July 17, 2002
Arts and Entertainment
Undressing the Hollywood action figures of summer 2002.
By Johnny Ray Huston
SEPT. 11 , 2001. Those letters and digits loom large over Hollywood's latest line of ("straight," mostly white) male action heroes, so perhaps it's no surprise that the biggest box office $400 million-plus doesn't belong to Anakin the mannequin but to an American who rescues people from fiery, crumbling city buildings.
Portrayed with typical dopey languor by Tobey Maguire, Spider-Man (a.k.a. Peter Parker) is also the youngest of summer 2002's male models, his masculinity a work in progress. Shortly after discovering that little spermy webs fly from his right wrist, Parker enthusiastically shoots them all over his teenage bedroom, barricading himself off from concerned parental figures. Dressed in an Underoos-like costume that he designed himself, Parker also pro-wrestles for money, enduring insults from the type of sneering, big-haired, big-busted women usually found in penis-enlargement commercials. In terms of physique, this Peter isn't so big, but he's still boy-man enough to steal his girl-woman (Kirsten Dunst) away from a best friend (James Franco, doing a better James Dean impression than he did in James Dean) who seems to want him.
If Spider-Man is sensitive, his macho cartoon patriot relatives can be found in Reign of Fire, starring Matthew McConaughey and Christian Bale as Fitlinxx versions of George Bush Jr. and Tony Blair. The year is 2020, and digital dragons have killed all world leaders and all terrorists! Oh wait, the dragons are the terrorists, and American bravado and British experience must team up to defeat them. But not before indulging in some sweaty shirtless pose-athons. At one point McConaughey part Mad Max, part human spark plug, all veiny phallus and Bale butt heads, and in Reign of Fire's press kit, Bale takes pains to point out that "Matthew headbutted me for real." (Will an uncut DVD version include a scene in which Bale and McConaughey, fighting a fire, accidentally begin to hose each other down?)
Men in Black II reunites Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones in a mutant world dominated by scatological jokes. Their enemy, an allegedly busty Lara Flynn Boyle, is a many-tentacled intestinal Medusa. (There are other bizarre monsters not the expected array of CGI worms, but mammoth televised images of Martha Stewart and Michael Jackson.) Smith occasionally stops making eyes at the camera to flirt with Rosario Dawson; Jones is reduced to sub-subliminal Rugrats sales pitches in an alleged comedy that proves director Barry Sonnenfeld has no sense of timing. Where's Pootie Tang when you need him?
Another established partnership, Matt Damon and Ben Affleck have opened up their cinematic relationship so that both men can get some solo summer action. Yet The Bourne Identity and The Sum of All Fears share many traits, as if the pair can't help imitating each other. Both movies are glib globe-hopping adaptations of dated CIA-sympathetic spy novels that allow their stars to showcase multilingual abilities. The Sum of All Fears doesn't just deem Affleck a 12 on a cuteness scale of 1 to 10; it also presents him as a scholar-strategist whose brainpower rescues the president from a Super Bowl nuclear bomb assassination. As Baltimore is blown up, one wonders why John Waters wasn't given a cameo.
The cold, angsty Bourne Identity is comparatively upscale and "intellectual." Directed by Doug Liman (Go, Swingers), it's a butch version of The Talented Mr. Ripley, or Run Matt Damon Run costarring Franka Potente. Once again Damon plays an American suffering an identity crisis in Europe; the theme may seem Henry James, but the result is an Ivy League travel guide in spy disguise. He and Potente make an occasional rest stop for chilly romance in between extended adrenaline-free chase scenes set to a generic techno-rock orchestral score. The demure Damon retains his boyish jug-eared looks he's comfortable speaking French but unconvincing when kickboxing enemies. His final showdown against a corrupt father figure (Chris Cooper, the gay dad in American Beauty) is an anticlimactic dud.
Father figures good or bad are a required element in these action-hero scenarios; even when they're absent, their absence is a nagging presence, more important than a hero's romance with a female character. The Sum of All Fears assigns a powdered Morgan Freeman (sprinkled by apocalyptic dust) to lovingly mentor Affleck. In Reign of Fire a fatherless little boy loses his mother when he unleashes a monster that goes on to destroy the world; he grows up to be the surprisingly neurosis-free Bale, a leader who nonetheless must face the demons (or rather, dragons) of his childhood to save himself and planet Earth. Spider-Man's Parker is an orphan who refutes one substitute dad and honors another.
This summer's bleakest action movie, Minority Report, complicates the genre's partnership and parental-anxiety elements and provides a rare view (albeit temporary) of post-Sept. 11 political cynicism. In his least obnoxious performance to date, Tom Cruise downplays his characteristic tics the arched neck, clenched jaw, and "I see the light" eyes. He's dim with defeat. In one scene Cruise's John Anderton is trapped in an elevator going down, alone with his mock partner, a younger look-alike (Colin Farrell, his hairline a black-crow V) eager to replace him. Obsessed with computer images of a lost son, Anderton has also been duped by a paternalistic teacher (Max Von Sydow, channeling evil, decrepit, and jocular John Huston in Chinatown).
Anderton's quest through a nightmarish future requires dances with Dr. Hineman (Lois Smith), a monstrous mother of science, and one of her mutant pseudo-children: Agatha (Samantha Morton), an adult trapped in a baby's amniotic dream state. When Anderton is personally taunted by Lexus ads on the metro or anonymously haunted by Billie Holiday's "Solitude" at the Gap, the patriarch of product placement Steven Spielberg seems to be renouncing (or at least critiquing) his own "invention." By the time actor and director have reached the required happy ending, it seems intentionally unconvincing in comparison with the alienated landscape of addiction and surveillance they've navigated. The majority of Minority Report is a lament for the American action hero, a model Cruise has embodied and Spielberg helped create. See Movie Clock, in Film listings, for show times.