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The Reelist: The Sweet Science of Swagger

Feeling some superhero fatigue? Looking for a creation myth that doesn't involve the touching story of how CGI effects find themselves? What you need is a film with swagger.
Feeling some superhero fatigue? Looking for a creation myth that doesn't involve the touching story of how CGI effects find themselves? Annoyed that this summer is mostly setting you up for Marvel franchises?

What you need is a film with swagger. It's a nebulous quality, but swagger (and its close cousin, "badass-ery") is something that you know when you see it, the type of instant charisma and dangerous brilliance that adds a thrill to the movies that can't be created with the most powerful CGI computers in the world. Whether it's coming from an unhinged performer or unhinged fists, it's a raw quality that doesn't need lycra or fancy weapons, just a switchblade or deadly stare. For this edition of The Reelist, we're breaking swagger down into several categories: A Star is Born, French Swagger, Fist Pounding Action, and The Anti-Swagger.

A Star is Born:

The Thin Man

Dir. W.S. Van Dyke, 1934
Nick and Nora Charles are simply unmatched as the sexiest married couple on film. As embodied by William Powell, the originally hard-boiled-in-book-form Nick becomes a suave and brilliant private dick far removed from his noir roots. The lightness and charisma that Powell and Myrna Loy bring to their hard drinkin' (you know they could handle a three martini lunch) characters is part of the reason that the film still has weight and the characters have become icons. The film's success led five more "Thin Man" movies, with Dean Stockwell appearing as Nick Charles Jr. in Song of the Thin Man. They really don't make 'em like this anymore in Hollywood, and it's somewhat mystifying.

The Philadelphia Story

Dir. George Cukor, 1940
Katherine Hepburn had been labeled "box office poison" after a disastrous run in the 1930s, and The Philadelphia Story was her comeback vehicle, both on Broadway and in the film version. She purchased the rights to make the play into a film, and had veto power over who she worked with. The resulting film is perfect; Hepburn swans about in dazzling clothes, bantering with her dashing ex C.K. Dexter Haven (Cary Grant). Her flinty, frosty high-class demeanor bounces off the warm humanism of Grant and co-star Jimmy Stewart with a pop, and it's a joy to watch. After this film Hepburn was a star again, proving Dorothy Parker wrong: She ran the gamut from A to P!

King of the Hill

Dir. Steven Soderbergh, 1993
Following the high-pressure sophomore slump Kafka, Soderburgh's third film is an elegantly devastating work dealing with death, familial neglect, and a child's resilience, based on writer A. E. Hotchner's memoirs of growing up in Depression-era St. Louis. It's a lovely, moving movie anchored by a great performance from a young Jesse Bradford (Bring It On, Swimfan, and Flags of our Fathers) as "Aaron Kurlander." One of the pleasant surprises, though, is that the film is chock-full of natural performances from youthful actors who went on to do more prominent (and Oscar-winning) work: Katherine Heigl, Lauryn Hill, and Adrien Brody all make appearances. The women are excellent, but it's a twenty-year-old Brody who's sexy and mesmerizing as Lester, a big-brother mentor-type to young Kurlander, who teaches the kid the art of hustling for survival. Brody's utterly confident in the role, and he leaves a big mark; when his character's off-screen, you miss him.

Girl Interrupted

Dir. James Mangold, 1999
This film was supposed to be an Oscar-bait passion project for Winona Ryder, who had played a role in developing the film. Unfortunately for Ryder, she was upstaged by Angelina Jolie in a star-making performance as Lisa Rowe, the "crazy" one in the crazy-girl hospital. In Namedropper, a book by Emma Forrest, Jolie is referred to as "having Marlon Brando, blow-up-the-joint energy," and it's in full effect in Interrupted; in particular, since Jolie's character is a particularly aggressive, commonly male archetype. Playing a role that could've went to Jack Nicholson, Jolie is the crazy-like-a-fox! sane voice of insanity, and the character's mystique drives the film, as it's pretty obvious that Ryder's cipher of a protagonist is besotted and fascinated with her wacko allure. By stealing the film, Jolie becomes an Oscar-winning star, and is launched into the A-list stratosphere of Jolie-the-persona. Which in some ways is too bad; by getting Jolie as a cartoon, we lose the twenty-something rawness of Jolie the actress.

French Swagger:

La Haine

Dir. Mathieu Kassovitz, 1995
Set in the ghettos of Paris, La Haine is about the class struggles and rage of three friends. The film's relevance, of course, proved rather prescient with the Paris riots in 2005. All of the actors are strong in the film, but Vincent Cassel stands out as a Jewish hood: Early in the film he mimics "You talkin' to me?" from Taxi Driver, and the character's adoption, imitation, and ability to put his own psychotic edge on the iconic scene reveals a wide array of motivations and driving anger. After La Haine, Cassel would play further tough guy roles, most notably in last year's Eastern Promises. He's also married to the super-babe Monica Bellucci. He is clearly a badass.

The Beat That My Heart Skipped

Dir. Jacques Audiard, 2005
A loose remake of James Toback's 1970s cult film Fingers, The Beat That My Heart Skipped is also, if inadvertently, dealing with the anxiety of influence when it comes to iconic American swagger. In Beat, Romain Duris is torn between two paths: Down one road, he's a thug doing dirty real estate deals, down another he's playing beautiful music on the piano. Since we see the violence in Duris' character, it's easier to appreciate the poetry when he plays piano. It's a striking dichotomy of light and dark, and it's the reason why the film has a lingering power. The film was a hit when it played the 2005 Tribeca Film Festival.

Fist Pounding Action:



Dir. Newt Arnold, 1988
Quite possibly the best Jean-Claude Van Damme movie, if only for its crazy mix of fighting styles. Probably best remembered for the crazy monkey fighter and a scene where someones leg is broken and pops out of their skin. And who's playing the villian? None other than Bolo Yeung, the martial arts star best known for Enter The Dragon. Yeung's badassery jumps off the screen, and it's quite possibly informed by real life: In order to escape Communism in the 1960s, he swam to Hong Kong from mainland China.

Red Scorpion

Dir. Joseph Zito, 1989
Dolph Lundgren may have been the prototypical 80s action-film villain, but he was so much more than a beefy violence machine. The Stockholm native had a Fullbright Scholarship to MIT in 1983, and quit his pursuit of chemical engineering to pursue movies. After his Rocky IV breakthrough, he was set as an B-film tough guy for the rest of the decade. The Karate black belt ended up doing a lot of 80s comic book (and, um, toy) adaptations (including a role as He-Man in Masters of the Universe!) but Red Scorpion stands out as a fascinating curio. Its plot is strongly anti-Communist, illustrating that there's freedom in fighting alongside the African rebels when you've been sent to murder them as a heartless Soviet killing machine. 80s action film par for the course, but let this fact blow your mind: It was written by the notorious lobbyist Jack Abramoff and produced by his brother Robert. There may be some insights into corrupt American policy coming from this forgotten work.


Dir. Karyn Kusama, 2000
Michelle Rodriguez is a born star, and again, she's got this tough and sexy tomboy energy coursing throughout her performance. As a girl pursuing boxing in secret, she's coming of age and finding herself through her fists and her wits. While training for the film, she reportedly took to boxing so well that she could've gone pro, according to her trainer. After this debut, though, no other film has made proper use of Rodriguez's persona (although Resident Evil has its fans). The writer/director, Karyn Kusama, seemed to disappear as well, only helming the Charlize Theron flop Aeon Flux. However, things are looking up for Kusama, who just helmed Jennifer's Body, the horror comedy sophomore effort by Diablo Cody, which should at least get her future work. It remains to be seen whether Rodriguez will harness her star power beyond her current status as a bad girl tabloid fixture.

The Anti-Swagger:

Bottle Rocket

Dir. Wes Anderson, 1996
Martin Scorsese called Bottle Rocket one of the best films of the 90s, and he's right. This debut feature from Wes Anderson stands up as the coming-of-age anti-crime film: While Dignan (a star-making performance from Owen Wilson) believes that crime will pay, will make him cool, the film gently shows him another path. Rocket came out in the middle of the post-Tarantino era, where every third indie film was about cool guys robbing people and co-starred Steve Buscemi or Michael Madsen. The film moves to the weird rhythm of the characters, with the jokes coming off like anti-humor; if a fight scene that has Wilson yelling, "C'mon Anthony! Bob's a big boy!" or characters named "Bob Mapplethorpe" or "Applejack" make you giggle, you'll like the film. They went on from Rocket to Rushmore, arguably a coming-of-age classic. However, commercial and critical success took its toll on the duo, with diminishing returns in the 2000s; Wilson's shaggy-dog stoner charm is now mostly regulated to big-budget duo films, while Anderson's continued down the road of the auteur, making movies with a parade of different co-writers as on-the-make twenty-something directors jack his production design and editing. The long-rumored Criterion DVD of Rocket is currently scheduled for the fall.


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