For reasons that will elude me forever, the world was apparently uninterested in watching Snake Plissken surf.Read More
The western and the horror movie are two genres that can be very difficult to get right. In both cases, less skilled hands tend to over or underwork the material, relying on tired clichés, paying short shrift to elemental building blocks like plot and character in favor of cheap scares or cartoonish riffs on previous genre entries. This is a roundabout way of saying that while it’s generally true that there are more bad films than good, this rule seems to apply doubly to westerns and horror movies. Perhaps the easy associations one is able to make by embracing genre tropes have created a homing beacon for the lazy, or perhaps they’re simply more difficult to get right.
In either case, S. Craig Zahler’s Bone Tomahawk has managed to pull off the commendable feat of being a worthwhile film in both genres, to the degree that one wonders why the horror western isn’t a type of film attempted more often. It’s difficult to imagine a setting more fitting for grisly devastation than the half-settled dustpan of the American southwest of the 19th century.
From it’s first frame, Bone Tomahawk is brutally violent, but the machinations of history surround the time period aid in granting what could be cartoonish with an air of something adjacent to authenticity. Any film about western settlers is on some level a film about ordinary people plunging into the unknown, taking word of mouth accounts as fact enough to pull up stakes and strike out for something akin to a new world. Through that prism, Bone Tomahawk is more of a western that uses horror elements to great effect as a kind of violent seasoning. The cast of disparate settlers simply find themselves up against a more harrowing and sinister unknown than they would in most other westerns. Substitute a gang of drunken gunfighters and criminals for a tribe of otherworldly, cave-dwelling cannibals, and the result is actually something of an überwestern.
Bone Tomahawk’s menace of apex cannibals is what makes it more akin to Predator than The Searchers. The underground tribe is powerful and terrifying to the point that even by the end, one’s not totally certain that they’re human. Decorated with otherworldly body modifications and communicative only via hauntingly modulated whistles and screams, they’re the secret fear in the heart of every intrepid settler writ large. An unstoppable, inscrutable force ungoverned by human laws and given to perpetrating acts of unspeakable violence.
Then again, a suitable adversary for Kurt Russell would need to be so petrifying.
The cast is small but able, with Russell as the noble law man, Richard Jenkins as his oft-inebriate deputy, Matthew Fox as an arrogant gunfighter, and Patrick Wilson as a hobbled husband who sets out with the raiding party to try and rescue his kidnapped wife (Lili Simmons). Supporting cast members like David Arquette, Sid Haig, Michael Paré, Jamie Hector, Fred Melamed, James Tolkan, and Sean Young round out the unsuspecting settlement.
Zahler’s script and direction are wise, recognizing the beauty in keeping Bone Tomahawk a simple affair. Though there are some welcome linguistic embellishments to reflect the times, the story is swift and concise, almost primal. Establish, imperil, descend. When the average life expectancy is that low, there’s little time for ambiguity.
The music is as sparse as the landscape and the special effects are a rarely deft blend of practical and computer-generated, particularly potent given the commendably high levels of gore reached.
Just in time for Halloween, Bone Tomahawk is a desperate, bloody, thrilling affair that recognizes the longest shadows are cast in the lowest light. Fans of westerns and horror movies, and those who consider Kurt Russell a minor deity should all be pleased and pleasantly disgusted.
At the time of publishing, Bone Tomahawk is in limited theatrical release and is available everywhere on multiple V.O.D. platforms.
The other day, I was listening to an old episode of the habitually excellent podcast Travis Bickle on the Riviera when hosts Sean Witzke and Tucker Stone started discussing Michael Mann’s most recent film Blackhat. I’d recommend listening to the episode to hear their discussion about it, but over the course of that discussion, they brought up a really fascinating point about great filmmakers. They both enjoyed the movie, but spoke of being excited to watch it again because Mann belongs to the rarified group of masterful filmmakers whose work can change over repeated viewings; Miami Vice being a particularly potent example.
Prior to this, the notion of me ever watching Blackhat again was something I’d hold more akin to a farcical punishment than a willing endeavor, but like anyone else on Earth, I’m wrong basically all of the time.
I hated Blackhat when I saw it in the theater. I’d been excited to see it if for no other reason than it was a new Michael Mann movie, but it looked promising. Solid cast, intriguing premise, exotic locales, violence. Any one of those is a potentially solid building block to an enjoyable film, but I walked out as the credits rolled feeling dejected, confused, and ultimately let down. While commiserating with the only person I knew in Portland who had actually seen the film, I said that it felt like watching a movie made by a robot trying to learn how to be human.
The dialogue felt terse, the pacing and inside baseball trappings of the story made it a formless, messy trudge, and the performances had the resonance and elasticity of a box of cereal. And I’m not usually the kind to pick apart a story while I’m watching it or scream about plot holes, but the events that unfolded in the film were distractingly convoluted. My greatest fears about Blackhat were confirmed and I had another Michael Mann film I didn’t like; an addition to the late period void in a filmography that used to stand as a library of holy texts to me.
So it was with a kind of resigned curiosity that I decided to give it another shot. Worst case scenario: my original findings are confirmed, rest easy. Best case scenario: another Michael Mann film to enjoy, some perceptions and judgments rightfully challenged, unimpeachable personal growth, and glory.
Lo and behold, it only took about twenty minutes before I had a strange, thrilling thought. “Damn. This is actually pretty great.” I sat back and watched the rest of the film, pleased to have a slightly expanded canon (I’m resisting calling it a Mannon, for now). What was once a muddy, tone-deaf chore now felt like a stylish, globe-trotting adventure. But how? What had changed? What had I failed to notice or account for the first time around?
The answer to all of those questions is, of course, Michael Mann.
I’d made the mistake of watching Blackhat under the guise of it being a film made by a man from 1995; a man who made Heat. This is not a movie by the man who made Heat. Heat may be the best crime movie ever made, but it’s twenty years old. Heat can vote and buy cigarettes.
This was something newer. Something stranger. Blackhat’s virtue is embodied in its implausibilities, which like Indonesian tin, can take some mining to get to.
One goes into a Michael Mann film knowing that whatever they’re about to see what painstakingly researched and vetted for authenticity. There are the famous stories that attest to this from behind the scenes of Mann films. Tom Cruise spent a day delivering packages only disguised by a baseball cap totally unnoticed by their recipients to experience an assassin’s ability to blend into a crowd for Collateral. By the time Heat’s legendary shootout was filmed, Val Kilmer could reportedly change out a spent magazine on his submachine gun faster than the S.W.A.T. team members who had instructed him. According to some, footage of him doing so is still used in official instructions by some S.W.A.T. teams. For Miami Vice, the former undercover agents Mann paired with Colin Farrell to get into character actually staged a meeting with a suspicious criminal, who drew a gun on Farrell and accused him of being undercover.
They didn’t tell him it was all a setup until the next day.
Those are all entertaining anecdotes, but the point is that there was a time where if you were paying attention in the ramp up, you went into a Michael Mann film expecting, if not craving, a deep well of authenticity to accompany the super-cool, stylized action. The marketing leading up to Blackhat’s release touted the involvement of a lot of cyber security and intelligence experts and cited some recent high-profile breaches as inspiration and foundation for the film’s story. All of this would lead one to believe they’re walking into a carefully considered examination of the fragility of security in the digital age.
But that movie wouldn’t have Chris Hemsworth beating someone half to death with a table in it.
Michael Mann already made Heat, and The Insider, and Last of the Mohicans. He has enough research cred under his belt to choke a librarian, so it’s understandable that he seems to have lost interest in making those films again.
Thus, Blackhat is (or was) a glimpse new Michael Mann. Mann Prime. A filmmaker who has transcended a pedestrian reality. Miami Vice was a taste of it, but a lot of the insanity of that movie is baked into the plot. If two undercover guys are going to look like convincing high-level drug traffickers, that’s going to require the occasional go-fast boat. Blackhat takes the hyper-stylish action of Miami Vice and strips it of having any adherence to a commonly-accepted reality.
Does doing a set of inverted frustration pushups against a jail wall explain why a hacker looks like he’s been eating boiled chicken by the barnfull and deadlifting small cars? No, it doesn’t. But it looks cool. Does it make sense that the same hacker also appears to have major facility for Israeli martial arts, improvised weaponry, and marksmanship under duress? No, it doesn’t. But it looks really cool. It also looks cool if the guy is sporting a $15,000 watch and a Rodeo Drive haircut fresh out of the federal clink while he’s dispatching mercenaries with lethal precision. It looks cool as hell, in fact.
And ultimately, that’s what makes Blackhat a really engaging film and what eluded me the first time I watched it. It’s Image Comics circa 1993. Everything is dialed up a notch, reality be damned. There are a thousand actors that could make a film about a hacker compelling, but none of them look like they start every day by ripping a stack of phonebooks in half.
That’s not to disparage Hemsworth’s acting, though. He does a solid job and pays something of a tribute to James Caan’s classic performance in Mann’s Thief. The supporting cast is as solid as any other Mann picture, too. Great actors like Wei Tang, Leehom Wang, Viola Davis, John Ortiz, Richie Coster, and Holt McCallany populate Blackhat.
Their dialogue seems terse and a waste on its accompished speakers initially, but the second time around, it’s clear that in Mann’s new hyperreality, everybody talks on a need-to-know basis. Speaking isn’t about personality in this movie, it’s about conveying information. It’s a movie full of Michael Claytons. People telling other people what’s happening, where they’re going, and what they’re going to do when they get there. It feels cold at first, but in a world where everyone goes only by last names and a computer expert also appears to have won the All Prisons Intramural Stabbing Championships five years running, why wouldn’t everything be a mission briefing?
Fittingly, there are some great action sequences and set pieces in this film. Locales that are probably new additions to American cinema are filmed in stark, interesting ways, seemingly with little reliance on forgiving additional lights or custom-built set elements. Those craving authenticity will find some purchase in the orange halos of Chinese street lamps or the lunar landscape of the Indonesian desert.
Is Blackhat a great movie? Probably not. But, it’s worth watching. It’s evidence of a filmmaker who has created truly legendary work attempting to evolve and supersede the genre definitions he helped create, and there’s a great deal of merit in that. Anybody willing to flip tables over at 72 warrants a second look at the very least.
I purposely kept this piece light on plot details because judging by its take at the box office, you didn’t see Blackhat. I get that. It didn’t look like a very hospitable situation when it came out and there hasn’t been a lot of evidence to contrary since.
But I would tell you dear reader, you and your finely honed cinematic instincts might be wrong; and sometimes, wrongness should be celebrated.
I should know. I’m wrong all the time.
On paper, the 1971 racing picture Le Mans possessed all the requisite elements to be a massive box office success: Steve McQueen, race cars, high stakes, and an exotic French setting. But despite all the cinematic firepower therein, it stands as a somewhat notorious failure. It didn’t earn back its estimated $7.6 million budget nor did it strike a nerve with critics or audiences in any wide regard at the time of its release—though it’s since grown a dedicated cult following. Despite its considerable pedigree Le Mans is a beautiful, compelling, and fascinatingly anti-commercial experience.
In addition to part of a stuntman’s leg the famously embattled production cost itself the marquee name of John Sturges—Director of The Great Escape, The Magnificent Seven, and Bad Day at Black Rock, among others—who quit after growing tired of McQueen’s obsessive grasp over nearly every aspect of the production. While television veteran Lee H. Katzin was hired on to fill Sturges’ absence, it was still McQueen’s show.
The first thing one’s likely to notice while watching Le Mans is that there’s no spoken dialogue for the first 37 minutes of its 106 minute runtime. This first clue of the film’s inextricable oddness gives way to backstory told through hazy, impressionistic montages rather than explicit exposition. The actual story being told is almost made to take a backseat to presenting a poetic, but ultimately utilitarian documentation of the famous annual race. If this film was presented to someone who didn’t know who Steve McQueen was, they could be told it was a documentary and hardly be any the wiser by the time the credits roll.
The intricacies of the race itself are hinted at via commentators on loudspeakers around the track, but none of the rules are laid out for the uninitiated. Remember the poker scene from Casino Royale? The one where Giancarlo Giannini explains the rules of Texas Hold ‘Em to Eva Green? This movie is the polar opposite of that. There’s no audience surrogate. No handholding. It’s a mood piece that happens to feature thrashing, powerful machines, cutthroat competition, and terrifyingly violent wrecks.
The story of McQueen’s famous racer Michael Delaney grappling with his past and chasing his future is a somber, elegiac affair. He seems to be at turns haunted by the accident that claimed his rival Belgetti’s life the previous year, and concerned with the undertaking at hand and younger drivers eager for victory nipping at his heels. These themes are far from radical for a sports movie, but the presentation is once again where Le Mans starkly distances itself from the pack.
In between some of the most breathtaking, pioneering racing footage ever filmed and the requisite roar of super-powered engines, McQueen and the other drivers are shown almost exclusively in quiet moments. Wandering around the decidedly unglamorous, muddy grounds of the racetrack, hiding out in their trailers, answering inane queries from reporters, eating, and trying any way they can to create some headspace not dominated by the potentially deadly reason they’re all there to begin with. Scenes are not so much transitioned to and from as dipped in and out of. Drivers yelling pointers about track conditions and car idiosyncrasies into one another’s ears are drowned out almost totally by roaring engines and frantic pit crews. The visuals are striking and iconic, from McQueen’s jumpsuit to the blue-faced Heuer Monaco watch strapped to his wrist, to the blue and orange paint job of the low-slung Porsche supercar he drives; but like a race car itself the story itself is sleekly unadorned and made for speed. Extraneous parts are cut for weight and stripped from their moorings, fragile, aerodynamic fiberglass covering precisely engineered mechanical wonders.
It seems like nearly every measure possible is taken to strip a movie about the star of Bullitt as a race car driver of its commercial potential, but the result is a fascinating mixture of thrilling automotive action and an almost documentarian level of immersion in a world that McQueen was obsessed with.
It may not have been ready-made fare for the moviegoers of 1971, but Le Mans is without a doubt one of the weirdest cinematic moves by a star at the height of their powers and one strange and beautiful ride.