Sheriff is also the owner of the local bar, and that the Sheriff was elected without much of a background check. It's a fitting backdrop for four larger than life characters that seem to know all about looking small against the open spaces.

John Dahl does a great job applying noir conventions to a more contemporary situation and gives us a smart film about a guy in the wrong place at the wrong time, who knows that while good deed goes unpunished, bad deeds get punished just a little bit more. The money is always there underneath it, something that's refreshing to see. It's not often that a movie really shows the difficulty of being down to your last five bucks and needing gas in the car. Even Michael who seems less driven by money than others, drives a long way for a possible job and bends his moral code to get the next one as if his goodness is being chipped away by scarcity. We can wonder, if he had the chance again, would he still insist on talking about his leg to the last employer? Everybody needs money, like it or not, that's just a fact of life in this film and deciding you won't do anything for it just means more drifting, looking for opportunities that don't come up often.