Friday 25 June 2021

48 Hours of Heat in Beverly Hills

What did I do in the endless hours of lockdown? Like most people, I watched a lot of streaming services; in particular, I made a point of giving a second watch to films I'd first seen back in the 80s and 90s. What dates some of these films isn't the fashions, it's the attitudes to gender and race. I can hear the protests already: "But those were different times! You can't force today's values on yesterday's films! You can't ignore their good qualities!" Yes I can. Defending or apologizing for the sexism, misogyny and racism of films of the fairly recent past isn't dissimilar to those who argue against taking down the statues of slave traders and Confederate generals because of HiStoRy. In both cases, it's white men standing up for lost causes. What we loosely refer to as the "Hollywood" film has been, until very recently, the creation and preserve of white males, and that species, of which I am a member, has an infinite capacity to gloss over egregious examples of misogyny and racism by shouting, "He's a great director! It's got kickass action scenes! It''s...really cool-looking." Anyway, enough with the rant and on to the reviews.

48 Hours (1982)

Back in 1982 it was amusing to watch a white cop (Nick Nolte) beat up a black man (Eddie Murphy) while spouting lame racist jokes. Of course, the cop rationalizes his behaviour by saying he hates everyone, not just blacks, and, to be fair, Reggie Hammond, the Murphy character, gives as good as gets, but after George Floyd this aspect of the film is painful to watch. This was the vehicle that made Murphy a star, and the beating heart of the film are his comic rants and riffs at the expense of the white world, some, but not all of which, are still funny. The cops and robbers plot is unexceptional, the action's OK, but, all in all, not a film worth a second glance.

Q & A (1990)

Nick Nolte as yet another racist, violent cop! This time he's Mike Brennan, a NYC detective who's going off the rails trying to cover up his execution of a suspect. Pursuing him is Al Reilly (Timothy Hutton) a deputy district attorney who begins to suspect the "righteous" kill is bogus. Nolte is fantastic as a sociopathic, closeted cop who thinks his every action is justified because he's keeping the streets clean. Q & A feels very contemporary in the forthright way it tackles issues like racism, police corruption and the code of silence that prevents good cops from ratting out bad cops. Sidney Lumet, who is to NYC what Charles Dickens is to London, wrote and directed Q & A and it's one of his very best.

Another 48 Hours (1990)

Are you noticing a pattern here? I swear, I'm not obsessed with Nolte and Murphy. Anyhow, this sequel ditches the racist name-calling and settles in to being a traditional buddy cop movie, with more emphasis on grittiness and violence, and that makes it better than the original, which just has too many wince-inducing moments. 

True Romance (1993)

If anything, this one has gotten better over the years. Tony Scott, the director, gave his films a lush, glossy, frenetic look that isn't universally loved, but it's distinctly cinematic, and these days, when so many films have a flat, TV-ish look, or have surrendered completely to CGI, his sometimes OTT visuals have nostalgic appeal. The script's by Quentin Tarantino, although it's essentially a hyper-drive pastiche of tropes from Elmore Leonard's crime novels. Cops and criminals bounce violently off each other in the hunt for a bag full of cocaine and lots of people end up dead. The supporting cast is stellar, the plot twists itself into entertaining knots, and the pace is relentless. A classic, of sorts.

Beverly Hills Cop (1984) and Beverly Hills Cop II (1987)

So the pitch for this film was probably, "What if the Reggie Hammond character from 48 Hours was a cop instead of a crook and a fish out of water?" And that gave us Eddie Murphy as Axel Foley, a cop from grimy Detroit who comes to sun-kissed L.A. on the trail doesn't really matter. Both films are shaky frameworks for Murphy to repurpose his riffs from 48 Hours and act like an action star. He fails on both counts. I remember enjoying the first one at the time, but the humour this time around falls flat. The sequel is a nasty piece of work (Tony Scott directing) that's even less funny and revels in a kind of sniggering misogyny.

The Firm (1993)

This came out the same year as True Romance and it's hard to find such sharply contrasting films. Where the former is cool, edgy and clever, the latter is stodgy, overlong and void of imagination. It's hard to understand why the film was even made other than as a vehicle for the then red-hot Tom Cruise. There's an hour's worth of dull plot spread listlessly over two and a half hours, and a climactic foot chase involving geriatric Wilford Brimley, which tells you how lame the whole endeavor is. Sydney Pollack is the director picking up a paycheque, Tom Cruise shows off his community theatre acting skills, and a strong supporting cast, led by Gene Hackman, try to bring this corpse to life. This is a film that would be improved by being offensive.

Heat (1995)

For a lot of people this is the holy grail of heist movies. I can't really disagree. The robbery elements are superbly executed, the final shootout is justifiably famous, the cinematography is great, and Al Pacino as the swaggering detective and Robert De Niro as the master thief are at the top of their game. But holy crap does this film hate its female characters. Ashley Judd (Val Kilmer's character's partner) and Diane Venora (Pacino's partner) are given the thankless, and traditional, roles for women in many action movies: they're scolds and nags who complain about the lack of attention they get from their partners, and generally act as ball and chains to the men who just want to go out and have macho fun. The pair cheat on their respective men, which in both cases is presented as an act of petty, feminine vindictiveness since their illicit lovers are such wimpy weasels. But, of course, the women come crawling back to their guys at the end. In Judd's case she stupidly and senselessly risks losing custody of her son to give Kilmer's character a chance to escape, and Venora finishes the film making doe eyes at Pacino after he takes time out of his busy schedule to rescue her daughter from a suicide attempt that's only in the script to make Pacino look good. And McCauley, De Niro's character? He acquires a girlfriend, Eady, almost half his age after he's rude and cold towards her. Yup, the traditional meet-cute of lazy, male scriptwriters. What woman wouldn't be attracted to an old guy who cold shoulders her initial attempt at friendship? And within a matter of weeks (days, even?) Eady is ready to throw her life and career away and go with McCauley as he flees the country. Oh, and McCauley takes time to physically threaten Judd for daring to cheat on Kilmer. By the end of the film I was wondering why Michael Mann, the scriptwriter and director, even bothered putting female characters into his story. In sum: stay for the heist, leave for the misogyny.

Wednesday 23 June 2021

Book Review: Soldiers of Barbarossa by Craig W.H. Luther and David Stahel (2020) and An Englishman at War by Stanley Christopherson (2014)


Histories of the Second World War gives us at least a glimpse of its horrors; Soldiers of Barbarossa tells an even crueler story through the words of German soldiers. Soldiers is a collection of letters sent by frontline members of the Wehrmacht and Luftwaffe to their friends and relations detailing their experiences fighting their way across the Soviet Union from June to December of 1941. What's significant about this book is the glimpse it gives us into the mind of the average soldier.

Letters sent by about 200 different soldiers are used in the book, and perhaps only a handful of individuals could be described as anti-Nazi or neutral. The vast majority are enthusiastic in their loathing of Jews and Russians, approving of executions of the same, and almost uniformly in thrall to Hitler and Nazism. Although the editors of the book point out that only a minority of German soldiers, usually belonging to specialized units, took part in mass, organized killings of Jews and Russian, these letters make clear that most would have been fine with lending a hand. The myth of the "good" German soldier takes a battering here. 

What's almost as disturbing as the vicious descriptions of Jews and Russians is that the rhetoric and logic used to describe these hatreds is astonishingly similar to what Trump, Fox News and the GOP have been spouting for years: opponents are bestial, treacherous, criminal, and irredeemable, and their political views are deranged. The Leader is brilliant, infallible, our last and greatest hope, and knows exactly what he's doing. The letters sent home in late December 1941, as the winter bites and Soviet resistance stiffens, show a slight decline in enthusiasm for the leader and the war effort, but not that much.

An Englishman at War is the memoir of a British tank officer who fought in North Africa and Europe. Over the years I've read a lot of memoirs of this type, and while it doesn't offer anything unique, it's a fascinating counterpoint to the letters found in Soldiers. Politics and ideology are almost entirely absent from Christopherson's book, and that's true of the vast majority of British and American war memoirs I've read. There's lots of talk about the creature discomforts of war, the terror and confusion of battle, and the cruelty of what war does to men's minds and bodies, but  the visceral hatred of the Other and the mindless, true believer worship of a political/racial ideology as shown in Soldiers, is absent from Allied memoirs. 

The term "radicalization" is used to describe the process that's created today's white supremacists and far-right groups, and that term fits perfectly for what's revealed in Soldiers.  By 1941 Germans had been subject to eight years of Nazi indoctrination and propaganda, and the words of the fighting men show how successful that effort was, and all without the help of Facebook, Twitter, YouTube or Tucker Carlson.