The usual movie adventure can make do with a solitary hero, but for those really impossible missions, you need the myriad skills that come only from a ragtag team making good on a bad rep. ”Talk about the Wrong Stuff,” says a NASA official upon seeing the drillers-cum-astronauts in Armageddon, Michael Bay’s destructo fever dream about roughnecks promoted off an oil rig to become Earth’s last hope against an oncoming asteroid. The pop-culture reference fits, for the shoulders Bay stands on belong to those films about outsiders who stand proudly apart from society, then watch as society comes crawling.
Armageddon is the paint-by-numbers version, but at least the palette is vivid. More like the Miracle Mets of ’69 than the Bronx Bombers of ’98, motley crews account for some of cinema’s most colorful ensembles. In three high-water marks of the genre — The Adventures of Robin Hood, The Dirty Dozen, and The Wild Bunch — you can discern the template Bay and producer Jerry Bruckheimer, the action maestro behind the movie, applied in creating Armageddon. Always we find a grizzled leader, a band of misfits, a seemingly impossible task that some may not survive, personality differences that threaten the mission, and a fire-in-the-belly speech.
So when head honcho Harry Stamper (Bruce Willis) tells NASA where to locate his errant oil drillers, a montage sums them up. There’s the burly guy. (In earlier films he was the leader’s right hand.) There’s the hothead who doesn’t play well with others. There’s the rebel who has his own personal mission. And there’s the oddball who could ruin everything — or save the day. Bay takes only a few seconds for this introduction. But we don’t need anything more. We’ve been here before.
The Adventures of Robin Hood
(1938, MGM, unrated, $19.98)
LEADER Sir Robin of Locksley (Errol Flynn) BURLY LIEUTENANT Little John (Alan Hale) MASCOT Will Scarlett (Patric Knowles) ODDBALL Friar Tuck (Eugene Pallette)
”If you’re willing to fight for our people, I want you,” Robin bellows to his Merry Men from atop a rock, and, of course, they are. A wellspring of bravery and bonhomie, the heroic bad boys in the Michael Curtiz and William Keighley film prove to be practically Boy Scouts — ever resilient, always prepared. In the battle against Prince John (Claude Rains) and Sir Guy of Gisbourne (Basil Rathbone), it’s the affable Little John who rouses the Men to save Robin when the archer is captured. And Friar Tuck doesn’t just provide spiritual guidance. The holy man is also an expert swordsman, which helped establish a motley-crew constant: Never underestimate the harmless-looking ones. Adventure films before had similarly mixed chivalry and chicanery, but gifted journeyman Curtiz, shooting in vibrant Technicolor and aided by Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s rollicking score, made it look as easy as falling from a tree — which is also, this film shows, the best way to ambush a villain. A+
The Dirty Dozen
(1967, MGM, unrated, $14.95)
LEADER Major Reisman (Lee Marvin) BURLY GUY Jefferson (Jim Brown) HOTHEAD Franko (John Cassavetes) ODDBALL NO. 1 Pinkley (Donald Sutherland) ODDBALL NO. 2 Maggott (Telly Savalas) REBEL Wladislaw (Charles Bronson)
The word motley doesn’t do justice to the military prisoners in this crack WWII adventure. Offered amnesty from their life — or in some cases death — sentences if they can destroy a chateau full of Nazi officers and return alive, they’re people you wouldn’t want to meet and characters you can’t resist. Their mutual distrust and potential for violence put the familiar movie-platoon dynamic on the high wire. Marvin’s ”ill-mannered, ill-disciplined” commander laces even the blandest lines with spite; you don’t trust him any more than the dozen do. Savalas’ cueball creep, a religious fanatic and rapist, remains unsettling right through the finale. Cassavetes, in an Oscar-nominated turn, seems to focus his intense eyes on the ugly truth that the Army would be relieved if they were all killed behind enemy lines. It’s quite a movie that dares to show us how soldiers die for a cause as well as how hardened killers learn fear. A-
The Wild Bunch
(1969, Warner, R, $19.98)
LEADER Pike Bishop (William Holden) BURLY LIEUTENANT Dutch (Ernest Borgnine) HOTHEAD NO. 1 Lyle Gorch (Warren Oates) HOTHEAD NO. 2 Tector Gorch (Ben Johnson) REBEL Angel (Jaime Sanchez) GEEZER Sykes (Edmond O’Brien)
No one could accuse director Sam Peckinpah of cartoon violence, and this, his 1969 masterwork, is a bloody meditation on the macho West’s dead end. It’s as if a posse of villains from earlier horse operas were suddenly thrust front and center — indeed, this film’s ”villain,” Pike’s ex-partner Deke Thornton (Robert Ryan), is more soulful than the former pals he’s hunting. Peckinpah punctuates the film’s many killings with cackling good times, yet, trigger-happy and conscience-free, this gang’s hootin’ and hollerin’ solidarity is their sole redeeming feature — and inevitably what does them in. Like similar late-’60s antiheroes (Bonnie and Clyde, Butch and Sundance), you know from the get-go that tombstones are waiting for these wrong ‘uns. It’s a far cry from 1938, when the worst thing that happened in Sherwood Forest was a minor Merry Man got roughed up a bit. While Dozen held out some hope for redemption, two years later, Bunch played pallbearer for the Western. B+
(1998, Touchstone, PG-13, $22.99)
LEADER Harry Stamper (Bruce Willis) LIEUTENANT Chick (Will Patton) SUPER-BURLY GUY Bear (Michael Clarke Duncan) ODDBALL Rockhound (Steve Buscemi) REBEL A.J. (Ben Affleck)
Michael Bay came to feature films from commercials, and for both good and ill Stamper’s men are recognizable not just from old movies but also from TV beer ads. Having a wild night before blastoff, singing ”Leaving on a Jet Plane” as they head for space, even parking on the asteroid’s surface, they might as well be cheering on the Bears in their La-Z-Boys. Their dreams are beery too: Before signing on, they negotiate permanent freedom from taxes. What they really want, though, is a license to rewrite the rules, a standard bad-boy prerogative. But a token of what’s wrong with the movie is that Buscemi’s weaselly coward conveys the ethos the best, and unlike Friar Tuck, he doesn’t surprise us or redeem himself. ”You and your men are the biggest mistake in the history of NASA,” a career astronaut tells Stamper. He’s wrong, obviously — in movie crises, you’re supposed to trust the misfits. Too bad for Armageddon there isn’t more strength in their numbers. C