I’m back. I’m alive. Hope you are too.
As I write this, a great pulp hero is, by most accounts, stinking up the theaters. That’s a shame. Jason Momoa looks to be perfectly cast as Conan the Barbarian, but the movie around him apparently doesn’t serve him well. So we wind up with a Conan who is, himself, far better than Arnold, in a movie that is nowhere near as good. Of course, this is all hearsay; I will watch the film when it comes to disk, but opted to save my $20 once the bad reviews flooded in.
Meanwhile, Marvel Comics’ Captain America went back to its pulpy World War II roots and kicked major ass both critically and at the box office.
The presence of both these pulpish films on the big screen inspired me to take a look at some of the other such films we’ve gotten over the years. There are several I want to discuss, so I’ll stay on this topic next month, starting this month with some of the more obvious examples in the genre.
Based on the Lester Dent novel The Man of Bronze, which introduced Doc Savage to the world, this movie, like the current Conan, gave us a well-cast hero in a lousy film. Ron Ely, who played a very entertaining Tarzan on TV, was an excellent choice to play Doc. Unfortunately, hiring him was the one good choice made by the filmmakers. The supporting cast is terrible, the script is crap, and the direction is artless and hamfisted. The approach taken in making this movie also typifies the unfortunate tendency Hollywood, until recently, had in making movies based on pulp stories or comic books. Not trusting the material on its own merits, they camped it up, making it ridiculous and agonizing to watch. I watched this again with my son when he was eight, and you know what? He thought it was stupid. Campy crap doesn’t even work for little kids.
Of course, he is a smart kid. At three he hated Jar-Jar Binks, proving him a lot more sophisticated than George Lucas.
Yes. Trilogy. That latter-day embarrassment with escape by refrigerator from a nuclear blast, Shia LeBeouf swinging with monkeys, and woefully underutilized Karen Allen and Cate Blanchett doesn’t count.
When, exactly, did Lucas murder Steven Spielberg and replace him with a CGI dummy, anyway?
No list of pulp movies can stand tall without Raiders of the Lost Ark. Indiana Jones is the perfect pulp hero, battered and beaten but unbeatable, witty and (whip-)smart and charming, and capable of great feats but still (generally) operating within the realms of human capability. Raiders is also, simply, one of the greatest adventure films ever made, zooming along with incredible verve, astonishing action set pieces, vivid characters, and a huge, pounding pulp heart.
Indiana Jones and The Temple of Doom is a mixed bag, but I love it. Creatively it’s a much bolder followup to the first film than the film that follows it, and to Lucas’s and Spielberg’s credit they not only try some new things but they go dark, in true hero’s journey tradition. There are three things that weaken the movie, though. In ascending order of badness, they are:
• The script. The story itself is good, but Lucas hired his old American Graffiti pals Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz to do the screenplay this time around, quite a comedown after Lawrence Kasdan’s genius work on Raiders. Huyck and Katz are a bit tone-deaf with dialogue, and they fundamentally misunderstand Dr. Jones’s complete motivation with all that “fortune and glory” bullshit. Indiana Jones is a scientist. He’s an adrenalin junkie. But he isn’t a gloryhound, and isn’t in it for wealth. If he were, he’d be Belloq. I understand this flick is supposed to occur a few years earlier than Raiders, and they presumably wanted to show Indy grow into the man he was in that film, but the facile nature of their arc just doesn’t jibe with what we already know.
• Spielberg. Yes, the brilliant director is one of the things wrong with the movie. Fortunately his failure is limited to a few moments, specifically some ridiculous stunts that are so outlandish they kick the viewer right out of the film (most egregious is the seemingly ten-mile plummet off a cliff in a rubber life raft to the rocky river below). Just because this is pulp doesn’t mean it doesn’t have to abide by its own internal reality. And he’s been criticized for this shit in this movie so much over the years, it’s astonishing he repeats the error even worse in that last film that doesn’t exist, so never mind.
• Kate Capshaw as Willie Scott. ’Nuff fucking said.
Even with those things wrong with it, Temple is a lot of pulpish fun. It also has my favorite piece of John Williams scoring in the films other than the “Raiders March” itself, “Slave Children’s Crusade,” which plays over the best fight in the series as Indy battles a gigantic Thuggee on a perilous conveyor belt.
Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade, while not attaining Raiders-level greatness, is still a great flick. The father-son dynamic between Harrison Ford and Sean Connery is magnificent, and the dialogue crackles. “I’m as human as the next man.” “I was the next man, Dad!”
The action is great, the characters are great, and the final act, in which Indy has to solve the deadly riddles of the lost temple at Alexandretta in order to save his father’s life, is wonderful. But.
But the film, following on the heels of Temple of Doom‘s less than stellar performance, plays it safe by lifting too many elements and dynamics from Raiders. It’s like the filmmakers thought, Whoa, we shouldn’t have tried something different, let’s try to do the same thing again this time.
I know a lot of pulp fans don’t like this movie. But I (almost) love it.
It does make the common error of not trusting the source material and playing things for laughs, but unlike Doc Savage, it doesn’t descend into Adam West’s Batman levels of camp, and actually earns some real laughs. There is silliness in the film, but there is also some real wit. The banter between Lamont Cranston (the Shadow’s secret identity) and Margo Lane often feels like it came from an old Billy Wilder flick:
Margo: We need each other.
Lamont: No we don’t.
Margo: We have a connection.
Lamont: No we don’t.
Margo: Then how can you explain that I can read your thoughts?
Lamont: My thoughts are hard to miss.
Margo: And why is that?
Lamont: Psychically, I’m very well endowed.
Margo: I’ll bet you are.
Alec Baldwin is fantastic in the title role. As Lamont Cranston, who was Bruce Wayne before Bruce Wayne, he’s dashing and charismatic and smart. When he takes on the Shadow identity, his appearance actually changes, showing the darker self he usually hides, with his eyes going black and his nose taking on the sharp aquiline shape that was seen on hundreds of pulp covers. And the Shadow looks AWESOME. Baldwin has great physicality in the role (including a snappy two-gun quick-draw from his shoulder holsters), the costume design is gorgeous, and director Russell Mulcahy, for all his foibles as a storyteller, makes him look great both in some great action sequences and in some brilliantly composed and iconic hero shots. For that matter, the film in general is beautiful, capturing the Art Deco style of the era with elan. And Penelope Ann Miller’s Margo Lane is sizzling hot.
I’ll be back next month with more. In the meantime, feel free to discuss these films in the comments. I’ll be around, unless I have to gallivant off to save the world. It could happen.