Nathan Tyree: It's worse when you smile
There is a moment in Yojimbo where Sanjuro (Toshiro Mifune) has been defeated. He is hiding out, badly beaten, his face a wreck of blood a bruises. We get the now iconic shot of him slumped against a wall, his hair a rat’s nest falling about his head. A ray of light cuts across his face to illuminate his one remaining good eye. Then we learn that it’s worse when he smiles.

AS action films evolved, the heroes mostly stopped being like Sanjuro. That is, human. Action heroes slowly morphed into super-human constructs. The peak of this process came with Arnold Schwarzenegger. Arnold played unstoppable forces of nature taking on entire armies and alien monsters. The stakes got lower and lower as the audience became more and more convinced that the hero could never fail, never die.

But then, John McClane came along. Die Hard took us back to the fallible, destructible, human protagonist. McClane gets hurt. Really hurt. He does dumb shit (like taking off his shoes in the middle of an action movie). John McClane felt like he could lose. Like he could die.

Of course, the dreadful sequels would slowly morph McClane into yet another superman who can somehow outrun fireballs. That makes sense. It’s a cycle that repeats. McClane would give way to The Rock playing unbeatable forces of nature in films that effectively have no stakes at all.

Maybe that means we are just around the corner from a new, mortal, dumb hero who can reinvent action movies again and get us back to something as perfect and moving as broken Sanjuro being told that it’s worse when he smiles.

Comments (1)