Posted by David Kalat on December 28, 2013
We are here today to praise the drunkards. Specifically, drunk heroes.
But let me clarify what I mean by this–because there are plenty of drunks in cinema, and many of them are protagonists or sympathetic supporting characters. That’s not what I mean. I’m more interested in the rare subspecies of such characters where their imbibing is actually integral to their heroism, not a character flaw.
By way of an example, let’s start with an edge case and see where it does or does not fit my criteria: Robert Mitchum’s Sheriff from El Dorado. There is a moment where Mitchum is stalking an assassin who has retreated into a saloon. The killer is surrounded by armed compatriots, and Mitchum actually isn’t sure what the bad guy looks like (he has at best a hazy description). If he sets foot in the saloon he’ll be wildly outnumbered, and in enemy territory–but he’s got one advantage. He’s a known drunk who just humiliated himself minutes earlier.
His enemies underestimate him severely, and he uses that to his advantage.
So, for that one scene, Mitchum’s rumminess is a plus. But in the rest of the film, his alcoholism is a character failing that he must overcome–indeed the point of El Dorado is to highlight how his drinking has become a problem with substantial negative externalities (fancy lawyer talk for “hurts other people”).
So let’s switch our attention to The Avengers. The classic TV series, mind you, not the unrelated blockbuster Robert Downey Jr. movie, and certainly not the miserable Ralph Fiennes movie allegedly based on the TV series. I know this is a movie blog, not a TV blog, but I don’t much truck in the distinction between TV and movies (they’re both moving pictures), and even if I did I’m not about to advocate that anyone spend their time watching that Ralph Fiennes/Uma Thurman misfire. The classic TV series is another matter, however.
Right from the opening titles, our heroes’ love of champagne is made part of the premise, but only in a playful and positive way. John Steed is a professional secret agent (which means his colleague Emma Peel is a “talented amateur”!)–in real life you’d think that their never-ending cocktail hour would prove an impediment to, I dunno, reliable aim, but what else about The Avengers resembles “real life”?
In one of my favorite scenes from the 1980s run of The Avengers, Steed has a bottle of bubby flown in by helicopter in the middle of a shootout. The man has his priorities straight. (And what’s that famous saying? Don’t bring a gun to a gunfight, bring champagne?)
Patrick McNee even appeared in character as John Steed in ads for Laurent-Perrier champagne.
Of course Steed has nothing on Nick and Nora from the Thin Man series.
Again, you’d think that maybe the hero’s ability to solve absurdly overcomplicated whodunnits might be compromised by such a high blood alcohol level, but Mr. and Mrs. Charles seem to get by just fine. Certainly they have more fun.
Jackie Chan’s Drunken Master doesn’t have more fun, but he does depend on drunkenness to enhance his abilities–in his case, not only doesn’t alcohol get in his way, it’s absolutely essential. Like spinach to his Popeye.
How’s that, you say? Well, it starts with a 1978 kung fu flick called Drunken Master. The plot involves Jackie Chan learning a specialized kung fu technique in which alcohol is used to dull his sense of pain and loosen up his fighting style to unpredictable–and thereby unbeatable–extremes. It’s a perfectly serviceable action movie, and one of Chan’s best early efforts.
But then in 1994, Chan came along and updated the material as an ostensible (but freestanding) sequel released in the US as The Legend of Drunken Master. This altogether nuttier, loonier action comedy isn’t just one of Chan’s best early films, it’s one of his best full stop (Time Magazine identified it as one of the 100 best films ever made). The plot hinges in part on the challenge faced by a “drunken master” in mastering the right balance of drunkenness to be an effective fighter without being just, y’know, drunk.
And I’ll finish off by drinking a toast to Strange Brew, a delirious retelling of Shakespeare’s Hamlet starring Bob and Doug MacKenzie. The film’s baddie is Max Von Sydow as a sinister brewing magnate plotting to conquer the world with a mind-control potion added to his company’s beer. Bob and Doug stumble across this plot and foil it–by drinking the entirety of the tainted batch!
This isn’t a complete list, but it’s not as if Hollywood has filled the screen with positive images of drinking. Moralizing about drinking, yes, there’s been plenty of that. To which I say phooey. As 2013 comes to a close and I raise a glass to the incoming 2014, I’d prefer to share the moment with the likes of Nick Charles, Wong Fei Hung, or John Steed. They had it all figured out.
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