Monday, February 20, 2006

Raise the Flag

Film Review by Ben Kessler

"I know it's coming
There's gonna be violence
I've taken as much as I'm willing to take
Why do you think we should suffer in silence
When the heart is broken, there's nothing to break"
--Robbie Williams, "Tripping"

Upon hearing about the imminent departure of his still-beloved ex-girlfriend from the city (New York) where they both live, 21-year-old Syd (played by Chris Evans), overwhelmed by rage and grief, convulsively trashes his own apartment, shattering his fish tank with a basketball. That's how Hunter Richards begins London, his masculine character study that recently received a beatdown from the nation's film critics. From the outset, Richards affronts blue-state hacks by rejecting post-9/11 isolationist inertia. Crouching in the rubble of his own war zone, Evans surveys the wreckage then is propelled into action. When there's nothing left to break, it's time to rebuild.

This anti-isolationist urge is realized in Syd's impromptu, cross-cultural alliance with Bateman (Jason Statham), a British drug dealer/investment banker suffering from the piggyback traumas of impotence and divorce. With Bateman supplying companionship and cocaine, Syd hides out in the upstairs bathroom of an upmarket apartment as he waits for the right moment to approach his ex-girlfriend (for whom the film is named) at her going-away party. These scenes of coke-fueled philosophizing don't always hit the mark; conversational detours dealing with urban legends and the existence of God fail to illuminate the personalities and positions of Syd, Bateman, and the various partygoers who stumble through. But a blinding light penetrates when the conversation turns to Bateman's past and Statham gets to deliver, with rugged musicality, blistering monologues of masculine rage and pain. "It's an emptiness within an emptiness, and you're left with slightly less than nothing," is how Bateman describes the experience of watching a spouse slip away.

Here, as in last year's Transporter 2, Statham represents masculinity engaged in an active process of redefinition. Still bearing the taint of his two pre-9/11 collaborations with Guy Ritchie (the limey Tarantino), this actor has recently chosen roles in opposition to the shoot-n-snark hipster credo that exposed the decadence of "indie" cinema in the 90s. No gun-toting Ritchie blabbermouth, the Transporter evokes Hollywood's affectionately satiric WWII-era characterizations of the Brits as punctilious, virtuous Allies. But instead of Alec Guinness's Geneva Convention rulebook, the Transporter carries an internalized list of autonomously worked-out Rules to help him maneuver through Europe and America's treacherous, intersecting underworlds. He embodies an Oedipal trinity: legislator, enforcer, and unlikely nurturer. Erecting civilzation where none exists, Statham links morality to imagination--through principled action (yes, kicking ass).

The barely suppressed emotional chaos of Bateman is the flipside of the Transporter's 21st-century spin on strong-and-silent. But, like the Transporter, Bateman swells with nobility when he finds a cause worth fighting for. When Syd is attacked by a mob of drunken, hostile partygoers, Bateman leaps into action to defend his newfound friend. Though provoked into battle, Syd and Bateman fight with gusto, not squeamishness. Richards' fast editing and intense fight choreography lend the brawl a morally satisfying Straw Dogs quality. But this righteous ass-kicking needs to be distinguished from Munich's perverse, horrifying (no less so for being blatantly, fearlessly sexualized) variations on violence as Violation.

Since Reagan, American culture has normalized class inequity through a gnostic flesh-and-spirit binary. Those who receive pennies from heaven (the privileged) are portrayed as ontologically superior to, "smarter" than, the less lucky among us who sweat for a living out of exertion or fear. The false binaries of laissez-faire capitalism--as literally represented in the film's upstairs/downstairs bathroom/party division--threaten to rend the shared symbols that constitute culture, not unlike Lindsay Lohan shredding her prom-queen tiara in Mean Girls (surely the worst recent ending outside of 29 Palms). The talking, fucking, and fighting in London do the necessary work of extracting a human essence out of this moral muck while reaffirming that essence as spiritual. Plugged back into his own humanity and sense of self-worth, the impotent Bateman is able to hope for a hookup. The critics who chased this film out of town must have been especially galled by the euphemism he uses to describe that longed-for erection to Syd and London when saying his goodbyes. With a twinkle in his eye, he calls it "raising the flag."

Click here for John Demetry's review of London


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