Cody revisits some action twenty years later, while Eastwood kicks ass eighty years on.
HARLEY DAVIDSON AND THE MARLBORO MAN (1991)
"It's better to be dead and cool than alive and uncool."
In the far-flung future of 1996, Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man (if they have real names other than those, we never learn what they are) are a couple pals keeping the steel-horse cowboy dream alive.
As soon as we meet these characters, we are assured that they are pure badass. Mickey Rourke is Harley, introduced leaving a naked woman in a hotel bed and hitting the road with Bon Jovi playing on the soundtrack. He stops at a gas station ($3.89 for unleaded, what a nightmarish future this film imagines) where a clerk played by Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan's Kelly Hu is being held up and handles the armed robbers while never losing his cool. Don Johnson's Marlboro Man is just as cool, first seen shooting pool and clearing the table with an unlit cigarette hanging out of his mouth. (He quit.) His introductory scene also turns into a fight scene, as he gets in a scuffle with the legendary Branscombe Richmond (backed up by the great Thomas Rosales Jr.) over a bet debt.
Near Burbank, California, which has been torn down and replaced with an international airport, is Harley and Marlboro's favorite hangout, a bar that their their pal Old Man, played by Julius Harris from Live and Let Die, has been running since 1956. Old Man's lease on the property will soon be up, and if he wants to keep the place for another five years, he'll owe the bank Great Trust $2.5 million. Great Trust doesn't expect him to come up with that, they expect the bar to be demolished to make way for a skyscraper.
Harley and Marlboro can't let their home away from home be destroyed. They come up with a plan: rob a Great Trust armored truck to get Old Man the money he needs to give to Great Trust. The daring robbery is pulled off, but our guys don't get the haul they expected. Instead of money, they find that they've stolen a shipment of Crystal Dream, a new designer drug that's becoming very popular. You don't drink, snort, or shoot Crystal Dream, it's a neurotoxin that you put in your eyes. It's 100% addictive and kills 1 out of 7 users.
Tom Sizemore plays Chance Wilder, head of Great Trust and drug kingpin who will do anything to punish the men who stole his Crystal Dream, whether he gets it back or not. He's got a hardcore security team working for him, fronted by Daniel Baldwin; emotionless, highly skilled killing machines in bulletproof trenchcoats who go after Harley, Marlboro, and their friends like a pack of Terminators.
It's been said that Mickey Rourke hates this movie and had a bad time working with director Simon Wincer. It's been reported that this movie is a notorious flop, earning less than one third of its budget theatrically. None of that matters to me, I think it's a cool action movie and it's got a special place in my heart due to a childhood viewing I had of it when it first hit VHS, presumably some time in early 1992.
I can still remember moments from that viewing twenty years ago, my father and I sitting down to watch the movie and both enjoying it. My father enjoyed it so much back in the day that it's one of the rare early '90s action movies that he even upgraded and bought a DVD copy of. It was his DVD that I watched this week.
During my first viewing of the movie at eight years old, it ignited my imagination from the opening moment, when it was revealed that it was taking place a few years into the future. I remember my father laughing at the jokes, the interaction between Harley and Marlboro, Harley's inability to aim. I know we both really liked the character Jack Daniels, played by wrestler Big John Studd, a beast of a man who can kick some ass when stirred up but is generally very gentle, soft-spoken, and fully devoted to his lounge singer wife Lulu (Vanessa Williams). Neither of us liked how things go for him. I was highly impressed by the scene where Harley and Marlboro have to jump off the roof of a hotel and into the swimming pool below to escape the Baldwin-led assassins. The moment is a play on the famous Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid cliff jump, much like the title is a play on that film's title. My older brother had joined us by the end of the movie, and he and my father were both impressed by the way the female hitchhiker decides to ride on Harley's motorcycle in the end.
It's worth noting that one of my childhood cable crushes, Chelsea Field, is in the cast as Marlboro's L.A. motorcycle cop ex Virginia Slim, and Tia Carrere, from the same year's Showdown in Little Tokyo, has a small role as Wilder's secretary. Like Showdown, this is the type of movie that could really inspire me to write when I was a kid, informing my idea of how heroes in my stories should talk and act, how fights should go, and how often they should break out. Now that I realize who the actual writer was, it's even more awesome: the screenplay was written by Don Michael Paul, who also co-produced, and is known around this blog as the man who played the lead in the underrated monster truck revenge movie Rolling Vengeance.
GRAN TORINO (2008)
Clint Eastwood directed this great, hard-edged drama and stars as Walt Kowalski, a character who has drawn comparisons to All in the Family's Archie Bunker due to his un-PC viewpoints and dialogue, though Kowalski is a darker and more abrasive character. Kowalski is a Korean War veteran who has just become a widower as the film begins. He's bereaved, secretly ill, intensely bitter, has no connection to his material-minded, aloof offspring, and is extremely racist, constantly dropping slurs against anyone who's even slightly different from him. So it's not a good day for Kowalski when he sees a large Asian family moving into the house next door.
Trouble soon begins, as one of Kowalski's new neighbors, a teenage boy named Thao, starts getting pressured by gang members into joining them and getting into criminal activities. Thao is forced into attempting to steal Kowalski's prized possession, a 1972 Gran Torino in mint condition. Kowalski manages to stop the theft, and when he later breaks up a fight between gang members and Thao's family on their front lawns, scaring the gang members away with a rifle, he earns a debt of gratitude from the family and becomes a hero to the neighborhood. Kowalski is showered with food, flowers, and plants that he doesn't want. That's not his last heroic act. Kowalski may not like many people, but he also stands up for what's right, and soon saves Thao's sister Sue from another group of street toughs.
Unwillingly pulled into the lives of the Asian family, Kowalski keeps up a wall of toughness while letting himself get talked into spending more time around them, getting to know them, and learning about their culture as Hmongs. He even tries to teach Thao how to be a "real man". It seems they all may be able to get along after all. But dangers, from both criminal elements and Kowalski's hidden illness, lurk at the edges.
Eastwood is reliably fantastic as Kowalski, making his character likeable while still being unpleasant. Many of the Hmong characters are played by first time actors, including Bee Vang as Thao, and if his acting skills were lacking it only plays off as part of his awkward character. A standout among the first timers is Ahney Her as Sue. I was disappointed to see that she's only been in one other movie in the four years since Gran Torino, because she does quite well in the film, giving a very endearing performance.