Ratpacks and Pack Males

From “American Movie Critics: An Anthology from the Silents Until Now”

Mexican soldier of fortune, shocked that his American jefe would run guns to counterrevolutionaries:
“Would you give someone a gut! to kill your father?”
“$10,000 cuts a lot of family ties.”

-Pike (William Holden) in “The Wild Bunch” (1969, screenplay by Walon Green and Sam Peckinpah)

Anybody who says money is the root of all evil doesn’t have it! Money can’t buy happiness? Look at the fucking smile on my face. Ear to ear, baby. You wanna hear details? I drive a Ferrari 355 cabriolet. I have a ridiculous house on the South Fork. I’ve got every toy you can imagine. And best of all, kids, I am liquid.
-Jim Young (Ben Affleck) in “Boiler Room” (2000, screenplay by Ben Younger)

You’re in a privileged position to learn a thing or two if you can keep your mouth shut and your eyes open … If this shit shakes you up, I’ll drop you at Rampart so you can pitch a bitch to the Captain and get a nice job lighting flares and measuring wrecks. Decide now if you want to be a wolf or a sheep.
-Alonzo (Denzel Washington) in “Training Day” (2001, screenplay by David Ayer)

The history of American movies is in part the history of guys running in gangs, in wolfpacks and in posses searching for … just what, exactly? Tony Montana (Al Pacino) in “Scarface” defined American manhood thus: “First you get the money, then you get the power and then you get the women.” But if it were merely about the pesos, the prowess and the pussy a man wouldn’t need the company of men. He travels fastest who travels alone – or so they say. Yet in the way a tree falling in the forest needs a witness to hear it, so, too, a man in the wilderness needs another man or men to witness his fall or rise. Or so the movies say.

Whether you call them buddy pictures or action flicks, the testosterone testaments of men performing manly deeds outdoors are a bracing contrast to those so-called chick flicks, the estrogen flashes in which women talk about their inner lives in interior spaces. In the syntax of classical Hollywood cinema, men embody action and women interrupt it. Which may be why it’s easier to cite male “feelings” movies – i.e., “Bang the Drum Slowly” and “Stand by Me” (both of which, of course, take place on the road) – than it is female “action” pictures (after “Aliens”, then?). Typically, buddy films exclude or marginalize women while chick flicks include and are preoccupied with men. As an exercise in gender-trending, try imagining the scenarios in this issue – “Boiler Room,” “Training Day” and “The Wild Bunch” – with all-female protagonists. Can’t? Neither can I. But I do believe that understanding masculinism is a feminist act. It’s instructive to be a gal in no-woman’s-land.

Almost inevitably, American movies about men in packs have frontier settings. Often it’s the West, as in “The Wild Bunch,” where Pike (William Holden) and his posse elude the authorities at a succession of campsites and villages just across the Rio Grande in Mexico. But just as often the frontier is virtual, as in the cinderblock strip mall in “Boiler Room.” There the boys, nomads in suits on speakerphones hustling worthless stock to suckers, pitch their telecommunications tent in a Long Island industrial park in the ethical frontier fifteen miles and a million light years from Wall Street legitimacy. Similarly in “Training Day,” the turf patrolled by LAPD detective Alonzo Harris (Denzel Washington) and his young recruit, Jake Hoyt (Ethan Hawke) is an unpoliced state where lawmen and lawless make their own rules. That borderland so aptly described as “the meeting point between savagery and civilization,” by Frederick Jackson Turner in his 1893 thesis, “The Significance of the Frontier,” is the sine qua non of the American male-action flick. Only in the frontier can a man experience that twin rush of the adrenal and hormonal. Only in the frontier can a man choose what kind of man he is, whether the wilderness will master him or whether he will master it. Only in the frontier can a man experience the challenge of maintaining a moral code in an immoral world.

Even “Ocean’s Eleven,” both versions, features its respective ratpack burrowing through that ultimate frontier town of Las Vegas. By contrast, non-American movies about men in pairs or packs (“Going Places” and “Y Tu Mamá También” come to mind) do not use the landscape as a correlative for character, they do the reverse by using the setting to show the protagonists’ alienation from their contexts. In American male-action flicks, landscape is character. Think of the men on horseback stumbling across the sands and arid arroyos in “The Wild Bunch,” unchanged men in changing times, the very ground they travel upon shifting under them. Think of the cops who fail to stay within the lines and the lanes-of the streets they cruise in “Training Day.” Or of the Wall Street watering holes where Seth (Giovanni Ribisi) of “Boiler Room” waves wads of cash, grunts tribal grunts and feels out of place, a bridge-and-tunnel barbarian at the gates rather than the Manhattan citizen he aspires to be.

The casual iconographer of men-in-packs films cannot fail to note that on the visual level it’s largely about the wilderness, the weapons and the wheels. (Or hooves. Yet whether steed or car, horsepower revs up these films.) Men size up the tools packed by other men much as they size up their vehicles. Men in these movies are always watching other men, whether it’s Deke (Robert Ryan) spying on Pike via binoculars, or Jake keeping his eyes open and mouth shut as Alonzo plays cock of the walk, ditto Seth, saucer-eyed, at the cocky charisma of Jim (Ben Affleck). The implicit question is, do his tools and transport better equip him for the frontier than mine prepare me? Pike packs a Winchester and rides tall astride a chestnut stallion. In “Training Day,” Alonzo wears twin Glocks, symbolic biceps that he flexes to impress and intimidate Jake; Alonzo’s “office” is a 1977 lacquer-black Monte Carlo, Darth Vader on wheels. (Jake’s rusted blue junker lacks the protective skin of Alonzo’s chrome-plated tank, but it is Jake’s car that survives.) In “Boiler Room,” Seth is dazzled by the Ferraris flaunted by the brokers at J. T. Marlin, and also by the way they play their phone handsets, power tools of the trade, instruments used to seduce and to bilk.

One might well ask about these movies where the men are men, the women are whores and the money is stolen, do females factor in the calculus? Not much, with the exception of Debbie (Nia Long), the secretary in “Boiler Room” who serves as a confidante and moral compass. They’re either biddies (the temperance workers in “The Wild Bunch”) or babymakers (Jake Hoyt’s wife in “Training Day”) or bitches in heat who attach like iron filings to the magnet of corrupt male power. (In defense of the B-word: Both “Boiler Room” and “Training Day” use the expression “pitch the bitch.” In “Boiler Room, it’s used as a warning – “don’t pitch the bitch,” as in don’t sell to women because they’re too high-maintenance. In “Training Day,” “pitch a bitch” means to complain. Bitch, bitch, bitch: Noun, verb, sex object.)

To a female, the maleness of these films is transgressive and thrilling. Watching them I feel like Darla of “The Little Rascals” allowed to crash the He-Man Woman-Hater’s Club. One hears the maleness in the phallic language – “you two-bit red necked peckerwood” is a put-down in “The Wild Bunch” while the “Boiler Room” barbarians pump themselves up by calling each other “big, swinging dicks.” One sees masculinity’s lethal charisma in the preening-rooster performances of antagonists Pike, Alonzo and Jim, surrogate Bad Dads for young heroes (Angel, Jake and Seth) hunting for authority figures. One intuits that the secret password of the fraternity is explosive laughter – especially that of Pike and Alonzo – that tears through flesh like a fusillade of 9mm bullets. (Note to aspiring screenwriters: These are films in which one brutal laugh is worth a thousand words.)

But most of all one experiences the maleness in story structure and editing rhythm. I’m not the first and I won’t be the last to note that the structure of the men-in-packs film might be compared to sex. It’s about building tension through dialectical editing, escalating to an orgasmic finale. But as significant as the build-up is the letdown: All three of the films end with a reflective coda that feels positively post-coital, elegiac. (Perhaps here is the place to note that David Ayer’s first draft for “Training Day,” much more pensive than the final film, might have been the exception, but the studio demanded a conventional shoot-’em-up denouement, which for this viewer is not as dramatically satisfying as Ayer’s original in which the showdown between Alonzo and Jake is psychological, not physical. And in which Jake begins and ends his longest day by seeing himself reflected in the eyes of his wife.)

Historically, in movies directed by women as far-flung as Dorothy Arzner, Penny Marshall and Gina Prince-Bythewood, the Big Dramatic Moment takes place in what seems like real time, typically in a continuous take where tension between characters builds inside the frame. In the men-in-packs movies (which, with the exception of Kathryn Bigelow’s “Point Break,” typically are manmade), the dramatic tension is ratcheted up through lightning editing. The Big Dramatic Moment occurs in transfigured time. Transfiguring the tempo suggests that these characters exist outside the time/space continuum; it exalts them into myth. “The Wild Bunch” was influential in this regard. In the late ’60s, the average American movie had 600 cuts. “The Wild Bunch” has 3,600. Peckinpah shot his showdowns from six different angles and as many film speeds, giving him the ability to compress and elongate the same sequence by taking a slo-mo shot and accelerating it with blitzkrieg cuts. The editing simulates the spurt of ejaculation, the spray of gunfire, the splatter of blood. It’s about discharge – in every meaning of the word. While director Antoine Fuqua films the assassination of Alonzo in “Training Day” in a bullet-riddled tribute to Peckinpah, for “Boiler Room,” writer/director Ben Younger uses a hip-hop soundtrack and shock cuts to convey the jumpy rhythms – and jangled central nervous systems – of its men.

Before, I mentioned the elegiac codas. From “The Wild Bunch” to “Road Trip,” men-in-packs sagas are almost inevitably about the death of a masculine ethos. Pike, Alonzo and Jim are pitching lifestyles that no longer are viable, they are father figures literally or symbolically killed off in these riffs on Oedipus. (In “Boiler Room,” Seth needs to follow the example of Jim, the mentor, in order to re-connect with his real father, a judge who sits in judgment of him.) Each of the men who once were eager initiates of these fraternities sees that his invincible mentor is all too vincible, sees that the pack no longer has power. Each must, in the way of all myth, blaze his own path.

Significantly, in these films He who is watched dies and He who watches lives. This is the way Hollywood constructs the male double-bind: At least since OK Corral, He who is the spectator feels impotent but lives; He who is the spectacle feels potent but dies. (Contrast with the female double-bind – circa Salem – She who is not a witch, drowns; She who is, floats and gets hung.) Men travel in packs not because misery loves company or because there is safety in numbers. Men travel in packs in order to watch the spectacle – and schadenfreude – of the Alpha Male go South.