The moral of TAKEN: Daddy knows best. Don’t make daddy kill a shitload of foreigners and then say “I told you so.”
— Warren Ellis.

Cuando el guerrero antiguo—una reliquia de épocas en el olvido—regresa de la oscuridad para impartir justicia, violencia y venganza, no solo trae consigo a su bagaje, a sus traumas, a sus amantes y a sus herramientas mortíferas, sino también a su humanidad. Siendo aficionados al entretenimiento alternativo, ese tipo de historias guardan un lugar preponderante dentro de nuestros gustos.

Warren Ellis, todo un  maestro narrador, ha confeccionado una bibliografía en la cual explora a este género profundamente, creando a personajes de culto con una personalidad que es magnética y de amplios recursos. Como ejemplos representativos tenemos a Elijah Snow (en “Planetary”), William Gravel (“Gravel”), Michael Jones (“Desolation Jones”), Richard Fell (“Fell”) y Paul Moses (“Red”). Fue durante el estreno de la adaptación al cine de esta última obra—y protagonizada en 2010 por Bruce Willis, John Malkovich, Morgan Freeman, Mary-Louise Parker y Helen Mirren—que Ellis fue buscado por el rotativo británico de The Guardian para que compartiera unas palabras al público acerca de esta seductora narrativa del héroe salido del retiro para bailar un último vals.

“Heroes de Acción” es un paseo por memory lane, un checklist más que exquisito y elegante sobre aquellos films que han labrado a protagonistas icónicos, letales y que comparten en común ese deseo de escapar del inframundo y regresar a la senda de gloria.

Los resultados son, como siempre, espectaculares.

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Action heroes: Retirement is for wimps

Old action heroes are back. Red writer Warren Ellis argues that audiences don’t shed their love of actors and characters, but want to continue the journey for as long as possible.

Publicado originalmente en el 21 de octubre de 2010

At the beginning of my graphic novel Red, retired CIA killer Paul Moses—the corporate spooks of the Bourne films would have called him an “asset”—is living as quietly as possible, suffering night terrors alone and waiting out his time as best he can. The only relationship he has is with the Agency clerk who deals with his pension. She doesn’t know what his job was, and he never wants her to find out. At the beginning of the film adaptation of Red, retired CIA killer Frank Moses is trying to adapt to a boring life, and is engaged in a hapless long-distance almost-flirtation with the Agency clerk who deals with his pension. She doesn’t know what his job was, and he can’t tell her. In both versions, Moses is a man who believes his life is essentially over. In both versions, a CIA strike team tries to kill him in the middle of the night for reasons unknown. In both versions, he evades death, kills the strike team almost without thinking—and suddenly, horribly, has his life back.

The allure of the idea is right here. No matter how done you think you are, one day something might happen that makes you prove yourself to be just as good as you always were. There is great emotional and dramatic power in the concept of the Hero Rising Again. Look at the recent Rambo film, variously titled Rambo and John Rambo. When we first meet Sylvester Stallone in that film, he frankly looks like a skinned heifer that someone left out in the rain for six weeks. He’s not Rambo. He’s “John”, and he’s old, monosyllabic to the point of catatonia, defeated. Things have to get horrendous before he becomes Rambo again—much like the Bourne persona asserting itself when Matt Damon is attacked by cops in The Bourne Identity—and the audience takes perverse joy in the retired man taking on that aspect of the demented Special Forces black-ops killer “asset” we know of old.

These stories tell us we cannot be dispensed with, that it’s wrong when we’re discarded, that we’ll have one last chance to win. A dear friend of mine was visiting her parents, at a remote American farm, for their big annual party. All their friends turned up, friends made through a lifetime at various levels of law enforcement. Cops, spooks, military types. And my friend was delighted to tell me that they talked for ages about wanting to see Red. Not so much because I’m an immortal genius or because they know we’re friends, but because it’s that rare thing: a movie that’s about their generations not being done yet. It’s also about the actors they matured with continuing their own narratives, which shouldn’t be dismissed—Hollywood film is so pervasive that their narratives weave around ours, and the meta-story of “Bruce Willis, action hero” is at least as real to us as the freaks paraded around on reality television.

This story form’s most insidious iteration is the divorced-dad porn of Taken—discarded papa is a retired CIA “preventer” who has to revive his old skills to save his kid while his former wife and her new smarmy, rich husband stand helplessly by: She threw me out and the kid won’t do as I tell her, so I have to save the day by throat-punching a lot of weird foreign people. The converse is just as compelling, in its way; the engine driving the Bourne films is that, in a time of email and ubiquitous mobile phones, people just won’t leave us the hell alone, and maybe one day we, like Jason Bourne, will get sick of it and kick the crap out of all of them.

But these films under the theme of “the return of the retired operative” share a common emotional stance that is very pleasing to us: that maybe we were right after all, and maybe we really were good, and it’ll be a fine thing to prove it again.

The allure is universal enough that The Expendables, the last hurrah of Stallone’s team of ageing hardman mercenaries (plus Jason Statham, the gold standard of the 21st-century action film), is headed towards a cumulative pot of some $300m. The seriously under-seen Harry Brown, made on the typical British shoestring budget and featuring 77-year-old Michael Caine having his own Bourne moment—Caine plays a former soldier who reasserts his military training in order to punish south London scrotes—has made $10m to date. Again, part of the force of these films comes with their history—you can squint at Harry Brown and almost imagine it as the sequel to Caine’s Get Carter, if Cockney terminator Jack Carter hadn’t died on that beach.

As an aside, it’s worth mentioning that Caine was pushing 40 when he made Get Carter. As was Steve McQueen when he made Bullitt, and even then his face looked like a collection of rocks wrapped in a weathered, leather drum skin. The combined age of the leads in the epic caper movie The Taking of Pelham One Two Three is something like 300, the two cop heroes (Walter Matthau and Jerry Stiller) accounting for 101 of those years on their own. Lee Marvin was already 44 when he made Point Blank, and Marvin came out of the womb with the face of an ancient bar brawler who chewed through the wall of the old people’s home every Saturday night to hunt whisky. These were as young as cinema adventurers got to be in the action movie’s early days: the teenager had only recently been invented, and you didn’t get to be an action hero until you were too old to be seen on TV.

The end of that particular cycle came just a few years after Get Carter and Bullitt, when McQueen was told that in the modern world of the mid-1970s, he was too old to play… John Rambo.

There’s a sense that people are discovering—however briefly, however shallowly—that audiences do not, in fact, shed their love of actors and character types with the seasons, and want to continue to journey with them for as long as possible. No matter that they may be from the seamier end of pop culture, or the more obvious and clumping of genres. For the generations who grew up with these characters, there is no sudden age where we can only cope with period dramas and Woody Allen films. And if you’re the age of the abruptly unretired spies of Red, then Bourne’s Matt Damon looks like a foetus in a coat to you.

Perhaps there really is a new phase in Hollywood: a reminder that not only can our older generations still beat the blood out of us, but also that they’ve got money to spend. And while you’re playing with the computer games they don’t like or understand, they’re buying seats at the cinema to watch films about you getting kicked in the face by them.

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