by Matt Ealer
You’d be forgiven for thinking it the height of silliness to try and tease out some deep cultural truth from the contemporary action movie — an art form in which Sly Stallone mentioning that some kind of vague bad political and/or drug stuff sometimes goes on south of the border passes for trenchant political commentary. But then you may not be a fan of the action movies of one Jason Statham and you may not have had his most recent punch-fest, The Mechanic — an otherwise well paced, competently shot affair, with no wince-inducing dialogue and with plenty of stoic Statham ass-kicking — marred by the fact that the only gay character in the movie is stabbed to death, gruesomely, with a screwdriver.
The Mechanic is a remake (from the director of Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, sure, but also of Con Air) and it’s a simple story of a fellow avenging the folks who set him up to murder his friend — a voyage accompanied by that friend’s son. This film, and many of the action and thriller and horror movies of today, stem from the exploitation tradition. Unfortunately, exploitation is not all Pam Grier blowing shotgun holes in motherfuckers and looking like a goddess while doing it. There’s a long homophobic thread in this type of movie: the 1968 Frank Sinatra potboiler The Detective featured an entire prominent subplot of gay panic. The fear of the urban that fuels even my beloved Batman was switched from fear of an ethnic-other criminal element for a fear of the heathen yet hip homosexuals who, according to the movie, were huddled in the back of every box truck, quivering but nefarious.
So what’s the big deal here? Isn’t this par for the course, (straight) boys will be (straight) boys? Maybe. Not really.
Were there a relevant corollary to the fictional state of being that conservatives like to invoke when criticizing President Obama and others on purely racist terms — well, call it post-gender — you could almost make a case that this sequence is not harmful to gay men. After all, none of the characters in these sorts of movies are good guys.
Our anti-hero, Statham, kills his mentor, his employer and his protégé in that order before driving off into the sunset in the brand-new version of the beat-up Chevy truck he’d been driving throughout the rest of the movie. (At least British supermen still buy American.) Since our gay character is a hitman too, and a hit is all business, can’t it be said that the movie is just saying that gay dudes can be well-paid killers for hire just like Jason Statham? Equality!
But we don’t live in a post-anything world. When Statham kills his protégé it is because he has just tried to kill Statham, because he’s finally realized that it was Statham that killed his father. There is a clear line of the movie’s logic that buttresses both murder attempts: Statham goes after his boss because he realizes the boss set his mentor up and duped Statham into killing him.
There’s another key, telling scene. When Statham terrorizes his boss’s bodyguard for the boss’s whereabouts, he threatens the man’s daughter by forcing her hand closer and closer to a running garbage disposal. When the bodyguard still won’t talk, we see bloody gore fly out of the thing as the girl screams. The bodyguard talks, and as Statham leaves we see that, by some miracle of physics, he’s switched a cut of filet mignon for the girl’s hand without anyone noticing. Even murderous hitman Statham would never put an innocent white girl in danger! (The treatment of women in the film is predictable — they are for fucking and protecting. He has a relationship with a hooker which is supposed to demonstrate that his character is an exceptional tipper. Well, also it’s mainly supposed to demonstrate softcore scenes.)
What these exploitation films (and broader pulp culture in general) do is set up an intractable, extra-legal Man Code for proper heterosexual behavior. There are certain lines you don’t cross. It’s Batman’s self-imposed vow never to kill, even though he can do everything else illegal under the moon for the greater good. Here, Statham will not hurt an innocent girl, and he will only kill the protégé he suspects is going to try to kill him after the protégé makes his attempt.
So, in accordance with this code, the gay hitman is not just another hitman who ran afoul of Statham’s employers. When going over the assignment, Statham describes his “weakness” as “boys,” his voice dripping with pedophilia-implications and venom. In setting up the hit, the protégé is supposed to act as though he’s desperate, out of money in an unfamiliar city and vulnerable. They’re reverse-engineering a date rape. As if the only way this man can pick up guys is to date rape them.
And then there’s the sex/fight sequence. My viewing companion pointed out at drinks after that you could feel the audience growing tense as the protégé started to go down on the dude. This being the same audience that featured a man sleeping right through a Statham-on-model/hooker full-frontal sex scene. This sequence was specifically designed to heighten tension with the end fear being, “Oh my God he’s not really gonna do that with another dude is he? They can’t show that!”
When in the next few seconds the bloody, gratuitous-even-for-this-movie fight ensues — which, again, ends with a screwdriver penetrating the only gay character in the film’s gut until he dies — we’re supposed to want the other hitman to die not because this is some clinical job or even the protégé’s trial by fire, but also because he almost made us see gay sex on screen.
And by now, in the patois of this movie, gay sex and gay people have become a violation of the extra-legal Man Code.
This is especially alarming given another recent and even more far-reaching example of the greater Man Code in action. Everywhere in the lead-up to the Super Bowl was the implication that if only Ben Roethlisberger could pull this game out, his demons would finally be laid to rest. His “indiscretions” would be forgotten. Because in the culture of the man code, a trail of egregious rape accusations can be laid to rest by a show of physical acumen. You can become a source of municipal, national pride, because of how far you can throw a football and how few interceptions you allow.
Some people didn’t even need the (in any case not to be) Super Bowl victory. ESPN’s SportsCenter has been running hammy commercials with the quarterback, seeking to prove that he’s just one of the guys, while making the definite statement that the Worldwide Leader in Sports, on whose website two-thirds of men aged 18-to-34 spend nearly an hour a day, does not mind hitching its star to an accused — accused mind you, never forget the accused — rapist.
As the Times has just pointed out, ESPN is a main disseminator of the Man Code. It’s how you know it’s okay to keep bringing up the Roethlisberger rape allegations as a way to root for your team, sure, but it’s also a place that “legitimize[s] male preening” — all for the perfectly Male-Code-loyal cause of sport, you see. Athlete beefcake shots as an appreciation of athleticism, fashion spreads that teach one how to be a man.
At least that’s what’s said. ESPN’s embrace of Roethlisberger for the cause of the Man Code, or the sequence in this Statham movie — whose Transporter franchise regularly featured our hero going into elaborate striptease routines either in the midst of beating up other dudes or just for funsies — are reactions. The way to say “no homo” in sports broadcasting rather than rap music is to embrace a rapist. The way to do it in an action movie is to pantomime killing someone with a screwdriver.
There are glimpses of hope, however. On the NHL ice, notorious, cartoonish bad guy Sean Avery has recently said that if any kid was afraid to come out in front of his team, he’d fly out and stand by him. It’s maybe an empty gesture if we want to talk about objective reality, but coming from a bonehead among boneheads, that, at least, is downright heartening.
You should ask Matt Ealer for his thoughts on Death Race.