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Et Tu, You Brute

Commentary * Forget this touchy-feely, sensitive guy stuff. Macho men are back by popular demand, as Hollywood has deftly surmised. But what price glory?

May 14, 2000|STEPHEN FARBER | Stephen Farber is a film critic for Movieline magazine and writes about entertainment from Los Angeles

"Men strike back!" was the tag line for a recent VH1 music special. That same ferocious anthem aptly describes Hollywood's new blockbusters. In recent years, movies have given us goofy guys, sensitive guys, horny guys--but they've been short on tough guys since the heyday of Schwarzenegger and Stallone in the '80s. Now the he-man is making a comeback.

Testosterone is the hot new hormone of the moment, and a national mood of male defensiveness and defiance--World Wrestling Federation! Maxim!--is being reflected in a wave of aggressively macho movies about soldiers, fighters and killers. Susan Faludi wrote about male resentment of women's advances in her best-selling "Backlash," and she returned to the subject of male malaise in her latest tome, "Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Man."

In that book, Faludi writes of the disillusionment experienced by baby boomers on their "mission to manhood": "It's as if a generation of men had lined up at Cape Kennedy to witness the countdown to liftoff, only to watch their rocket--containing all their hopes and dreams--burn up on the launch pad."

At the movies, this generation of malcontents can vicariously embrace its dreams of glory. Tough guys have taken command of the multiplex.

First "U-571," a World War II submarine movie, knocked "Rules of Engagement," a military courtroom melodrama, out of the No. 1 spot at the box office. Then "Gladiator," a triumphant revival of the long-defunct sword-and-sandal epic, outstripped both of them, taking in almost $35 million in its first weekend.

Unlike these other two guy-fests, "Gladiator" does have one significant female character--the seductive sister of the twisted emperor Commodus. But the bulk of the movie consists of men battling one another with swords, clubs and flaming arrows, with the fiercest and most aggressive of the bunch (Russell Crowe's Maximus) naturally winning.

These are not the only testosterone flicks to hit the runway recently. We've had the boxing movies "The Hurricane" and "Price of Glory," the wrestling comedy "Ready to Rumble" and the dark urban fantasy "Fight Club," which also centered on white-collar guys proving their manhood by beating one another to a bloody pulp.

Even the current supernatural fantasy "Frequency" puts two macho men--a cop and his fireman father--at the center of the story and celebrates the kind of death-defying father-son bonding session that might have been dreamed up by Robert Bly at one of his wilderness weekends.

You can find the same nostalgia for yesterday's fighting man in bestsellers like "The Greatest Generation" and in the never-ending cycle of World War II documentaries on the History Channel.

"In an increasingly complex world, people identify with very simple values," observes Kevin Misher, president of production at Universal, the studio that released "U-571."

"We live in an age where valor is a forgotten value," says Jonathan Mostow, the film's director. "Everything today is about money and celebrity. We are searching for heroes who embody the values we wish we had."

Walter Parkes, the co-head of DreamWorks Pictures and one of the executive producers of "Gladiator," concurs.

"We don't live in a particularly heroic time," he says. "There is a longing for more absolute values."

Not all of these manly movies have been equally successful. "Price of Glory" and "Ready to Rumble" were flat-out flops, and even the heavily hyped "Fight Club" was a box-office disappointment. Perhaps audiences can more readily buy into the myth of the heroic warrior when the character is placed in a more distant time.

The novelty value of "U-571" and "Gladiator" shouldn't be underestimated, either. World War II submarine adventures thrived in the 1940s and '50s with such films as "Destination Tokyo," "Torpedo Run" and "Run Silent, Run Deep," but the genre hasn't really been represented since 1981's "Das Boot," and that German film had limited exposure in the hinterlands. As for Roman toga movies, you'd have to go back 40 years to "Ben-Hur" and "Spartacus" to find one that succeeded.

One reason for this revival of guy movies is that the executives and the filmmakers want to recapture the movie experiences they loved while they were growing up. "We have a chance to do the kinds of movies that brought us to Hollywood in the first place," says Misher, who identifies "The Great Escape" as his personal favorite.

Mostow also traces his interest in "U-571" back to his childhood. "Subliminally, the Second World War was a part of my growing up," he says. "My parents' generation fought the war. We played with G.I. Joe and had a U.S. Army surplus tent in our backyard. I never saw a submarine movie I didn't like. I can still remember the feeling of excitement I had when I saw 'Das Boot' 20 years ago. Some movies make that kind of incredibly vivid impression."

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