There's great danger for the loneliest ranger of all.

Friday, May 21, 2004

Ahhh! Finally! A spare moment. What have I done this week? Oh, yes, I'd like to talk about the movie Miracle, if I may, and specifically the career of one of the greatest soul brothers in all of show business, Mr. Kurt Russell. I LOOOOVE Kurt Russell with every heterosexual scintilla in my body. I don't care if the rest of the movie's tinted stock footage of sheep taking rain-soaked dumps in a landfill of roiling vomit (the plotline of 3 Thousand Miles To Graceland), as long as Kurt Russell peeks around a corner within camera range, Mr. and Mrs. Hollywood, my seven bucks is yours.

I like Kurt because he reminds me of my dad, the kinda permanent-smiled dude who float-bops around creation in tanktops and shorts, digs the sky, digs the trees, digs the people, and is just happy to be alive. You could probably call him "Kurt" to his face. He gives the impression that he'd share a beer with you--maybe even match you--and waste an afternoon on your porch just shooting the shit. What makes this impression all the more remarkable is that Kurt's been in showbiz now for, what, over 40 years or something! He was a child actor! The guy probably can't remember a minute when he wasn't standing in front of a camera or poring over a script, and, with a few rough patches here and there, has somehow sustained this career with ease, weathering puberty, wild-in-the-streets youth, and middle age, and is still a bankable name. And despite having maintained a successful adult career since at least 1981, he remains grateful to those who've shaped his legend. Did he need to do Escape From L.A., John Carpenter's geek-awaited sequel to the 1981 classic, Escape From New York? Fuck, no. But he did. Why? Because he loved Snake Plissken, and John's an old running buddy who helped him make that transition from punk kid to badass cat in gems like Elvis, Escape, The Thing (which outclasses the awesome original, in my opinion), and the ever-beloved Big Trouble In Little China. If you ever chance to hear the Carpenter/Russell exchanges on any DVD commentary, you're in for a treat:

CARPENTER: Kurt, you remember doin' tequila shots between takes?
RUSSELL: Do I! Get all warm and fuzzy inside, sure was cold up there, wadn't it? HEH HEH HEH HEH HEH HEH HEH HEH HEH!
CARPENTER: That stuntman flyin' the helicopter used to be your brother-in-law.
RUSSELL: Yeah, talked to ol' Jack last week. He's doin' good. Sends his regards. Boy, he sure looks younger there. More hair! HEH HEH HEH HEH HEH HEH HEH!
CARPENTER: We ALL had more hair then.

Now, I'm not mimicking these commentaries to ridicule Mr. Russell. Au contraire; I find it more refreshing to hear two lifelong buddies riffing nostalgic over old good times than the boring gracious gentlemanly gladhanding that usually occupies that precious layer. You can actually turn the movie off and just listen to them and it's like they're in your living room for a couple hours, sippin' the white man's elixir and chuffin' on nature's habit, where at any given moment the conversation threatens to splinter into recollections of high school and Friday nights under the lights and nobody deigns to talk about movies at all--AND YOU DON'T CARE. Because you're in the presence of greatness--not in a sense of genius or social accomplishments, but of survived years and prosperity in spite of life's usual bullshit, with good-natured spirit intact. The old "Why fret if life be sweet?" trip.

Anyhow, where was I? Oh, yes: Miracle. A righteous dose of schmaltz with two things going for it:

1.) Kurt Russell (see above)
2.) 1980 U.S. gold-medal hockey team

I'm not much of a sports fan anymore, but for some reason, I love sports-themed movies. Bull Durham, Eight Men Out, Bang The Drum Slowly, North Dallas Forty, The Longest Yard, Field Of Dreams, Hoosiers (Hoop Dreams remains in a class alone, with the added intoxicating drama of real life in an already gripping, can't-stand-it American tale), the original Angels In The Outfield, The Sandlot--the list is endless. Never been able to enjoy hockey films, though, unless you count the sans Chris Kline/LL Cool J Rollerball, which was more roller derby with a murderous bent. The only hockey movies I can think of offhand are the Rob Lowe vanity vehicle Youngblood, Outsiders-lite, with Patrick Swayze and Lowe preening in small-town Aqua Net angst; Slap Shot, which was far too enamored of its own verbal depravity to succeed as a movie; and the Mighty Ducks franchise that spawned a real-life team and earned Emilio Estevez a couple nice paychecks.

But I've always felt a kinship with the story behind Miracle. I was eight years old in the winter of 1980, when the U.S. hockey team shocked the world by clinging to a tenuous lead by their bleeding gums and upsetting the unbeatable Russians, that diabolical Communist superpower still very much a villainous shadow in the American mindset. I caught that game; I had the fever. Me and my dad cheered them on and whooped as one when the chromakeyed clock in the upper lefthand corner of our family television screen hit naught for the last time. It made such an impact on me that 20 years later, when I wrote the timeline for Rhino's '80s pop culture box, I gave that entry a little extra play, augmenting it with names and figures. So Mike Eruzione, wherever you are, there's a 7-CD set with your name in it forever. And Kajagoogoo.

There were so many ways you could fuck it up: Look at Remember The Titans, hamhanded product slathered in buttered syrup poured by the blind. After leaving the theater your breath smelled like waffles. But with Miracle you're in the confident hands of professional schmaltz dealers who understand the moviegoer's individual limits and keep the truculent string crapola to a relieving minimum, and only to propel the story to its happy ending. What's so great is that it's all mostly true, tailor-made for the Disney treatment. You have a main character, Herb Brooks (K.R., as I call him), who as a young hockey player was cut before the 1960 Olympics and was haunted by its spectre deep into his legendary coaching career, and who did employ unorthodox methods to whip a ragtag buncha New England scrappers no one believed in into modern-day miracle workers and national heroes. You have a player, Jack O'Callahan, who was injured during the astonishing medal run and who was cleared for the Big Game. You have a team that did get their collective buttcheeks ripped from their bodies and handed back to them on their own ice 10-3 by the "Bad Guys," only to emerge victorious against them later in a rally for the history books. Yet there's a depth to this film missing from the other odes to rah-rah; the players seem fully formed human beings with their own histories, not rusted components of a crumbling formula slaving to support the pursuits of a possessed, virtuous protagonist.

And Kurt--Kurt is majestic here. Easily his best performance ever, trumping even his troubled L.A. cop in 2003's Dark Blue, where he has a final scene so powerful I turned it off. He had to play a man who can't believe he's confessing his transgressions, every vile, corrupt, thuggish act he's committed under the pretense of law. But circumstances and tragedy have forced every inflammatory accusation through his lips and into public record, charges that will topple not only his department but also destroy what precious little remains of his own empty life. In Miracle, Kurt vanishes into Herb Brooks, combing his impressive hair into a sensible, late-'70s Steve Garvey 'do and disappearing behind a lifetime of another man's letdowns and jowls, and speaking in that other man's voice. His countenance is otherwise concrete, but every now and then his eyes twinkle with hope and a tiny grin curls haphazardly across his puss like it's peeking around a corner. Even a scene as simple as the one near the end, when Herb gathers his troops and makes them listen to the crowd chanting "U.S.A.! U.S.A.! U.S.A.!" is beyond magical. He huddles them and says in barely controlled glee (well, as barely controlled as Herb can muster), "You heyur dat? ... We can BEAT dese guys!" And you know it too. You want it. You believe it. And that sugary lump, the one you get when something great's about to go down, climbs happily up your throat.

Call me a sap, but, yes, Al Michaels, I do believe in miracles.

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Location: Los Angeles, California, United States
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