The Italian Job


Gen X movie review The Italian JobQuentin Tarantino must be rolling in his grave. Who would have thought bad-boy New Kids on Block rock star Mark Wahlberg would be the guy to drive the stake through Tarantino’s icy black heart?

Wahlberg plays mastermind criminal genius Charlie Croker in the new film The Italian Job. Charlie creates complex heists using high-speed shell games, precision explosives and sophisticated computer imagery, but he’s really just a very nice guy. He doesn’t resort to violence or swear or even raise his voice when things get tough.

He’s the kind of crook you’d bring home to meet your parents.

The climate has turned radically in the 11 years since Tarantino gave us the colorful gangsters Mr. White and Mr. Pink in Reservoir Dogs. Quentin’s thugs were always out for themselves: Mean, dirty, violent nihilists working in a world devoid of moral substance. Their heady nostalgia for the ‘70s of Charles Manson and Black Power signified a new sort of chic punk aesthetic. The world had ended and pop culture was feeding off the remains, burning bodies as fuel for its violent imagination.

These days hoodlums are cute and dimply team players, all-American kids with winning smiles and a solid work ethic. Handsome Rob (Jason Statham), the getaway driver, is sexy in a clean hygiene sort of way; Steve (Edward Norton), the second-in-charge after Charlie, has a quaint television addiction; Left-Ear (Mos Def), the demolitions expert, wouldn’t hurt a fly; and Lyle (Seth Green), the hacker and computer nerd, is more interested in entertainment technology than a life of crime.

This clean-cut group plays by the rules, shares their lunches and knows when to put their differences aside for the common good. Their de facto father figure and veteran safecracker John Bridger (Donald Sutherland), comes out of retirement to help Charlie and company on a very special job in Italy. Their goal is to rob a fortune in gold and escape without harming anyone. Corporate America could take a page from these guys.

If the Tarantino formula featured the individual, films like The Italian Job are all about the group. These people interact more like an extended family than an uneasy collection of rabid animals. Bridger is definitely passing the torch to Charlie as the film begins, and Sutherland is excellent in the role as an aging master thief. “There are two kinds of criminals,” he tells Charlie: “Those who steal to enrichen their lives and those who steal to define their lives. Don’t be the latter.”

But after Bridger is disposed of unexpectedly, Charlie must learn to accept his place in the network, as the head of the family. The money is taken to America by a double-crosser among the group, who promptly buys the largest television set he can find.

One year later Charlie reunites with the Scooby Gang to try to recover the stolen loot. Needing a safecracker, he turns to Bridger’s daughter, Stella (Charlize Theron), who has her father’s skill, but has never done a professional job. The two become romantically involved – of course – and bond over their semi familial relationship with Bridger. Like stepbrother and stepsister, they share an incomplete memory of the man: When he was not with Stella or in prison, he was teaching Charlie everything he knew about being a thief.

Charlie grows into his new position as the plot takes on new shape, and the group unites as a sort of family. Like most families, however, they have a black sheep, a creature cut from the same zoot suit as most Tarantino characters, the lone wolf who stole the group’s money for himself. He has isolated himself from not only the family unit, but the larger society, and sits alone in his mansion watching reruns of Friends, Frasier and Family Ties.

He has spoiled the real treasure of The Italian Job -- the connection he had with his fellow crooks -- and is now basically an exile. He counters the organic family unit, headed by Charlie, with armed automatons, has no friends, and lives in a vast, empty castle. He orders his security guards around like chess men, misunderstanding and underestimating the fluid communication of the family. He has cheated himself by cheating the code of thieves.

The Italian Job suffers from only a couple truly bad scenes and survives a dreadful Ukrainian mob subplot fairly well. The only really unfortunate mistake is killing off Sutherland’s character too soon. He is magnetic on screen; a rare, beautifully aged thing, like fine wine or good art, and his absence is palpable.

Although Steve may be the most seductive figure in the film, and Charlie its main focal point, I don’t believe there’s a star of The Italian Job unless it’s the Cooper Mini. The Mini is stylish, yet operates (in this film at least) as part of a larger cooperative. It doesn’t flash like a Lamborghini or shimmer like the semi-mythic Triumph Speed Triple of Mission Impossible II, but it has an undeniable charm.


X-Men United


Gen X review X-menI know what you’re thinking, but forget it.

Yes, I agree. The first X-Men movie was a big old dog, a real ugly mutt of a film that didn’t do anything right beyond casting Halle Berry as a sexy mutant goddess. Comic book nerds like us decried that the guy they had play Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) was about six feet too tall. It was great to see Patrick Stewart as Professor X (though it was a bit of a no-brainer, since he’s the only bald actor in Hollywood other than the guy from Seinfeld), but where was Nightcrawler, the Beast and Colossus?

I mean, really.

Surprise! X2: X-Men United is a neat little film. It’s so much better than the first movie, in fact, that I suggest you forget you ever saw the earlier effort all together.

It’s easy to be deceived by comic book heroes. It appears that their powers tell you everything you might need to know about their personalities and their names are often just an explanation of their unique abilities. We enter the bodies of these heroes in an effort to simplify personality, and reassert that the basic unit of a self is still a body. Our genes speak us, define our limits, code our very existence, but in our world these boundaries are fairly universal.

The mutant body is unpredictable and dangerous. It explodes, changes color and shape, and bursts into flame. X2 opens with a scene showing a blue demon (Nightcrawler, played by Alan Cumming) invading the White House. The mutant dodges bullets, phases through walls and summersaults over Secret Service men, proving his physical superiority to even the best and the brightest.

Tolerance is a wonderful concept for ordinary humans, who have easily understood limits, but how PC would we be in a world where individual may be born with the power of a nuclear warhead? What right do individuals have to their own bodies in the face of such a threat?

After Nightcrawler’s attack on the president, military scientist William Stryker (Brian Cox) tries to hurry legislation that would force all mutants to register. Stryker is incapable of seeing those with super powers as anything more than a threat, and he tries to reduce them to the level of an object or weapon. The very aspect of their bodies that makes them special are used against them as proof that they’re not really humans at all, but unregulated energy, weapons of mass destruction.

“I like mutants as long as they can be controlled,” he says, meaning his likes mutants who have lost whatever claim they have to human dignity.

Professor Xavier (a telepath) tries to protect his mutant charges, but also unconsciously advocates their sublimation to the society. He runs a private school for “gifted youngsters” in New York where he teaches his young pupils how to read, write and tame their mutant powers. But he also discourages them from being who they really are, keeps them stay closeted up and scolds them when they use their powers in public. They are taught to pretend normality, and often even the parents who send their children to Xavier are unaware that they have super powers.

The mutant arch villain and master of magnetism Magneto (Ian McKellen), Xavier’s counter opposite, believes he and his kind are the next evolutionary step forward. They shouldn’t hide among the common masses or be reduced to biological weapons; they should conquer. He doesn’t make apologies for the gifts he’s been given, and believes those who do are fools. “We are gods among insects,” he says. And he’s probably right, but a god is a demon to those lacking the right sort of eyes, and power is as much a liability as a gift when it alienates, segregates and isolates individuals from their society.

The central figure of X2 is not Stryker, Magneto or even Professor X. It’s Wolverine, who searches for his past not just in the meaning of his DNA (which imbues him with keen senses and regenerative powers) or the scientific wonders of his unbreakable bones and claws, but more importantly in his bonds with other people. Wolverine is the quesistntial Generation X superhero. Having been abandoned to the powers that be and reduced to a kind of war machine, Wolverine is also a natural survivor, but the question of his being is still very much up for grabs.

Mutants are adaptive. They are signs that the culture has produced a need for stronger safeguards. We evolve because our flesh and bones are not tough enough to protect us from the hostile elements. The science that has mated metal bones and claws to Wolverine has also created the conditions where such a person would need to exist.

The challenge is for Wolverine to defy his name, his past, the very nature of his blood, and chose not simply to survive, but to love. Born an orphan – because what single mother or father produces the evolutionary “next step”? – the mutant superhero’s purpose is actually to overcome the limits imposed on him by his power, to prove that beneath and behind the gifts that sets him apart lies all the ordinary feelings and capacities that each of us have.

For Wolverine this means turning his back on a past that will never help him understand himself and accepting the unique role he has in the world, not as just a creature with superhuman powers, but as a mentor and leader. He becomes a hero when he accepts these responsibilities as part of himself, as much or more so than the deadly weapons that has been fused to his body.

The new generation of mutants needs Wolverine. Their own parents have deserted them to Xavier’s tender care, effectively condemning them to a life in the shadows. Magneto has been seduced by the promise embedded in his genes, misreading the meaning of his superpowers. He should be using his power to protect and guide not control and conquer. By playing into the worst seduction of men like Stryker, Magneto shows that his powers mean nothing, that he is beneath it all just a petty, little demagogue.

“Most people will not believe anything beyond what they see with their own eyes,” Nightcrawler says, meaning most are condemned to see gods, demons, weapons or monsters. They will not see the man beneath the mask, struggling with fear, anger and resentment. They will not see the hero in themselves; the hero in each of us.

X2 is very nearly my favorite comic book inspired movie so far. All they need to do is cut Hugh Jackman off at his kneecaps.

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