Guy Movies
(Don't) Keep Your Shirt On: Sexing the Action Hero
By Lucia Bozzola
Dec 12, 2008

Occasionally while watching a particularly eyebrow-raising, jaw-dropping, assorted facial part-moving moment on film, I wonder if the actor really knows what he’s doing. Not technique-wise (that’s another story)—rather, in a more “is he in on this” way. “Does he grasp the full extent of the pin-up hotness objectification at work” manner. Granted, we’ve all come a long way since the pin-up realm was a strictly female affair, and male physical vanity was synonymous with, um, not-manliness. Female (and sometimes male) delectation of virile male beauty is standard operating procedure in chick flicks, whether it’s Samantha jonesing for her buff neighbor in Sex and the City or teenage girls going all gooey-screechy over that icky vampire in that friggin’ Twilight. When it becomes a regular part of films that are supposed to have a rather more extensive audience appeal (i.e. guys who ostensibly don’t get off at the sight of other guys), however, that gives me pause. And raises my eyebrows.

Take, for instance, Quantum of Solace. I’ve already waxed eloquent about the appeal of Bond 6.0 in Casino Royale because he has some newly discovered emotional complexity to go with the legendary Bond power. He also looks exceptionally fine in a bathing suit (instead of Ursula Andress emerging from the watery depths in a bit of tighty-whitey, it’s Daniel Craig—hee!). The bloom is a bit off the emotional rose in Solace, and for that I heartily blame writer Paul Haggis’s inability to merge a coherent story with some groovy action sequences (I could also blame the other writers, but I don’t think Haggis was hired for his action scene prowess). I don’t have an issue with the desire to take Bond in a more serious direction in order to reclaim him from the rampant buffoonery of the later Moore and later Brosnan iterations. That makes sense. Having Bond look all broody without then building to a genuinely visceral emotional payoff, however, does not. Something has gone seriously awry when the final credits start to roll and I’m still wondering when the story’s climax is going to arrive. The failure of the storytelling is so striking that I couldn’t help but wonder when the filmmakers decided to include one of the more gratuitous scenes of Bond shirtlessness I’ve seen in a while. I can just picture that production meeting. Oookaay, folks, the story of Bond driven by his undying love for the dead Vesper appears to be DOA, so waddaya say we distract the ladies in the audience (because oh, they’ll be there) with some Craig chest? Now, there’s no beach scene…no torture scene either for you pervs…hm…where can it go…I know! Let’s have him open his hotel room door with no shirt on. Problem solved. And given Daniel Craig’s comments in interviews about working out furiously in preparation for Bond, he probably knows exactly why he’s opening that door with no shirt on. Something has to entertain us between car chases.

Hugh Jackman knows, too. Now, I realize that Australia is more to the chick side of the movie-going spectrum (it’s a Big Period Romance!), but you don’t have a John Ford cattle drive western break out in the middle of your Big Period Romance, not to mention shoehorning Saving Private Ryan’s Biracial Children into the third act, without wanting some fellas to show up at the multiplex as well. It’s the trade-off for getting $130 million to spend on the crappiest CGI ever. All four quadrants must come and they must be entertained. So far the plan doesn’t really seem to be working. Regardless, the shirtlessness in question occurs early on in the epic, during the tortuous scenes designed to a) establish Jackman aka The Drover’s macho bona fides (apparently he’s so manly he too can be a Man With No Name), and b) establish the inexorable pull such manliness will have on Nicole Kidman’s tightly laced upper class British lady Sarah. Why yes, twenty minutes into the film I was wondering when Australia was going to hit an iceberg and sink. Anyway, not only does the Drover get into brawls and eschew bosses and camp out under the stars and approve the abrupt shooting of CGI kangaroos, but he also has some PECS. And LATS. And a six-pack that doesn’t involve Foster’s Lager. And how does director Baz Luhrmann show us all this? In a slow motion, close-up sequence of Jackman washing his hair, pouring water over himself, and swinging his head around as he rinses off, of course. Nothing like throwing a shampoo commercial onto the pile of narrative tricks. Jackman is put on display for all to see, but it’s made purposefully, elbow-in-the-ribs ridiculous. Sure he’s pin-up gorgeous, and isn’t it silly (yet yummy)? Cake/have/eat.

It was while watching Transporter 3, though, that the burning question of an actor’s awareness really entered my mind. As in, does Jason Statham really get how deliriously and unusually insane his striptease-to-bash heads is? I couldn’t picture any other action star doing such a number (nor would I want to in some cases). It’s the ultimate combination of macho activity and a discipline more often practiced on screen by female stars demonstrating their seriousness as actresses by taking it all off in the name of Art (or Showgirls). That fine, fine Transporter 2 auteur Louis Leterrier has already gone on the record asserting, with tongue not completely in cheek, that Statham’s lone wolf bag man extraordinaire Frank is the first gay action hero. That’s why he’s never had a love interest before in the series, and that’s why (I suppose) he likes to be well dressed. He certainly takes care to fold his jacket neatly when he takes it off—unless he’s going to strangle someone with it. Leterrier thinks that by tossing a love interest into Part Trois, his successor Olivier Megaton (pow!) and company have messed it all up. I don’t know. Perhaps if Megaton had cast an actress instead of a redheaded clothes hanger, it wouldn’t feel like such a misstep.  Then again, maybe Statham/Frank’s visceral appeal was in danger of becoming too obviously…polymorphous. Leterrier was right, and the folks in charge got nervous. After all, Bond and the Drover have ardent female admirers on screen to assure us Pin-up Action Man is hetero. Up until now, though, Frank Martin has been his own man.

In that way, the presence of the utterly annoying package Valentina makes perfect sense. Long before she starts actively leering at our hero, Frank has already demonstrated that one of the themes of this Transporter will be Frank and the Removal of Clothing, usually for the purposes of combat. The first time is rather innocuous: accessories as garrotes. The second time doesn’t actually include the removal of clothing per se, but the scene does begin with Frank coming back to consciousness wearing only his boxers (thus the eternal question is answered). It’s a pleasing sight and utterly gratuitous. The sullen Valentina decides she’s going to stop being a pill to Frank only after she witnesses the big Strip Fight. Those of us familiar with the Transporter oeuvre know that at some point, Frank will face a room full of adversaries, and he’ll manage to use everything possible in that room to vanquish them.  So when Frank resorts to that tie-as-weapon trick again in this film’s major garage fight set piece, it’s no big deal. But then he keeps going. The belt, jacket, and shirt come off as well, and Megaton cuts to Valentina’s lustful reactions periodically throughout the scuffle. I was wondering who was going to get the pants, but for some unknown reason, Megaton and fight choreographer Cory Yuen (and maybe Statham) decided to stop there. C’est la guerre. Anyway, it’s made quite apparent that the Statham hotness is on display for all those ladies in the audience. So there.

That Frank finally succumbs to Valentina’s unfathomable charms after she makes him be her private dancer/undresser, though, keeps the proceedings nicely askew. Needless to say, he’s less than thrilled to do it. If he’d been willing, well, let’s not even go there. Nevertheless, he does it (again, stopping at the pants—an arbitrary line if ever there was one). Again, we get to see what makes Valentina even more turned on than the thought of chicken Kiev with carrots (don’t ask).  And again, as in his shirtless victory over the final garage thug, the striptease doesn’t un-man him. Au contraire. After his assignation with Valentina, Frank goes on to perform such masterful acts as rescuing his $120,000 Audi W12 from a watery grave and driving it on to a moving train. Good heavens. Could it be that becoming an overt sexual object (at least for women—let’s not get too ahead of ourselves and frighten the vast crowd of homophobes still out there) really is just fine for an action hero?

Maybe. Or maybe they’re just throwing the ladies a bone so we don’t care as much that big popcorn movies are still far more of a man’s world than a woman’s. Hey, at least they’re noticing there are chicks in the audience.

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