Sunday, December 6, 2020

two action movies in which the only reason the hero doesn't die is that heroes don't die

The new month's output of films newly available for streaming where I could see them included two blockbuster action movies of some vintage (23 and 12 years old) and considerable fame, but which I had never seen. They're otherwise very different.

Air Force One, in which the US president's plane is hijacked by terrorists, is a fantasy of heroic adventure, with a veneer of realism about the good guys' interactions but complete self-indulgent wanking over the way the president personally and nearly single-handedly defeats the terrorists. This movie single-handedly created the trope of Action Movie President which George W. Bush felt obliged to pretend to live up to during 9/11, with incredibly awkward results.

The Hurt Locker, on the other hand, offers itself as an ultra-realistic look at the US Army teams who seek and disarm or destroy IEDs during the Iraq War (though it did get some criticism on that point from the people who actually do it, as always happens). While Air Force One was popular, this one was acclaimed: it won six Academy Awards including Best Picture, and wound up on many critics' lists of the best movies of the decade, including Ebert's.

My reaction was different. I did rather enjoy watching Air Force One, but I found it irritating. The Hurt Locker, on the other hand, was just irritating.

The reason for my irritation is this: various actions are established as dangerous by depicting good guys getting killed by doing them. But then the hero - Harrison Ford in the one, Jeremy Renner in the other - does the same thing and doesn't get killed. The implication is that it's just his superior dazzle and sparkle that lets him do it, but vulnerability in these situations is not purely, or even mostly, a function of the person's abilities, but of factors over which he has no control. It's really for the reason spelled out in my post title. As a self-confident Donald Westlake character once put it, "I'm the hero ... The hero doesn't get killed."

Air Force One is actually better than some such movies in one respect: good guys hiding out from bad guys who manage to avoid being seen while themselves not being able to see where the bad guys are at the moment. Harrison Ford at least has to look. But in terms of not being shot, and especially in terms of hanging on while dangling outside the airplane in buffeting winds where anybody else was just swept overboard, it's just too obvious that he succeeds because: he's the hero.

The Hurt Locker opens by establishing what a dangerous job this is. Renner's predecessor (Guy Pearce) usually uses a trundling remote-control robot to safely explode bombs. But, forced by a malfunction to approach a bomb personally, Pearce is killed when the bomb goes off, even though he's some distance away and wearing his protective bomb suit. So what does Renner do? He dismisses the robot and saunters in with a pair of wire clippers to defuse the bombs, not even wearing the bomb suit (figuring he'd get killed anyway, so he might as well be flexible and comfortable).

That's chutzpah enough, but here's the thing: Pearce had been killed not through any mistake of his own, but because the bomber was lurking nearby and set off the bomb remotely by cell phone. So why, especially considering the number of locals hanging around while he does this, does this not happen to Renner? The lurking is not under his control, and there'd be plenty of time for the bomber to send the signal.

Worse yet, the soldier whose job it is to cover Renner while he works (Anthony Mackie) is constantly irritated by Renner's unorthodox, unsoldierly, and risky behavior. This doesn't defuse the issue, it only magnifies it. I was just as irritated as Mackie was. I give The Hurt Locker a bad grade as a movie.

Also, what is the point of these stories? Harrison Ford begins Air Force One with a stirring speech about how America will never negotiate with terrorists. But when the terrorists hijack the plane, what does he do? He negotiates with them. While also trying to take them out, yes, but only his success at that prevents at literally the last second the terrorists getting what they want (the release of their imprisoned leader). The point of The Hurt Locker seems to be that you can do all this stuff, but it's ultimately futile. Like other movies depicting futility, it goes on way, way too long.

You know, I didn't have this problem watching Mission Impossible: Fallout a couple months ago, even though Tom Cruise's heroics are of an absurdity that makes Harrison Ford look like a wimp. The reason is, besides the improvement over a couple of decades in filming techniques (the matting in Air Force One is sometimes a little too obvious), Mission Impossible didn't go out of its way to tell you how dangerous the heroics are, and thus insult the viewer's intelligence.

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