Slide show: From Eastwood and Wayne to Uma and "Shane," some of our favorite cinematic heroes went it alone
The Driver, in “The Driver” (1978)
Before Walter Hill called “The Warriors” out to play, he made this 1978 action film starring Ryan O’Neal, Bruce Dern and a “what am I doing in this movie” Isabelle Adjani. O’Neal plays the titular character, who steals cars to use as getaway vehicles for thieves who hire him. The Driver’s vehicular skills are impeccable, mesmerizing and cause lots of damage to other cars, including but not limited to the numerous police cars that chase him and the very expensive orange Mercedes-Benz of a potential employer who doubts his abilities. As director Hill showcases in several scenes (which you can find on YouTube), the Driver has an almost mythic ability to outsmart law enforcement drivers.
The parallels with “Drive” end there, though at least one director found something of influence in this film. Its Los Angeles is Michael Mann’s City of Angels, a dark, violent OK Corral where two antagonistic men test their mettle (and their pedals to the metal). Dern plays the Detective, the Nemesis of the Driver, and he wants to outsmart the “cowboy who’s never been caught.” Most of Hill’s shaky, though entertaining dialogue goes to him as he plans to entrap his archenemy by setting up a rigged robbery. True to lone wolf form, the Driver says very little, opting to let his screeching tires do the talking for him.
The Driver owes a lot to Jean-Pierre Melville’s “Le samourai,” as do many lone wolf movies. Something tells me this isn’t the last time you’ll be hearing about samurai and cowboys who couldn’t be caught.
Shane, “Shane” (1953)
Jack Schaefer’s novel “Shane” was the first book I was assigned to read in high school. None of my fellow freshmen read it, opting instead for George Stevens’ classic 1953 western. Its lone wolf hero rides into a valley of homesteaders fighting to save their land from evil rancher Rufus Ryker (Ernie Meyer). Shane takes one look at the pretty wife (Jean Arthur) of Joe Starrett (Van Heflin) and gets himself a job as Joe’s hired hand. But this ain’t no ordinary farmer; Shane is a gunslinger from parts unknown. He’s sexier and more prone to idol worship than his boss. Marian Starrett sees the former quality, and her son, Joey (Brandon deWilde), sees the latter. Joey’s fascination gravitates from his father to Shane, like C’s does to Sonny in “A Bronx Tale,” because shooting the hell out of people is a lot more exciting than chopping up a dead tree on one’s land.
Shane has a soft side, gently encouraging Joey while acknowledging, and rejecting, the Jeep-speaker-loud strains of Prince’s “Do Me Baby” emanating from Marian’s eyes. Alan Ladd handles this well, and it doesn’t diminish Shane’s toughness one bit. He’ll need every bit of that toughness because Ryker’s gunning for him, hiring the master of one-armed Oscar push-ups, Jack Palance, to take Shane out.
Shot in Oscar-winning cinematography by Loyal Griggs, “Shane” is most famous for its last scene, where Shane, having taken a bullet that should have gone into Joe Starrett, has a final talk with his biggest fan before making one of the most memorable exits from a western in film history. As he rides off, Joey yells out, “Shane, Shane come back!” But Shane never looks back, nor does he return. The reason why made for one of the more entertaining parts of the Kevin Spacey-Samuel L. Jackson movie “The Negotiator.”
Speaking of memorable exits in westerns …
Ethan Edwards, “The Searchers” (1956)
I cop to not being a big fan of John Wayne, outside of “The Quiet Man” (which I could watch a million times), this film and “Stagecoach.” While the Ringo Kid from “Stagecoach” may be a more fitting selection for this list, I chose “The Searchers” because its influence is widely felt in the canon of lone wolf movies (“Taxi Driver” being a prime example). More important, Ethan Edwards encapsulates the warped psychology of the lone wolf. He knows that community needs to exist, and that it may need him to ensure its creation and/or continued existence. But he wants nothing to do with it once that job has been done. He chafes at the mere notion of being part of a club that would have him as a member, even if he created it.
Edwards believes that bringing back his kidnapped niece, Debbie (Natalie Wood), who may actually be his daughter, is the only way to bring what’s left of his family together. Her parents have been killed, and though she claims she is now a Comanche when Ethan finds her, his code demands that he restore her to what’s left of the family unit, even if he knows he has no place there, nor any reason to continue once his task has been performed.
“The Searchers’” final shot, that of a door closing on the existing Edwards, is both justifiably famous and a visual metaphor for men like Ethan Edwards. Its literal closure sends the lone wolf a message that he is free to return to his oblivion.
The Samurai, “Yojimbo” (1961)
“The Searchers” was directed by John Ford, Akira Kurosawa’s favorite director. Ford once introduced himself by saying “I make westerns,” and Kurosawa follows suit in his own way. “Yojimbo” is a film about a samurai, but its plot and execution feel like a western. The samurai has come to a town with two factions feuding against one another. Their war is destroying the town, so in order to save it, the samurai enters into allegiances with both sides, then proceeds to play them against one another. If this sounds familiar, you may have read Dashiell Hammett’s “Red Harvest.” If that doesn’t sound familiar, but this film still does … hold that thought.
Yojimbo means “bodyguard,” but Toshiro Mifune, who plays the samurai, doesn’t need Whitney Houston to always love him. He’s just looking for food, sake and the next place luck will take him. Luck has brought him to a town that, like in Eastwood’s “High Plains Drifter,” doesn’t deserve to be saved. Kurosawa’s film has a dark humor and bucks the traditional notion of westerns having a distinct set of good and evil characters. “Yojimbo” is a film with a very amoral bent shared by its lead character. When the samurai does something that doesn’t justly serve him, it seems not only out of place but it’s Kurosawa tipping his hat to the simplistic black hat vs. white hat ethic of many westerns.
Two films later, Kurosawa would adapt an Ed McBain cop novel into the superb Japanese procedural “High and Low.” That, too, featured Mifune, and like “Yojimbo,” paid homage to an American genre while also influencing the genre films that followed it.
The Man With No Name, the “Dollars” trilogy
No discussion of lone wolves could be complete if you haven’t been through the desert with the Man With No Name. Clint Eastwood, squinty-eyed, poncho wearing, gunslinging, hat-wearing wanderer walks into three films by Sergio Leone and proceeds to exit each one alone and unscathed. The trilogy changed the way we looked at westerns and made Eastwood a star who could do no wrong, at least not until “Paint Your Wagon.”
The trilogy starts with “A Fistful of Dollars,” a movie so closely resembling Kurosawa’s “Yojimbo” that one of its best sequences (Clint’s coffin predictions) is taken almost verbatim. Still, it maintains Kurosawa’s dark humor and his film’s amorality, so if you’re going to rob, steal something good.
In the second feature, “For a Few Dollars More,” Eastwood’s a bounty hunter at odds with Lee van Cleef, getting into a ridiculous shooting match that doubles as pissing contest. The third feature, “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly,” is the best of the bunch, powered by an absolutely brilliant Eli Wallach and an epic story that finally explains why the Man With No Name preferred to work the way George Thorogood drinks: alone. All three are scored by some of the greatest and weirdest music of the genre, all of it by Ennio Morricone.
Takeshi Kitano is more than just (to quote Wikipedia) “a Japanese filmmaker, comedian, singer, actor, tap dancer, film editor, presenter, screenwriter, author, poet, painter, and one-time video game designer,” he is also a brand. Like Jason Statham, when Kitano is on-screen, he represents a specific type of character, a shorthand almost. You know what you’re getting from him, and it’s usually reliable. Salon’s Matt Zoller Seitz has said that practically every role Kitano has played “could be played by Clint Eastwood in an American remake.” Eastwood is to U.S. films what Kitano is to Japan’s: the quintessential lone wolf (and director of most of his own movies of this type).
So rather than just pick one myself, I’ll turn it over to the readers. Will it be his lone wolf detective wrapped up with the Yakuza in “Hana-Bi”? His henchman working for the Yakuza in “Sonatine”? How about his blind swordsman of Japanese tradition, Zatoichi, who fights the Yakuza to save a village? Or “Brother,” where his former Yakuza member fights the mafia alongside Dr. Foreman from “House”? Maybe his latest, “Outrage,” the Palme D’Or nominee shot in Cinemascope.
Despite his comedic skills, Kitano’s movies tend to be about a similar subject. As Ice-T says in “Johnny Mnemonic,” they are “down with the Yakuza!” Which one are you down with?
The Bride, “Kill Bill Vol. 1 and 2″
The lone wolf can also be a woman. Take Uma Thurman, owner of Quentin Tarantino’s favorite feet and co-owner of the creation known as the Bride, aka Black Mamba aka BEEP! (as she’s known in “Kill Bill: Vol. 1″). She’s a lone wolf, and the first one on our list whose motive is pure, incontrovertible revenge. Seems the Bill in the title, in conjunction with the other women of the Bride’s former group of assassins, has crashed her wedding, killing everyone and putting a slug in the Bride’s brain. She survives, and man is she pissed! The Bride creates a list of people she has to dispatch, and at the top of the list is you-know-who.
“Kill Bill, Vol. 1″ plays like an old samurai movie from the ’70s, something like “Shogun Assassin,” with the Bride slicing her way through half of the Earth’s population with her Hattori Hanzo sword. Vol. 2, slower and more meditative, plays like a spaghetti western. It features yet another metaphor for the lone wolf, the notion of eternal loneliness here embodied by a horrifying (at least for me) sequence on being buried alive. I don’t know if the eventual fate for the Bride qualifies her to keep her status, but until then, she does quite well for herself, by herself.
Unlike “Grindhouse,” “Kill Bill” deserves to stay in two pieces, both of which, in addition to kick-ass work by Thurman, contain Daryl Hannah as one of my favorite one-eyed characters in the cinema. See the next slide for another.
Snake Plissken, “Escape From New York,” “Escape From L.A.”
In 1997, New York City was supposed to be a maximum security prison run by the Duke of New York, whose chandelier-adorned car remains the first thing I’d buy if I got rich. Into this environment, against his will, is “Escape From New York’s” Snake Plissken, the best (but not the only) lone wolf Kurt Russell ever played. Snake just wants to be left alone, but he’s been made a pawn by the Man. If he doesn’t save the president in a certain amount of time, his head will explode. Snake sets off, accompanied by my favorite John Carpenter score, to save the prez and escape the Big Apple. Along the way, he meets Ernie Borgnine and Isaac Hayes (“Duke of New York, A No. 1″), all the while bitching, griping, kicking ass and taking names. In other words, Snake Plissken is awesome.
So awesome that Carpenter brought him back for the inferior sequel, “Escape From L.A.” Snake’s second appearance is notable as depicting the ultimate act of lone wolfdom. After surfing through L.A. with Peter Fonda and catching a glimpse of Universal Studios underwater, Snake presses a button and destroys the world. It’s the biggest middle finger anybody on this list gives, and while I think it’s a dumb ending, I must admire its gutsiness.
Denzel Washington, “The Book of Eli”
“The Book of Eli” is ridiculous, but it presents one of the few examples of a lone wolf played by an African-American actor. It also brings us a religious lone wolf. Denzel plays Eli, a wandering loner who has spent 30 years roaming the West in a post-apocalyptic future. Eli stumbles upon a town run by Gary Oldman and populated by Jennifer Beals and Mila Kunis, two actresses from “so bad they’re good” dance movies. The town also has Tom Waits as a resident, and later, Malcolm McDowell shows up to reveal one of the film’s big WTF moments.
Nobody dances in “The Book of Eli,” but we learn that the book is that best-seller that features Jesus Christ and Moses. The entire thing plays as if 1983′s nuclear apocalypse TV movie “The Day After” and the religious film series “Left Behind” had a baby. Eli turns down nookie from the Black Swan, instead offering to pray with her. Later, Eli recites the entire Bible from memory, which must really make those televangelists green with hellacious envy.
More apocalypse next.
Mad Max, “Mad Max,” “The Road Warrior,” “Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome”
When you think of Mel Gibson, what’s the first thing that pops into your mind? If you said “sugar tits,” congrats! You’re in my head! But if you said Mad Max, you’d be a fan of George Miller’s trilogy about the bleak, dystopian future of Max Rockatansky (yes, that’s his last name). The first film shows how Max became a lone wolf, avenging the brutal death of his wife and son. At the end of “Mad Max,” Max gives the makers of “Saw” their initial idea before riding off into the sequel, “The Road Warrior.”
Widely considered the best of the three, “The Road Warrior’s” kinetic orgy of violence, made credible and spectacular by director George Miller, stung with brutality and incredible car chases. “Drive’s” action sequences sound much like those of “The Road Warrior,” which bodes well for its box office. But will it have the courage to have its main character disappear, presumably forever, as Mad Max does at the end of “The Road Warrior”?
Unfortunately for many fans, Max reappeared in “Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome,” the bleakest and least hopeful of the three. I know I’ll be alone in saying I actually liked “Thunderdome,” its Tina Turner theme song “We Don’t Need Another Hero” song and all. I’m a lone wolf on that one. Howl!