The Picaresque And Pretense of Evil
Today’s movie double is about the ‘bad guy as hero’. The broad genre convention of picaresques is that the main character be something of a charmer but somehow lacking in moral fortitude. The classic definition involves the satirical content as well as the adventures of a roguish hero of low social class who lives by his wits in a corrupt society.
It seems interesting to compare Johnny Depp in his fourth outing as Captain Jack Sparrow is solidly set in his piratical ways, while 50cent tries to extend his rap singer persona out as a rookie cop turned bad cop ‘Malo’. The Picaresque might be making a comeback in these uncertain times.
A World Of Crooks
The civilised parts of the world in ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ are always so full of stuffy nasty poncy Englishmen who seem either captive servitors of a rather nasty system, or servile, willing collaborators for the rich and nasty types. The promise of freedom is offered up by the pirates and their way of life. By this, the fourth installation, it seems like a ritual that somebody attempts to hang Jack Sparrow which leads to a dating escape. Somehow these sequences get more elaborate and silly as the films go on.
Similarly in ‘Freelancers’, the world of New York City police force life for rookie cop ‘Malo’ seems to be a foregone conclusion of corruption and mayhem. The senior police represented in this little segment of the world seem to be all heavily compromised in their ethical stances. Led by Robert De Niro’s Joe Sarcone (whose main purpose seems to be to lend weight to this trifling film with his actorly baggage of good films), the senior cops provide bad examples for the newly minted rookie cops.
Both these films paint bleak portraits of society, although it has to be said the Pirate movies are not serious at all about its portrayal of class in England. Meanwhile, ‘Freelancers’ seems to want to make the serious point that every second cop in New York City is crooked, mostly by necessity of the socius. It’s a difficult claim to take seriously, but, because 50cent has a public persona to maintain, this is what we get.
Whereas the Pirate movie offers us moments of genuine delight and abrasive satire at the pomp of the British Royal family, ‘Freelancers’ wants us to take the social commentary very seriously. Now, it might be the case that the police in New York City are corrupt, but this movie portrays the rookie cops like idiots and babes in the woods, ready to be corrupted by the older hands.
The flipside of this is that they’re all portrayals of a certain kind of Americana. Jack Sparrow exists defiant and opposite to the British class system, which informs the kind of gun-toting second-amendment-loving diatribe that falls out of the the birth of the USA. You could read the supernatural story of Jack Sparrow as kind of metaphorical birth of America. Meanwhile, ‘Freelancers’ paints a picture of where America is today and the irony is that the society portrayed by the latter film is just as bad as the society that tries to hang Jack Sparrow every episode.
The Anti-Establishment Credentials
It makes me laugh to read that in the aftermath of the Newtown massacre, the NRA thinks Hollywood films and violent video games and music videos have to shoulder some blame. If ever there was an entity that basically provokes this irrational fear of edgy entertainment, it is a rap star like 50 Cent.
It goes without saying that 50 Cent and his persona cannot relinquish the street, so the film ends up being a tortured revenge story where the main character is hardly heroic; he’s more a vagabond in a cop uniform, ready to go on the take faster than you can say “fifty cents”. If this willful distortion of ‘values’ doesn’t grind people’s gears and their sense of society, then surely the film needs some kind of ballast and that seems to be what Robert De Niro and Forest Whitaker provide. Combined, the film has an all-over-the-shop sort of mimesis that simply has not existed before, where the audience is rooting for a bad cop played by a gangsta-rapper.
Forget the ubiquity of drugs and the tortured discourse about the ‘n-word’, the film staggers along what can only be described as the social sewers of New York, all the while people are snorting and fucking and snorting while fucking. For me, it’s kind of a dystopia, but this film is pitched for somebody – I feel sorry for that somebody. As picaresques go, this one makes you wonder if western civilisation has reached a saturation point in decadence.
The Fountain Of Youth As Arbitrary Symbol
One of the most peculiar concerns in ‘Pirates IV’ is that the characters are in search of the fountain of youth, while the main character seems rather oblique to these passions. It’s not clear that Jack Sparrow wants to get there, let alone take part in the required ritual at the end of the journey. It seems incredibly disingenuous even, that Jack Sparrow would not be interested in the fountain of youth if such a thing existed – and this being a movie, of course it exists.
His sometime nemesis and other-time partner in crime Hector Barbossa is equally disinterested in the fountain. He’s after revenge against Blackbeard, so it is purely coincidental that the fountain of youth is involved in the story. For all he cares he would have his revenge on the streets of London or a pub somewhere. The character who has the clear motivation of getting to the fountain then is the villain Blackbeard except it is not even clear he believes in the necessity. On some level he seems to be resigned to his fate of being killed by the one-legged man. He’s only going because he’s being goaded into it by his daughter.
This explains the title in a roundabout way, why it might not be ‘Fountain of Youth’ but ‘On Stranger Tides’. The film’s main characters are actually oddly blase about getting to the destination.
Do They Learn Anything?
Picaresques in general are narratives to highlight and satirise the societies in which they are set . That being said, it is hard to see if the main characters in these stories really learn anything. Even Jack Sparrow seems largely unchanged by any and all the adventures he has found himself. The inability to change is probably due to the fact that the authorial voice is usually couched through the incredulity or passive-aggressive compliance of the main characters. Thus Jack Sparrow seemingly eludes any emotional change as readily he eludes his captors in the big chase show pieces, right across 4 films.
In ‘Freelancers’, it is clear that ‘Malo’ learns something about his father and therefore his own identity. Whether what he learns contributes anything positive is rather questionable, as even the ending shows that Malo might be much happier operating on the wrong side of the law than the right one.
Malo finds out that his father was a crooked cop on the take. His father died when he tried to turn states evidence, and Joe Sarcone found out and killed him. When Malo grows up to be a cop, the first thing Joe Sarcone does is recruit Malo. This is a mystery given the prior history – the man ought to fear revenge, but there is no such sign of consternation. Malo, gets with the crooked cop routine like fish to water. this to is mysterious. it doesn’t seem to occur to Malo to walk the straight and narrow. Instead his own solution is to betray Joe, set him up for a hit, while also tipping off the DEA (which, in the scheme of things makes no sense).
So Malo too expresses the authorial voice’s – probably 50cent’s own – need to castigate New York City, but at the same time he is entirely complicit in the bullshit. It might dress itself up as some kind of social critique but it’s pretty piss poor in quality when it is too easy on itself.
Schtick As Acting, Acting As Schtick
I’ve pointed out before how, the more something veers toward comedy, the layers of acting increase. So we know that ‘Stranger Tides’ is firmly a comedy early on when we are presented with Jack Sparrow pretending to be a judge and Penelope Cruz’s Angelica pretending to be Jack Sparrow and Hector Barbossa pretending to be a respectable privateer for His Majesty. Geoffrey Rush’s turn as Hector Barbossa seems to grow more arch and convoluted with each outing. This time he is missing a leg but he uses his stump peg leg as a flask.
I’ve been told this kind of acting is over-acting and in bad taste but alas a) I have a taste for bad comedy and find it hard to throw away and b) I have a strong distaste for realism as a benchmark. Especially in a flipping weird series of films as the Pirates of Caribbean, where at some point a ship is rolled across the desert on rocks or eyeballs or whatever. Realism that, fellas.
In Hollywood fare, it’s immensely difficult to see the acting for the stars, and the star system banks on the fact that you don’t see the acting – that you only see the schtick.Tom Cruise’s entire career has been built on this premise. In this day and age, do you really get to see Robert De Niro *act*, or do you get to see Robert De Niro trot out his schtick? Lately I’m inclined to think it’s the latter, the longer the career goes. Is he phoning it in? Probably. But I imagine I would have ended up watching ‘Freelancers’ any way, even if Joe Sarcone had been played by… Al Pacino, Joe Pesci, Paul Sorvino, Danny Aiello, or even Danny DeVito. It might have been even better had it been Danny DeVito. I don’t know what to make of Forest Whitaker and Robert De Niro’s turn in ‘Freelancers’; Even accounting for them phoning it in, it’s a pretty ordinary effort. Especially the scene where both of them order Malo to snort not one but two lines of cocaine. I found myself thinking “this is too fucking stupid for words.” Except at some point somebody wrote the script with those very words. The God of Filmmaking is not only blind, he’s illiterate as well. 50 Cent’s acting is pretty ordinary, even allowing for my lax tastes. I can handle ham, I can handle cheese, or for that matter ham with cheese. I just can’t handle crap, and this is crap.
What Frightens Me
Hollywood is hard up for ideas. That’s why Pirates of the Caribbean is on to it’s Fourth film and maybe there’s even going to be yet another sequel. it’s a money making machine, born out of a theme park ride and mostly devoid of any ambition in its narrative stakes. ‘Freelancers’ is some kind of garbled street cred movie from a rap star. It’s clear they’re hard up for good ideas and they’ve lost the balls for doing anything daring.
Given the parlous state of Hollywood, what frightens me is that ‘Freelancers’ will have a sequel.