Wednesday, July 30, 2014

#760. Return of the Outlaw

As a big fan of Colin Farrell, I like rewatching his films.  Even the ones I'm not immediately a big fan of.  Sometimes especially those, to figure out if he might have a dud in his filmography.  The last time I successfully changed my opinion of one, it was Pride and Glory.  It's one I liked in the past, but never really completely got.  But originally, I didn't and probably couldn't properly appreciate the creative minds behind it, namely screenwriter Joe Carnahan and director Gavin O'Connor.  Carnahan's reputation has inexplicably dropped over the years, but I still love him.  He's the director behind films like Narc and Smokin' Aces (his most recent release was The Grey, although his latest one, Stretch, lost its release date earlier this year and its fate is still undetermined).  O'Connor is the director behind one of my instant all-time favorites, Warrior.  Pride and Glory itself is a a wonderful mix between Carnahan and O'Connor's best instincts.  Farrell plays Edward Norton's adopted brother.  It's one of those cops-behaving-badly movies, but it's more about the nature of personal compromise.  Norton's character isn't clean himself, but he's trying to do the right thing.  There's a moment where Farrell's character realizes he's made a terrible mistake, but he's still headed toward an ending similar to Training Day's.

Anyway, the most recent rewatch effort was American Outlaws.  This was Farrell's first Hollywood effort after his sensational breakthrough role in Tigerland.  In a lot of ways, Outlaws is a kind of sequel.  In Tigerland he plays an Army recruit who bucks the system as he prepares to ship out to Vietnam.  In Outlaws he's Jesse James.  I always had a problem getting into it because it's relatively lighthearted (director Les Mayfield is appropriately better known for his comedies like Blue Streak and Flubber), and really, by the time I'd caught up with it, I was better acquainted with the cinematic Jesse James in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (another instant all-time favorite).  Outlaws is the opposite of Coward Robert Ford (the outlaw in question there is played by Brad Pitt).  But last night I think I successfully stayed awake during the whole thing for the first time (despite how that sounds, I can fall asleep during any movie).

And I kind of like it better.  It's no classic, but it does explain the idea of the charismatic outlaw pretty well.  This is an archetype that has a long history in the lore of the West.  Not the Western, but the West.  From Moses to Robin Hood to Jesse James, those who buck the system tend to claim outsize reputations in the popular imagination.  We're constantly sold on the idea that it's best to be the mainstream, to position yourself to represent the mainstream, or outright reject it.  But to take it on is another matter entirely.  Outlaws aren't always criminals.  But they're harder to find than it might seem.  More like Malcolm X than Martin Luther King, Jr.

The idea of cowboys and certainly their traditional depiction in the movies, all those Westerns, seems to have tried it best to avoid the idea of the outlaw.  I'm not talking about the white hats, the good guys like the Lone Ranger, John Wayne and the Man With No Name.  No matter how tenuously these cowboys interact with society at large, they don't separate themselves because they have to but because they want to.  The outlaw never has that choice.  They take an unpopular stance and stake their life on it.

Now, whatever Jesse James actually was, it's likely he doesn't fit the romantic ideal of the outlaw.  Robin Hood he was not.  But he's pretty close.  So his return to the movies, starting with American Outlaws (the romantic interpretation) and culminating in Assassination of Jesse James (the realist interpretation) is an interesting development.

My argument is about to shift to different territory, by the way.

I believe these movies may have made it safe for something else to change.  Comic book superheroes, to be exact.  Since their inception these characters have always been seen as vigilantes, sure, some of them moreso than others.  Yet very few writers have ever explored what that actually means.  I'm not talking how "dark" the depiction.  I'm talking about their relationship to society at large.  Not in an X-Men sense.  Not quibbling over what powers they have, if people are supposed to be bigots about them.  As to whether or not they are, well, outlaws.

Starting with Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight, I think that changed.  Westerns hadn't been popular for years.  Jesse James became acceptable material the more subversive the genre could become again.  And because of that, these films opened room for the archetype of the outlaw to be reintroduced.  Nolan realized this opportunity.  One of my favorite moments in Dark Knight was its ending, when Batman realizes that in order to have a semblance of victory he would have to transform himself into a pariah.  His activities, naturally, were never sanctioned by the law.  Tolerated, yes, considered useful.  But he was always on the right side of society.  He was a good guy.  Until he had to make it look otherwise.  And so he officially became an outlaw.

Grant Morrison picked up this thread in his run on Action Comics with Superman.  He claimed he was drawing inspiration from the icon's origins, but if that's true, it's a legacy that has been completely forgotten.  This was a Superman who was not afraid of taking on the establishment, fighting corruption at the very top.  It's a notion that was carried over into Man of Steel, where Superman is an outsider instantly mistrusted not by Lex Luthor but the U.S. government.

I mean, everyone thinks of Superman as the Big Blue Boy Scout, right?

And yet, with just a little effort, he too becomes an outlaw.  This is not a darkening of the character.  This is an acknowledgment that superheroes, basically, are inherently outlaws.  It's taken the bulk of century to realize, but there it is.

I think this is a good thing.  Cultural critics have often deemed superheroes to be a juvenile concept.  Who else but children and entertainment escapists could take them seriously?  Even with the current cinematic popularity they enjoy, most of those hits come from movies that take them with a grain of salt.  Films like The Dark Knight and Man of Steel are the exception.

They ought to become the rule.

Americans love their outlaws.  Our whole country was built on outlaws.  Somewhere along the way, I think we forgot that.  This is not necessarily a bad thing.  I'm not advocating some weird political agenda here, but rather suggesting that perhaps it's time to remember that fact.  We need figures who are comfortable bucking the mainstream.  Fighting it.  Well, not so much fighting it as fighting for it.  These figures don't have to be real.  Most of the time they aren't.

The real Jesse James doubtlessly sported a lot of rough edges.  But the idea of Jesse James endures.  And lives on in Batman, in Superman.  Movies have a unique ability to remind us of this.  Even the ones that seem like throwaway adventures might have something profound to say.  Even if the audience isn't listening, filmmakers themselves are.  And they respond to each other.  American Outlaws itself is similar to the earlier Young Guns, a movie about Billy the Kid.  But I like to think because of Outlaws we got The Dark Knight, and the Superman in Man of Steel.  Which I think is a good thing.

Perhaps that's why he always fought for "truth, justice, and the American way."


Pat Dilloway said...

In the earliest issues of Superman (or Action Comics) he was more Batman-like in taking on gangsters, slum lords, etc. Of course that was before he could fly and shoot heat rays and all that stuff.

To some extent I think your argument applies to the literary world as well. It's why people tend to like Hemingway more than Faulkner, because while he might not have been an outlaw he was a "bad boy" and people (especially women) seem to love that. Nice guys finish last and all that.

Tony Laplume said...

True, true. Hemingway's reputation had a lot to do with how he lived his life.

The Armchair Squid said...

I think I've only seen one Colin Farrell movie: In Bruges.

A fascination with outlaws probably plays on latent fantasies much as superheroes do, though for opposite reasons. They play out our own darker instincts. Throw in the idea that their hearts are in the right place after all and you appeal to our sense of justice as well.

Tony Laplume said...

I would suggest your next Farrell film to be Cassandra's Dream, his Woody Allen effort released just before In Bruges that sees him play the opposite role but equally conflicted throughout.

The Armchair Squid said...

I shall keep that in mind.


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