Jarhead (2005)

Dir. Sam Mendes

Written by: William Broyles Jr. (from the book by Anthony Swofford)

Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Peter Skarsgaard, Jamie Foxx


For this week’s post, I thought that it would be fun to dig up some of my old work and share it here. Jarhead is a movie that I chose to write about for a term paper during my capstone course in Film Studies at the University of Pittsburgh. My guess is that I wrote this paper sometime in the Fall of 2006. One of my areas of special interest during my time at Pitt was delving into filmic depictions of masculinity, and examining the way that action cinema has dictated and defined ideal masculinity throughout the ages. As such, I chose to write one of my papers about the problematic and reductive depictions of masculinity in the film Jarhead, and I wanted to reproduce that writing here for posterity. The original files of most of my undergraduate and graduate writings have been lost, victims of various hard drive crashes and my own failure to adequately care for and back up my data, but I still have hard copies of much of my work, so I retyped this paper from over a decade ago. The structure of this post will be significantly different from most of my other writing on this blog, but I hope that some people enjoy it. I enjoyed the opportunity to engage with my own writing and reassess some of my more youthful opinions, but I resisted the urge to editorialize, aside from removing page citations in the body of the text for ease of reading.

I don’t know if I feel like I’m a better or a worse writer than I was when I was producing more academically-styled work, but at the very least I think that I’ve settled into a tone and voice over the course of the first couple of years of this project. This was certainly an interesting exercise that allowed me to see how different my writing style is now from what it was when I was 21, and how some of my opinions on the subjects that are skirted around in this essay and which dominate the discourse around the state of masculinity and gender relations in America today, have changed and evolved from that time. Though it may have been in use at the time, I had certainly never heard the term “toxic masculinity” in 2006, but I think that that is absolutely what is on display in the movie Jarhead and what is at the root cause of the limbo space that the film’s characters find themselves in with regards to what Susan Jefford’s refers to as “externalized” and “internalized” screen masculinities. This status of uncertainty with regards to appropriate or normalized masculine expression leads the characters to exhibit anti-social, destructive, and violent behavior throughout the film, classic symptoms of toxic masculinity. Their lack of an outlet for the externalized forms of masculine expression in the film, and their inability to comprehend a more nuanced and internalized form of masculinity, leads the Marines to only being able to assert their manliness through effacement and degradation of some Other, typically a woman. I don’t think I possessed the vocabulary or insight back then to express these ideas with regards to societal impact, and my essay is largely limited to the purview of academic film theory, but reading it again I realize it could have easily been titled “Jarhead, or a Primer on Problematic Male Behavior.” Anyway, here is something I wrote a long time ago.

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Masculinity Effectively Terminated in Jarhead

In her essay “Can Masculinity Be Terminated?” Susan Jeffords documents the shift in the depiction of screen masculinity in Hollywood films from one that was highly action oriented and spectacular in the 1980s, with “the male body itself becoming often the most fulfilling form of spectacle” to a more internalized screen masculinity in the early 1990s. Jeffords sees the earlier, externalized masculinity as associated with display – of the male body, of physical action – and spectacular, often violent, special effects that become associated with the male body, and serve to confirm its masculine status. According to Jeffords, this propensity to highlight the male body is a result of cultural fears and uncertainties about the status of American masculinity during a period of transition from an industrial to a service economy, and the replacement of “hot” with “cold” warfare. It is the symptom of a sort of cinematic overcompensation. One of the major features of these 1980s action films is their serialization, which Jeffords claims can be seen as attempting to answer the question of “whether and how masculinity can be reproduced successfully in a post-Vietnam, post-Civil Rights, and post-women’s movement era.” These serializations, as well as a later reconfiguration of cinematic masculinity to one that would be more in line with the values of that era serve to answer the question with an affirmative “yes, masculinity can in fact be reproduced.”

Sam Mendes’s 2005 film, Jarhead, allows the viewer to return to the same basic question that Jeffords poses in her essay and to reexamine her findings. By setting his film during the first Desert Storm conflict, and choosing for his characters the very men who must come to terms with changing societal norms of masculinity, Mendes calls into question where masculinity can, in fact, be reproduced, even in an internalized form. In this essay, I will examine the ways that Mendes’s characters show that masculinity can neither be articulated in the externalized forms that Jeffords refers to, nor can the transition to an internalized form of masculinity be fully accomplished. This will be shown through a comparison of the Marines in Jarhead with the male action heroes, both externalized and internalized, that Jeffords references in her essay.

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From the beginning of the film, Mendes begins to deconstruct his characters’ roles as male action heroes. After a brief voice over sequence, the film’s first image is of the face of new Marine, Anthony Swafford (Gyllenhaal). Through this immediate focus on his character, the audience can assume that Swafford will be the film’s protagonist, and through affiliation with the military, the audience can also assume his role as a traditional male action hero. However, the soundtrack juxtaposed with this image problematizes it, along with its assumed connotations. While the image of Swafford’s face is the first thing seen, the accompanying voice is that of his drill instructor as he says, “You are no longer black, or brown, or yellow, or red. You are now green…”. This denial of Swafford’s, and the other Marines’, individuality is the first step towards robbing them of the status of externalized male heroes. Their individual identity is to be replaced by identification within the group, and their only importance is to benefit and enhance the collective group.

Later in the scene, Swafford is again picked out of the group. The drill instructor approaches him and asks him if he is “the maggot whose father served in Vietnam.” Again, Swafford is given some level of individuality, once again indicating him as the film’s protagonist, but this individuality does not necessarily equate to a role as a male hero. The drill instructor’s attention to Swafford serves to further emasculate him as he questions Swafford’s sexuality. Later in the scene, Swafford is assigned the role of scribe for his unit, but this job also affords him no level of masculine prowess. In fact, Swafford is viewed as a form of property, with the drill instructor repeatedly referring to him as “my scribe.”

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In the next scene, the Marines’ bodies are compartmentalized and recontextualized, denying them the potential for the spectacular properties that Jeffords assigns to the externalized male heroes of the 1980s. Hands become “dickskinners”; mouths are now “receptacles.” The film’s title comes from the Marine slang for the high and tight regulation haircut which resembles a jar. As Swafford puts it in his voiceover, “the Marine’s head, by implication, therefore also a jar, an empty vessel.” With this recontextualization of the individual male body into imagistic slang terms often used by the drill instructors and fellow Marines, the individual soldier loses even the right to claim his own physical presence. The body is to be used in service to the Marine Corps, and the mind is an empty vessel to be filled by superior officers and drill instructors. In contrast to externalized male heroes such as John Rambo, who became a one-man army, fully in control of his own physical body, the Marines in Jarhead give up the rights to their bodies in order to conform to the larger group.

During his time in boot camp, Swafford is trained to become a Marine scout sniper, a high specialized position in the Marine Corps. This role as a sniper not only gives Swafford status within the group, it also gives him access to a high-powered sniper rifle, the kid of weapon that Jeffords claims offers “companion evidence of both the sufficiency and volatility” of the externalized male hero. According to Jeffords, these types of weapons become extensions of the male body, which articulate and complement the already spectacular display of that body. In Jarhead, they gain a different significance. As Swafford and the other snipers repeated the “Creed of A United States Marine,” the become equated with the machinery they now possess. They say, “This is my rifle. There are many like it, but this one is mine. Without my rifle, I am nothing. Without me, my rifle is nothing.” While John Rambo’s weapons simply stood as proof of, or a complement to, his already defined externalized masculinity, these rifles become the very definition of the Marines’ masculinity. They have no claim to an already well-defined masculine presence, since their bodies have been appropriated for use by the Marine Corps, so the rifle becomes their masculinity. This further compromises their individuality as they become equated with machines.

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A scene later in the film confirms the assumption that Mendes is questioning how Hollywood films shape the general public’s perception and ideals of masculinity. Shortly after watching Dan Rather announce that Iraqi troops have invaded Kuwait, a theater full of Marines is shown watching the “Ride of the Valkyries” sequence from Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. The marines shout and sing along with the film, acting along with the soldiers on the screen. They tap boxes of candy to their heads along with the Marines in the film who pack their ammunition cartridges by tapping them against their helmets. Their excitement builds to a frenzy as the helicopters approach the beach and the Vietnamese village, exploding as Swafford cries, “Shoot that motherfucker!” and the first Vietnamese people on the beach are shown being gunned down. As the excitement is reaching a fever pitch, the film is shut off, the lights in the theater raised, and a voice comes over the loudspeaker saying, “Now hear this: All personnel from 2-7 are to report, immediately, to your company area. Get some, Marines! Get Some!”

The Marines are now on their way to Iraq, but their experience of war will be highly different from that depicted in either Coppola’s film or any of the other action films that may have played a role in forming their perceptions of war and wartime masculinity. What the Marines expect is an opportunity to prove themselves as men and soldiers, and “kick some Iraqi ass,” anticipating a stay of no more than a few weeks. What actually follows, however, is a long, drawn out defensive campaign in which the Marines are only entrusted with guarding oil fields. Swafford describes the Marines’ activities: “Six times a day we gather in formation, and we hydrate. We patrol the empty desert, and we dehydrate. We throw hand grenades…into nowhere. We navigate imaginary mine fields. We fire…at…nothing, and we hydrate some more.” These activities are far from living up to the Marines’ expectations of war, expectations set by Hollywood films.

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When actual combat does break out in the film, even this does not satisfactorily allow the Marines to prove themselves as equals to their cinematic role models. Even though their Staff Sergeant (Foxx) describes his Marines as the “righteous hammer of God,” and promises that the hammer is coming down, the facts are that in modern warfare, infantry troops do not supply the brunt of the attack. After waiting to see combat for 175 days, the Marines learn that Operation: Desert Storm will be primarily fought through the air. As one Marine puts it, “this war is gonna move too fast for us. All right, we can shoot a thousand yards. To go that far in Vietnam, that would take a week, in World War I, a year. Here it’s gonna take about ten seconds.”

That prediction proves to be accurate as the Marines travel across the desert, walking through the wreckage left in the wake of earlier bombing runs. Upon finally reaching their destination and meeting up with the rest of the troops, however, Swafford and another Marine are given the task of sniping a high-ranking Iraqi officer. They finally have the opportunity to engage in real combat and prove their masculinity. They find a sniping post and Swafford gets the officer in his rifle sights. Clearance is given for him to take the shot. He readies himself to take the shot as his partner (Skarsgaard) whispers, “fire, fire, fire.” After the last “fire,” a loud crack is heard on the soundtrack, which is initially assumed to be the sound of Swafford’s rifle. This expectation is frustrated, however, as a high-ranking Marine walks in the room, causing the noise. He informs Swafford and his partner that he is going to call in an air strike and blow the entire building up, rather than letting them take out their target quietly. Swafford’s partner begs the officer to let him take the shot before the air strike arrives, but he is repeatedly denied. After this, Swafford’s partner breaks down crying, and screaming that the officer “doesn’t know what [they] go through.” Their once chance to live up to expectations of wartime masculinity is denied as two fighter planes are shown, in the reflection in the glass in front of Swafford’s face, dropping bombs on their target.

The last scene of the Marines in Iraq shows them having a bonfire to burn their desert camouflage, drinking, and playing loud music. Amidst all of this celebration, Swafford and his partner return to their unit, and admit to the rest of the Marines that they did not get their kill. Swafford says to his partner, “I never shot my rifle,” to which his partner replies, “Then do it now.” Swafford points his rifle to the sky and fires off one round, starting a ripple effect in which all of his fellow Marines begin firing thousands of rounds into the sky. The result is a frustrated, meaningless spectacle of masculine bravado. These Marines might be able to emulate the externalized male heroes that they wish so badly to be, but this world simply has no place for them anymore.

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The answer that Jeffords proposes to this dilemma is the shift from the externalized male hero to “a ‘new’ more internalized man, who thinks with his heart,” but as Mendes shows, this shift is tenuous at best. For Jeffords, the most obvious change in this shift is the change from an externalized masculinity validated by destruction to an internalized masculinity validated by production, or reproduction. Jeffords maps out this shift in Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Terminator character from the first film, Terminator, to its sequel, Terminator 2: Judgment Day. In the first film, the Terminator was a robot sent from the future to kill Sarah Connor, the woman who would give birth to the leader of a future human revolution against machines bent on destroying all humans. In the second film, the Terminator is again sent back in time, but this time he is sent by Sarah’s son John, with the mission to protect a 12-year-old version of John Connor from a newer, stronger Terminator. Over the course of the film, the Terminator makes the shift from a killing machine to a proctor, and eventually even takes the place of Sarah Connor as John’s “parent.”

If, as Jeffords claims, fathering is “the vehicle for that transformation” from externalized to internalized masculinity, then the Marines of Jarhead are unable to make the transformation. In the homosocial world of these soldiers, women exist only as pictures of girlfriends and wives back home, and, as is established early in the film, these girlfriends and wives are automatically to be suspected of cuckolding their men. This uncertainty of male mastery of a female partner serves to further emasculate the Marines as one scene clearly points out. On a rest and relaxation trip away from the desert, the Marines whose girlfriends have not already been hung up on the “Wall of Shame” receive packages and letter from their significant others. One wife sends her husband a copy of Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter. The Marines gather around to watch the film, but before the credit sequences is over, the image cuts to a couple having sex on a couch. At first, the Marines think that the wife has simply dubbed the tape over with pornography, but eventually her husband realizes that he is actually watching his wife have sex with his neighbor. He starts to break down, and cries, eventually being led out of the room by two Marines. This reversal of roles, from the soldier who is typically envisioned as sleeping with women while he is away at war while his wife waits at home, to the wife actively cuckolding her husband and then sending him a videotape and making him a passive spectator of his own betrayal is highly emasculating.

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So, the Marines’ attempts to become the sort of externalized masculine heroes that they idolize have been frustrated, and through their betrayal by wives and girlfriends, they have no families to which they can return. Without the ability to reenter society through entry into the domestic sphere of fatherhood, these characters can also not be the internalized masculine heroes. As the coda to the film shows, they simply become stuck in a sort of limbo. The Marines are given a welcoming parade upon their return to America. A Vietnam veteran jumps onto their bus and shouts “Semper Fi, Marines!” to which the Marines all cheer. But as the Vietnam veteran continues his speech, telling the Marines what a good job they have done, it becomes clear that he is lost without the Corps. Just like these Marines, his identity has become wrapped up in that of the group, and he can no longer embody either of the types of masculinity that Jeffords proposes. The unsettled looks on the faces of Swafford and the other Marines indicate that they have come to the realization that they, too, will one day become this man.

The film’s final sequence shows the key members of Swafford’s unity, presumably in the present day. Swafford returns to his girlfriend’s home only to find that another man opens the door. Others are shown working dead end jobs or becoming alcoholics. One simply stays in the Marine Corps and is shown in Iraq again. Only two seem to have successfully assimilated into society: one man is shown with a family, and the other is shown giving a presentation to a group of business men in a fancy office. At the end of the sequence Swafford is told of the death of his partner from the war, and the group is brought together one more time for the funeral. Swafford starts to cry, but slams his fist on the coffin instead, still clinging to an attempt at stoicism.

Finally, Swafford is shown at his home, alone still. He provides a voiceover, describing that once a man has been to war and held a rifle, no matter he does with his hands in his life, he will always remember the feeling of that rifle. He will always “be a Jarhead,” he says. “And all the Jarheads, killing and dying, they will always be me. We are still in the desert.” While the final line in the film is clearly meant as a political statement about the current conflict in Iraq, it also summarizes the ways that these characters remain stuck in limbo. They will always be Jarheads, unable to live up to normative masculine standards of either the externalized or internalized variety. And they will always be stuck in that metaphorical desert.

Jackie Brown

Jackie Brown (1997)

Dir. Quentin Tarantino

Written by: Quentin Tarantino (from the novel Rum Punch by Elmore Leonard)

Starring: Pam Grier, Samuel L. Jackson, Robert Forster


Watching Jackie Brown so shortly after watching and thinking deeply about Inglourious Basterds will likely lead me to shortchange the former film. Among the Tarantino movies that I have in my collection, and in his filmography, generally, Jackie Brown has always felt like an outlier. It’s the only Tarantino movie to be directly adapted from another source, its visual style is more coherent and it’s far removed from the pastiche style that Tarantino typically employs, and its narrative feels somewhat more conventional than the cartoonish, over-the-top filmic universes that Tarantino often explores. It’s a true crime thriller like Pulp Fiction, but it feels grittier, lacking much of the humor and miraculous coincidence that that film traffics in. Jackie Brown is a movie that I’ve owned since I started seriously getting into movies, and during high school it was a movie that I watched frequently, maybe even more so than Pulp Fiction, but like many of my favorites from that time, it’s a movie that has fallen by the wayside for me. Watching Jackie Brown again, for the first time in at least a decade, it doesn’t quite hold up to my lofty memories of it but I still came away from my viewing greatly enjoying the movie.

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The titular Jackie Brown (Grier) is a middle-aged flight attendant who supplements her income by smuggling money and drugs for Ordell (Jackson), an LA gun runner and smuggler. Jackie is caught arriving in the United States with $50,000 and some cocaine, and is arrested by ATF agent Ray Nicolette (Michael Keaton), who is building a case against Ordell, and who tries to compel Jackie to testify against him. When Jackie refuses, she’s sent to jail, and Ordell subsequently bails her out, introducing her to bail bondsman Max Cherry (Forster), who is immediately struck by Jackie’s beauty and her personality. With Jackie out of jail, Ordell considers killing her to protect himself and prevent her from cooperating with the ATF, but she convinces him to go along with a scheme that will allow him to smuggle enough money out of the country to retire. Jackie pretends to work with Nicolette in a sting to catch Ordell, while telling Ordell that she’ll use the cover of the sting to smuggle a much larger amount of money right under Nicolette’s nose, however unbeknownst to everyone else, Jackie and Max have devised a plan to double cross them all.

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Tarantino, a filmmaker who even at this fairly early point in his career was defined by his auteur status and his desire to work exclusively with and from his own scripts, found a perfect match in choosing to adapt Elmore Leonard. Leonard’s work is characterized by its fascination with crime, street-level characters, and punchy dialogue, and all of these are regular themes in Tarantino’s screenplays. Tarantino makes some meaningful changes to Rum Punch, most significantly changing Jackie’s race, but Leonard stated that he felt Jackie Brown was the best adaptation of any of his work, and it’s hard to see a director more suited to filming this story than Quentin Tarantino. He crafts a Gordian knot of a caper, with so many double crosses and characters whose allegiances seem to be constantly shifting that it’s an easy movie to lose track of on an initial viewing. Repeat viewers, however, will find a great deal to enjoy in this lesser-regarded Tarantino film, as the early rush of following the film’s complex heist narrative gives way to the simple pleasures of getting to know these characters and watch them interact in a pressure cooker of a situation. While the film’s third act gets as action-packed and murderous as a typical Tarantino film, its earlier sections are much more discursive and find Tarantino writing some of his strongest dialogue. He has always been a master at capturing modern conversational parlance, but Tarantino’s keen ear combined with Leonard’s knack for words makes for some really well-written characters and fun verbal sparring, throughout.

This cause is helped by the assemblage of talent on display in Jackie Brown. Even for a Tarantino movie, this cast is ridiculously stacked. Combining A-listers like Samuel L. Jackson and Robert DeNiro, who plays Ordell’s friend and fellow criminal, Louis, with genre stars ripe for a career resurgence in Pam Grier and Robert Forster is a recipe for success. DeNiro plays rather against type as an incompetent lay about, but his performance is far from phoned in. Keaton is typically wry and sardonic, nailing the condescension and attitude of a career-minded cop. Even actors who have bit parts in the movie, such as Chris Tucker, who plays one of Ordell’s smugglers, Beaumont, nail their scenes. Tucker only has one scene in the movie before he is murdered by Ordell, but his character sets into motion the events of the rest of the film, and Tucker brings his usual manic energy to that scene and makes it incredibly memorable. Tarantino is a director who consistently proves that there are no small roles, and the types of star turns and comeback performances seen in his films help reliably dictate that he is rarely at a loss to cast his movies with huge stars.

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While the entire cast of Jackie Brown is worthy of mention, the movie really belongs to its three principles who each turn in inspired and unique performances. Forster’s lonely bail bondsman is an all-time great performance and he was recognized with an Academy Award nomination for it. Early in the film, his entire being exudes regret and heaviness, but after Cherry meets Jackie, Forster starts to light up. He maintains a gruff exterior but his performance becomes airier, and perhaps more assured. Ordell is one of my favorite Samuel L. Jackson characters, alongside Jules Pitt in Pulp Fiction, and he informs the character with the same sort of fury. Ordell is a memorable villain, ruthless and charming, and Jackson’s own additions to the character only make him more memorable. He’s equally capable of spitting convincing profanity and vitriol, soothing assurances, and genuinely funny asides, and he often peppers single conversations with all three. Samuel L. Jackson often gets oversimplified as an actor, but even in a performance that is very clearly on brand for him, and which helped to craft the stereotypical Jackson performance, he displays the true dynamism that makes him a great actor. Of course, though, it’s Pam Grier who really steals the show. The movie was practically written for her, and she turns back time to the 1970s with a vintage performance. She’s poised, cunning, smart, tough, and sexy, and she gives the character a world-weariness that she needs. Jackie finds herself caught up in bad situations, but she never loses control, consistently maintaining the upper hand, and Grier’s performance speaks to that level of even-keeled mastery of self. Grier’s Jackie Brown is iconic, and it introduced her as an actress to an entirely new generation.

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I don’t know that enough people think about Jackie Brown anymore. It’s over 20 years old, and I think that it has gotten vastly overshadowed by Tarantino’s other films. I would say that it is likely the film of his that I, personally, think about the least other than Death Proof, and that’s really a shame. Jackie Brown was a box office success, and a major critical success that only continued Tarantino’s stellar run in the 1990s, and despite this it doesn’t seem to carry the same sort of cache or prestige as the rest of his body of work. I imagine that that probably has something to do with the fact that the movie is an adaptation, but mostly to do with the fact that it followed up a movie as radical and popular as Pulp Fiction. Jackie Brown is a great thriller packed with excellent performances, but it doesn’t hold a candle to the kind of narrative reinvention that its predecessor represented. That isn’t to say, though, that Jackie Brown isn’t a stellar thriller that masterfully blends elements of blacksploitation and noir, and that it isn’t absolutely worth seeking out. I think that Tarantino is a filmmaker who almost always makes extremely fun movies, and the experience of sinking into the world of Jackie Brown is an unquestionably fun cinematic undertaking. I’m really glad that I was able to revisit it for this project, because there was so much about it that I had elided in my memory, and because it was just a really, really fun movie to watch. If I’m being honest, it’s probably the first Tarantino that I’ll return to once this project is finished, as well.

Iron Monkey

Iron Monkey (1993)

Dir. Yuen Woo-Ping

Written by: Tan Cheung, Tai-Muk Lau, Pik-Yin Tang, Tsui Hark

Starring: Rongguang Yu, Donnie Yen, Jean Wang, James Wong


I picked up Iron Monkey on DVD in 2003, sight unseen, at my local Circuit City. I’ve written my high school interest in kung fu movies to death, but that isn’t the only thing that led me to grab a copy of this particular movie that day. The final deciding factor between me grabbing Iron Monkey and yet another bad English transfer of a Bruce Lee classic was the phrase “Quentin Tarantino Presents” above the film’s title on the DVD cover. At that time, Tarantino was the major cinematic gatekeeper and influence in my life, and an endorsement from him was enough to get me to plunk down $15 on a random kung fu flick that I didn’t even realize was already ten years old. When I got home, I found the movie to be an exciting and delightful addition to my little collection of martial arts movies. It was fresh, and seemed thoroughly modern; in fact, I don’t think that I even realized it was made in the early 1990s until after I had watched it several times. Once again, I had trusted QT, the cinephile’s director, to lead me to an influential classic, and once again, he had delivered.

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Set in Imperial China, Iron Monkey is a sort of Robin Hood tale. The kind Dr. Yang (Yu) and his assistant, Miss Orchid (Wang), care for the poor and sick, while a corrupt provincial governor, Cheng (Wong), hoards both wealth and food, keeping his citizens in poverty and squalor. By night, the governor and his wealthy courtesans are menaced by a masked ninja, known as the Iron Monkey, who steals from the rich and gives to the poor. Cheng attempts to employ a squad of disgraced Shaolin monks to capture the Iron Monkey, but to no avail. Meanwhile, a stranger, Wong Kei-ying (Yen), arrives in town with his son, Wong Fei-hong (Angie Tsang) in tow. The governor’s guards believe him to be the Iron Monkey, so they arrest father and son, but the real Iron Monkey arrives to free them. While Wong Kei-ying initially fights the Iron Monkey to a draw in an attempt to clear his name and prove his devotion to the governor, the two eventually join forces when Wong Fei-hong is captured. When a new governor, the disgraced Shaolin monk, Hin-Hung (Yen Shi-kwan), is sent from the emperor, Iron Monkey and Wong Kei-ying have to fight with all of their strength to defeat him and restore power to the people of the province.

The plot of Iron Monkey is fairly typical, borrowing as it does from traditional Chinese folk history, as well as from the archetypal history of figures in the popular imagination such as Robin Hood. Of course, few viewers are looking for nuanced, layered storytelling when they sit down to enjoy this type of action film. Fans of the kung fu genre will appreciate the film as an origin story for cult hero Wong Fei-hong, as well as for its nods to Chinese folklore and history. Western audiences will likely be attracted to the film’s quick pace and light tone, with the American release being edited both for content and for length. Everyone can likely agree that it’s a film that delivers on the promise of well-choreographed and well-executed action set pieces, and that it mixes in plenty of comedy and intrigue, which is a signature of the Hong Kong studio style. Though it’s obviously stylistically very different that these films, Iron Monkey has the same sort of crossover appeal that Jackie Chan’s action movies were experiencing in America in the mid-1990s, although I can understand why it wasn’t released domestically until after the kung fu craze of the early-2000s that was kicked off by the success of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

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I think the biggest takeaway I had from watching Iron Monkey again for the first time in many, many years, was how much I enjoyed watching Donnie Yen’s fight performance. He’s such a versatile and smooth performer, incorporating many different styles of martial arts into his fight scenes. I think that the last thing that I saw Yen in was Star Wars: Rogue One, in which he plays a blind Jedi who is able to move through the world guided by the Force, and this sort of natural flow is on display in Iron Monkey. Yen is also aided by performing in scenes directed by the venerable Hong Kong veteran, and eventual famed Hollywood fight choreographer, Yuen Woo-Ping. The film’s final fight scene, in which Iron Monkey and Wong Kei-ying battle Hin-Hung held up perfectly to my memories of it. The final fight takes place atop bamboo poles, which the combatants have climbed to escape a raging fire that has broken out in the town square. Yen and Yu perform acrobatic stunts, lithely leaping from pole to pole, dressed identically, while Yen Shi-kwan appears impossibly big and powerful, stalking across the poles as the battle arena drastically shrinks while the poles are engulfed in flames. It’s a study in contrasting styles, as are so many climactic fights in these types of movies, but the setting, the charisma of the performers, and the excellent direction by Yuen add up to make it an all-time classic. It’s a fitting ending to for a movie that is the embodiment of a certain brand of Hong Kong studio action films of its period.

I’ve been looking forward to this post for a while now because Iron Monkey is an old favorite of mine, and, like the majority of the kung fu movies in my collection, I’ve neglected returning to it for too long. It was just as good as I remembered it being, and there were a handful of elements of the movie I had forgotten that enriched my enjoyment of it. I didn’t remember at all that it was a Wong Fei-hong origin story, and I suppose that I wasn’t aware of the fact that through its association with Tsui Hark, who is a producer and credited writer on the film, Iron Monkey operates as an adjacent film or even prequel to the Once Upon A Time in China series. I don’t know about Iron Monkey’s availability in America before its 2001 limited theatrical release and this subsequent DVD release, but I would imagine that it might have been available at some point on premium cable, and almost certainly it was available on a bootleg VHS somewhere. I know that I might not have encountered it were it not for a push from one of my favorite filmmakers at the time, and I’m glad that I did because this is definitely one of the superior martial arts movies of the 1990s.

Inside Man

Inside Man (2006)

Dir. Spike Lee

Written by: Russel Gewirtz

Starring: Denzel Washington, Clive Owen, Jodie Foster, Chiwetel Ejiofor


No Crooklyn or Clockers. No 25th Hour, which is likely my favorite Spike Lee joint, and no Do The Right Thing, which is a glaring omission in my collection. The only movie directed by Spike Lee that I own (aside from his excellent four part Hurricane Katrina docu-series, When the Levee Broke) is Inside Man, and while it might not be as iconic as some of Spike’s earlier work, watching it again served as a reminder that he’s a filmmaker with an instantly recognizable style that has proved to be perfectly malleable to different genres and modes of filmmaking. Inside Man finds Spike working from an original script that largely eschews politics or issues of race, and delivering a top-rate thriller that stands up alongside the classic heist movies that influenced it. The casting is excellent, the script provides a roller coaster of twists and turns, and Spike’s direction proves as deft as ever, brilliantly capturing the action in a way that feels immediate and artistic. I hadn’t watched this movie in a long time, but I remembered it being a favorite of mine the year that it was released, and the rewatch reaffirmed my suspicions that this should be a sneaky entry into the best Spike Lee movies conversation.

Inside Man doesn’t set out to reinvent the wheel when it comes to the heist genre, but it does provide enough twists and turns along the way that it should keep even attentive first time viewers guessing until the very end of the movie. The movie is really quite simple, with a group of bank robbers, disguised as a painting crew and led by the charismatic thief Dalton Russell (Owen), descend upon the First Manhattan Bank. They set about rounding up the tellers and customers, and force all of their hostages to put on matching painter’s jumpsuits, effectively erasing the distinction between hostage and thief. Detective Keith Frazier (Washington) is the hostage negotiator assigned to the bank robbery, and when he and his partner, Detective Bill Mitchell (Ejiofor), arrive on the scene, the action begins in earnest. The cat and mouse game between Dalton and Frazier plays out as expected, with Dalton seeming to maintain the upper hand nearly throughout. The dynamics change, however, when Madeleine White (Foster), something of a fixer for the very rich and powerful, enters into the negotiations on behalf of the bank’s founder, Arthur Chase (Christopher Plummer). The trio circle around one another, each attempting to broker the best deal for his or her chosen side, until the hostage situation ends dramatically with Dalton releasing his hostages immediately before a SWAT unit bursts through the bank’s front doors. Dozens of people tumble out of the bank and into the street, all dressed identically, and from there it’s up to the police to not only determine the “who” and “what” of the robbery, but also the “why.”

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Right off the bat, one of the biggest things that Inside Man has going for it is its phenomenal cast. Denzel Washington and Clive Owen are perfect foils, and although they only share one major scene in the film, the polar opposite energies in their performances are a driving force behind the film. Detective Frazier is a vintage Denzel role, and the officer’s cocksure style and verbose nature provide ample opportunity for Washington to chew the scenery and put his signature perfectly delivered line performance on display. He’s completely in his element in Inside Man, and the back-slapping, bullshitting, charismatic performance is a pleasure to watch. It’s matched by Owen’s quieter, less embellished work as the film’s antagonist. He plays Dalton Russell as the literal embodiment of the platitude, “speak softly and carry a big stick.” While he maintains control of the hostage situation through immaculate planning and execution, he also engages in well-timed bursts of violence to keep his hostages frightened and confused. Owen is convincing as both the mastermind of a perfect crime and as a madman willing to kill anyone who would stand in the way of the completion of his goals. As the third lead, Foster doesn’t get quite the screen time that her male counterparts enjoy, but she makes the most of her big scenes. She matches the gravitas of legendary actor Christopher Plummer, conceding nothing in her steely performance. I’m not a huge fan of the way that Madeleine White is written as a character, because her lack of backstory and depth kind of makes her seem like a career-focused automaton, but Foster is adept in the role, and she brings a hard directness to her negotiation style that well complements both Washington’s conversational style and Owen’s more reticent, intellectually guarded position.

The larger lesson of the film Inside Man is that a story is truly in the telling, and both the film’s form and content support that position. Spike Lee lends his visual panache to an already well-written crime film from first-time screenwriter Gewirtz. He moves his camera restlessly to mirror the disorientation that the blindfolded and bound hostages must feel. He features some masterful tracking shots both inside the bank and in the street outside of it. While Inside Man might not be as formally inventive as Do The Right Thing or The 25th Hour, Spike includes a few strange moments where he harkens to some of his more experimental and independent roots. One brief tracking shot where Detective Frazier appears to float directly at the camera springs to mind immediately. The directorial choice to tell the story out of order, interspersing the presentation of the robbery and negotiation with interrogations of hostages and robbers after the fact, also leads to a richer telling, maintaining the audience’s lack of narrative surety and keeping them strung along until the very end. The film’s ending, which plays out like a prophecy and is somewhat reminiscent of the ending of The Usual Suspects, never fails to leave a smile on my face. It’s a perfect bow on this present of a movie that begs to be unwrapped more than once.

Film Title: Inside Man.

Inside Man was well received when it was released, both commercially and critically, but it isn’t a movie that immediately pops into my mind when I’m thinking about movies from that period in time, or about Spike Lee movies. I really should consider it more, because it’s an enjoyable experience every time I watch it, and even though I’m more than familiar with the movie’s myriad plot twists, it doesn’t seem any less satisfying rewatching it several times. I have to accredit this to the cast’s perfect embodiment of their respective roles and to Spike Lee’s impeccable direction. Even though he came onto the project essentially as a hired gun, he reportedly relished the opportunity to direct a modern take on Dog Day Afternoon, and his enthusiasm shows. Even working from someone else’s source material, the telling of the tale is all Spike Lee. The movie’s tone and visual style, its subtle references to American racial politics, its essential “New York-ness,” are all signature elements of a classic Spike Lee joint. If you haven’t seen Inside Man, I’ve tried to avoid any real spoilers here so go out and track it down for yourself. If you have seen Inside Man, don’t hesitate to give it another shot because it’s a richly rewarding and engaging film.



I missed my deadline on this post for the first time in a while with this project. While I typically try to work 2-3 weeks ahead of time, my months of October and November have been hectic, both personally and professionally, and I’ve been left with less and less time to work on this project. I’m hoping that in the next few weeks my schedule will be more accomodating and that I’ll be able to continue working up to the standard that I hope to uphold for this writing.