Terrible Reviews by Josh Botvin
Since my first viewing this summer I’ve been completely obsessed with Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver. The movie’s high energy is contagious, its use of first person perspective in relation to sound rather than sight is genius, and its car chases are some of the best ever put to film. While it may not be the best movie of 2017 by any critical standards, it was certainly my favorite. Through each subsequent viewing, I find myself more and more curious of Wright’s approach to this film. And so for my first bunch of movies to review for Domesticated Primate, I decided to watch for the first time a cluster of films Wright himself admits played a large influence on Baby Driver.
Now before the reviews themselves, I will rightly admit that watching movies this old and this influential to modern cinema, it’s tough to think or say anything that hasn’t already been said much more eloquently than what I’ll do myself. So my grounding here is on the cultural influence these three films had: what and who have these filmmakers inspired, and how does their work still permeate today.
The French Connection
The French Connection is the story of an alcoholic New York police officer trying to cut down a drug cartel by bringing their foreign supplier to justice. This film’s influence on Baby Driver is really limited to the practicalities of the art of the car chase, so in a (hopefully) more relatable sense, think of this as the original Bad Boys 2, a movie filled with over the top, drawn out car chases, action scenes set on trains for some reason, foreign drug connections being the big score (Honestly between this and the opening chase in Some Like it Hot involving criminals using dead bodies to smuggle illegal goods, I’m beginning to think Michael Bay is Hollywood’s most undervalued cinefile).
But the major differences are the touches of humanization to the characters. Mike Lowery (Will Smith) is a wonder cop. He can run for miles. He gets all the ladies. He is never proven wrong. Marcus Burnett (Martin Lawrence) is a wise talker whose every line is a memorable quip. He can speak openly to his partner through a shared language, in a way that is more invocative of a three-camera sitcom than real life. Popeye (a fairly young Gene Hackman) is a racist, drunken turd, whose pathetic gasps for air are heard through each painful moment of pursuit. He is no wonder cop, he’s a wildly flawed individual. His partner Buddy (Roy Scheider) is a fairly straight-laced guy that can never get his point across to his friend, who is clearly in a world of trouble. And rather than keeping him grounded, he, very humanely, just sort of fades out of his life.
Then there’s the ending (there’s going to be spoilers, this movie is like 50 years old). The entire viewing I felt this sense of dread that along with its many other formulaic plot elements, this also inspired many clichéd buddy cop flick endings, setting up the idea that everything was going to be ok, that the characters resolve an inner conflict that allows them to beat the bad guy, and that getting the bad guy ultimately makes up for their past transgressions (Will Smith may have destroyed an entire highway in the process, but he took down a single drug dealer, more than likely creating a power vacuum for Miami’s ecstasy supply that will result in many more deaths, but that’s beside the point. Now he can date his partner’s sister). And honestly I had resigned myself to that idea and thought that regardless, the movie had still done enough to prove that even if Hackman does get his man, he’s ultimately a piece of shit whose problems won’t actually be solved anyway. He still has an entire police force believing he’s incompetent, including his partner. And then the end happens, and convention is thrown to the wind (I won’t spoil too much). This level of complication in a supposed hero is oddly refreshing, and will be a recurring motif in these reviews.
The Getaway follows Doc McCoy (king of cool Steve McQueen), a recently released con, and his wife Carol (Ali MacGraw) running for freedom after a bank robbery gone wrong. On their tail is a proto-Anton Chigurh, enjoying a forced, twisted road trip with an innocent veterinarian and his open-minded wife.
This movie’s influence really spans the gamut. It has clear connections to Reservoir Dogs with its botched heist premise, the aforementioned No Country for Old Men in its single minded villain, and of course Baby Driver with its thematic foundation being the relationship between the two main characters. However, unlike Baby Driver, where Deborah shows Baby what a life outside of crime could be, Carol is down for anything. This adds a certain level of complication to the relationship. They are each handled as hardened criminals on the exterior, plotting and executing dangerous and intricate heists, but this is not to say they are without inherent flaws that are a result of the lifestyles they have chosen. This isn’t Gone in Sixty Seconds or True Romance where there are no moral ramifications for horrific actions, but instead we focus on a fractured dynamic that is a direct result of the illicit activities these characters have based their lives around. Again, seeing this flip side of an action movie is refreshing, and is so often left out of modern movies.
The Getaway was the first Sam Peckinpah joint I’ve ever seen, and fourth Walter Hill screenplay. Like with The French Connection, it’s always amazing to go back and watch these genre-defining filmmakers at work. The innovations in story telling here are so enjoyable, even if the story’s initial impact is a few too many decades stale. What sticks out to me most in these films is really a lost art in today’s world, which is the use of silence to let a scene breathe and develop. I don’t think it’s a fair criticism to say modern audiences couldn’t handle the silence, which I think is the most common argument lobbied about modern sound mixing, but it’s because they’ve been unfairly trained to expect generic score amplifying the emotional impact of scenes for so long. Either way, this is a great watch both for its influence and for the experience in and of itself.
Bullitt, like The Getaway is a movie with a cool, badass character (also played by Steve McQueen). This time on the other side of the law, Bullitt is a police lieutenant caught in a complicated web of deceit when tasked with protecting a witness with the power to bring down a major crime syndicate.
Like the other films discussed, the plot here is not my focus, but rather the film’s unique take on a common modern theme: this time the action badass. In the 1970s, characters were generally treated and presented with weight and complexity (the 80s saw the death of this with the one-dimensional Stallone and Schwarzenegger and the like). And instead it was the audience that viewed a character and came away with the conclusion of “wow this guy is a badass.” In a whole lot of modern action movies though, the character’s defining features are “wow this guy is a badass.” What you get from this process is a slew of movies like Taken or The Expendables or Jason Statham’s filmography, where all you need to do is show a guy beating people up to create a character design (this, however, is not actually a character design). And that’s not to say these movies can’t be fun, or even that a silent badass can’t also be a nuanced character, just look at John Wick or Fury Road or Brawl in Cell Block 99 as proof of that. But it is to say that just proclaiming a person is tough because he’s quiet, or he’s tough because we said so isn’t storytelling.
In Bullitt, the character’s restrained disposition is treated as a flaw. It is his coping mechanism for dealing with the horrors of his daily routine. He is detached, unfeeling, and cold, and that is not a good thing. It barely even makes him a good cop. In Baby Driver too, his silence is his mask. Baby is a scared little kid in way over his head, so he tries to blend in with the room and not make a peep. When he meets Deborah his true self emerges, and he is able to act his age without fear of being murdered.
Similar to The French Connection, this film takes an ambiguous approach to its ending. It explores the issue of what “getting a man” really means if it’s at the cost of your own morality. The onlookers in the airport standing by and making comments during the climax reflect the idea that these stakes are entirely in the mind of Bullitt, no one else cares but him. So ultimately, why should he be willing to sacrifice himself for this person? This driving factor tarnishes his soul and in return no one really gives a shit. This is a much more satisfying takeaway than “I killed everyone, guess I win.”