Sunday, December 28, 2008


My brother David is a member of Netflix, and he brought over both "Tropic Thunder" and "The Dark Knight" last night. I'd seen "The Dark Knight" during my two weeks in Portland-- opening night, in fact-- but missed "Thunder," which turned out to be a hilarious study of the Hollywood megastar's fragile, overinflated ego. "Thunder" also featured Tom Cruise in what I now consider his best role ever. Unlike some critics, I don't think Cruise is a bad or at-best-mediocre actor, and the fact that Cruise is a crazy Scientologist doesn't prevent me from enjoying his performances. Get him in the right role, with a good script and his usual intense commitment, and Cruise generally delivers. If you haven't seen "Tropic Thunder," watch it just for Cruise who, bizarrely enough, makes Jack Black's turn in that same movie look tame by comparison.

Last night was only my second time viewing "The Dark Knight." I thought the film was great on first viewing, and it was just as good (not to mention more comprehensible) the second time around. While watching last night, I had an epiphany about Christian Bale's approach to Batman's voice, and I'm sharing this insight with you all because a lot of the audience members in Portland laughed at Bale's breathy, gravelly delivery; you might have, too. Bale's Batman voice does seem way over the top, and stands in contrast with Michael Keaton's more restrained version of same. (You'll recall that, in Keaton's version of the Batman, Keaton simply keeps his voice low and his sentences short à la 80s-era Schwarzenegger, but without the accent.) Bale's delivery ultimately makes sense; you just have to approach it in the right spirit.

Actors usually have to think through their parts and delve into their characters' psyches before they can "inhabit" an assigned role. One shortcut method, though, is simply to channel the delivery of another actor, and last night it occurred to me that Bale was basically doing an impression of the current Clint Eastwood-- old, gruff, gravelly, impatient with stupidity. Compare Bale's delivery to Eastwood's voice in the preview trailer for "Gran Torino" (QuickTime required for viewing; lower-quality trailer available on YouTube). The resemblance is striking.

True: an actor with Bale's talent would probably never resort to merely parroting an American icon, but I still recommend viewing Bale's Batman through the Eastwooden* filter. This erases the potential laughability of Bale's delivery: you don't laugh at Clint Eastwood, do you? Also, imagining the spirit of Eastwood inhabiting the Batman isn't a stretch: Eastwood's characters often share personality traits with the Batman, not least of which is a soul-darkness that gives both Eastwood and the Batman their gravitas. If there is a major difference between Eastwood's characters and the Batman, it's in how they approach confrontations. The Batman is all about stealth and psychological warfare; he doesn't shrink from direct combat, but he'd prefer to preserve the element of surprise. Eastwood's characters, by contrast, tend to walk coolly down the middle of the main street, guns drawn, casually picking off whatever enemies bumble into range. Eastwood never hides.

Of course, the Eastwooden filter can help only so much. Eastwood's characters, unlike the Batman, will go there: they'll kill your ass deader than dead, and they'll sleep like a baby afterward. The Batman easily becomes distraught about crossing the line into murder (this was, in fact, the very cord the Joker was tweaking in his conflict with the Batman), so it's unlikely he'll be splattering anyone's brains against the wall. Superimposing the Eastwood paradigm onto Batman might produce unfulfillable expectations.

Still, it's not wrong to associate Eastwood with the Batman. Frank Miller made this possible in his graphic novel, The Dark Knight Returns, which portrays the now 50-something Batman as a man with Clint Eastwood's chiseled head and Arnold Schwarzenegger's freakishly huge neck and body. If you've never seen this combination, trust me: it's terrifying. It's how I imagine the Batman would be if he were real: a bone-crusher very much in touch with his inner Satan, a fighter acquainted with stealth but also willing to duke it out in the open (as happens both in the conflict with Superman at the end of the graphic novel and with the Mutants' leader in the novel's second chapter). Miller's Batman also goes there, using an enemy's machine gun to perforate a gang member holding a gun to the head of a kidnapped child.

So if Bale's Batman is giving you the giggles, imagine the skeletal, demonic shade of Clint Eastwood inhabiting him-- a wicked presence somehow visible through all that body armor. That ought to suck the humor right out of your brain and leave you properly terrified.

For more and better Eastwood worship, read Skippy's review of "Gran Torino."

*You have no idea how much I racked my brains trying to come up with an adjectival form of "Eastwood" that didn't bring sexual arousal to mind. Eastwoodic? Eastwoodish? Eastwoodesque? Eastwoodalian? I eventually gave up and used "-wooden." Works well enough for "wood," after all.



melancholy donut said...

i really like historical dramas and had to go see valkyrie even though i usually go out of my way to avoid tom cruise. i think cruise was well cast and he did a fine job. (i didnt like him very much in tropic thunder -- i liked just about everyone else, though, including jack black.)

as for bale: i agree, i see the similarities with eastwood. bales a very fine actor. hope he sticks around for a while and chooses other more interesting projects in the future.

i didnt know you read comics. have you ever read the watchmen? (i dont read comics or graphic novels save for the odd one or two). im interested in looking out for that older batman though. sounds interesting.

Anonymous said...

I would have gone with "Eastwoodian," but "Eastwooden" certainly has its charms. Interesting take on the Bale voice. I've never laughed at it, but I have often wondered how badly he screwed up his throat doing that.

The wife and I saw Tropic Thunder a few weeks ago. It wasn't very popular here, but we both enjoyed it immensely. I actually didn't realize it was Tom Cruise until halfway through the movie when HJ leaned over and whispered: "That's Tom Cruise." And right then I came to the same conclusion you reached: Best. Cruise. Role. Ever.

The problem with Mr. Cruise is not that he's a bad actor. He's a good actor, but he has such a defined persona that when you watch one of his films you're not seeing the character. You're seeing Tom Cruise playing the character. The fact that I didn't even recognize him (and may not have recognized him if HJ hadn't pointed it out) absolutely blew my mind.

Kevin Kim said...


Those two 80s-era graphic novels, The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller and The Watchmen by Alan Moore (et al.), were practically part of my high school formation! Both stories are in my blood, and perhaps for sentimental reasons, I haven't found a graphic novel since that tops either of them.

I've read four of the Sin City stories: That Yellow Bastard, The Big Fat Kill, A Dame to Kill For, and Hell and Back. Quite good, but still not up to the level of The Dark Knight Returns.

I'm looking forward to the movie version of Watchmen, but am very worried about how such an epic story can be compressed into a two-hour running time. The story contains lots of Big Ideas, many of which can be rendered as visuals, so maybe this will be the way to cut a lot of dialogue and exposition. I'm hoping that some of the speeches from the story will be kept in their entirety, including Dr. Manhattan's stern lecture to Adrian Veidt, Veidt's lecture to Owl and Jupiter, and some of Rorschach's more memorable utterances. Of course, one of the punchlines of the story is "Nothing ever ends." Here's hoping the movie is filmed in that spirit.


Yeah, there are actors who invade a role instead of inhabiting it. De Niro, Eastwood, and Hackman come immediately to mind, as does Laurence Fishburne. All these guys have a limited range, but have explored that range masterfully.