starring Aaron Eckhart, Nina Dobrev, Tim Blake Nelson, Clifton Collins, Jr.
screenplay by Hanna Weg and Matt Johnson, based on the novel by Noah Boyd
directed by Renny Harlin
starring Jason Statham, Emmy Raver-Lampman, Josh Hutcherson, Jeremy Irons
written by Kurt Wimmer
directed by David Ayer
by Walter Chaw We live in a blizzard, a brutal ice storm, a maelstrom of jagged information--and rather than bringing us any closer to a collective mean, the weight of what we know shoves us back into our balkanized bunkers. Knowledge can be scary; the truth about who we are and our relative inconsequence is terrifying, humiliating. I don't think we'll ever recover our sense of, if not unity, at least whatever progress we made towards unity. No, not without bloodshed. Not without a reduction in the noise. We weren't designed for this onslaught. We don't have the sorting mechanism for it. It's not like drinking out of firehose--it's like drinking out of Niagara Falls. We are a species bent into the fetal position: from fear, for protection. It's made us mean and mistrustful. "How terrible is wisdom when it brings no profit to the wise." Sophocles nailed it centuries ago. Perhaps that's why movies like the John Wick and Mission: Impossible franchises remain so popular: they exist in worlds where there are discernible rules, populated by men who are good at more than manipulating information for personal gain. We like the idea of that, you see--of expertise and righteous purpose, even if it seems like competence is a myth designed to ensnare children and radicalize the gullible. Didn't we used to be a nation of capable people? Didn't we used to do things that were for the greater good and not merely profitable (and at someone else's expense)? Didn't we used to have causes that weren't only predatory?
I wonder if that's why there are two movies coming out at the beginning of 2024 with roughly the same premise and sporting similarly utilitarian titles about trained assassins called back, reluctantly, into action for causes just and true. I wonder if making humility that consummation devoutly wished isn't akin to bliss when everything is too complex for us to manage without madness. If the circuit is overloaded, simplify it. Renny Harlin's The Bricklayer and David Ayer's The Beekeeper are as lean and competent as their heroes--and, indeed, as their directors, veterans of the franchise wars, bloodied but unbowed, shooting their action clean while telling complementary tales of men abandoned by their professions, even their peers, who are still really good at the one thing they do well. Both films pointedly feature a line explaining why their heroes have left the life of James Bond for ones of quotidian, some would say Sisyphusian, blue-collar toil. For the Bricklayer, it's how a brick holds no surprises for him: it has one function and unfailingly fulfills it. For the Beekeeper, it's how bees are utterly pragmatic about their individual function in maintaining the survival of a hive. Professions as metaphor for stability, protection, the comfort of routine, the lost Eden of social harmony. No one expects more from a bricklayer and a beekeeper than that the bricks are lain and the bees kept.
In The Bricklayer, a rogue agent with a grudge carries out a string of assassinations targeting journalists, which are getting blamed on the CIA in some nefarious plot to make the world...dislike the CIA? As evil masterplots go, it would be like framing Elon Musk for saying "go fuck yourself" to major sponsors of his pet social-media platform. I mean, whatever damage is possible has already been done. The CIA doesn't want the credit, prompting a powerful guy at the agency, tight-faced Tim Blake Nelson, to send bright-eyed novice Kate (Nina Dobrev) after the real assassin. Of course, she'll need help from Steve Vail (Aaron Eckhart), a wizened old agent who has retired to a zen career of laying bricks and has those special sets of skills to take care of bad guys when necessary. Familiar territory, but what makes The Bricklayer interesting is how Eckhart plays Vail as bemused, crinkly-eyed, and kind. His charm is turned up full, and I believe it when he talks about seeking peace following a life of mayhem. Harlin's gift for staging and shooting action hasn't left him, either, and the juxtaposition of Vail's pacific mien with Harlin's maximalist destruction gives the whole enterprise an Eastern feel: This is the kind of movie Beat Takeshi might have made, balanced there at the intersection of sober reflection and violent regret.
I loved the set-pieces in The Bricklayer: a Blade Runner-inspired rooftop brawl that unfolds in the middle of a torrential rainstorm; a crunchy nightclub fight with broken necks and weight-bearing joints; the genuinely disgusting use of a sledgehammer to a hand; and a nicely choreographed final car chase that courses with speed and danger. Even its premise, which one could charitably call perfunctory, is charged with the strange electricity of being uncomfortably current in a world where we have recently witnessed, and continue to witness, the execution of dozens of journalists by an industrialized nation the United States and Europe have bankrolled. The Bricklayer may be naive in thinking the CIA gives a shit if the world knows the shit it's up to, but its naivety is heartbreaking in the modern conversation. Man, I used to believe the United States cared what other countries think of it, too. We were all so innocent then.
David Ayer's The Beekeeper is also behind the arc of our moral degradation. It suggests the highest levels of power in the United States government are engaged in a scheme to separate the elderly from their retirement funds as though it were a ripped-from-the-headlines shocker. It's funny how ridiculous Clint Eastwood's Absolute Power seemed when I was 24--this story of the President of the United States being a homicidal horndog with weird proclivities who tries to cover up a sex murder. Released now, the entire Republican congress would try to suppress it, while 30% of the country would accuse it of "wokeness." True satire is always only documentary. In The Beekeeper, the eponymous Clay (Jason Statham) seeks to avenge the suicide of kindly Mrs. Parker (Phylicia Rashad), who caps herself after falling for an online scam and losing a couple of million dollars she had raised for a charity. Casting Rashad as a risen saint reminds me how during her tenure as the dean of the Chadwick Boseman College of Fine Arts at Howard, she defended serial--and convicted--rapist Bill Cosby, her former co-star. I admire her loyalty to a friend in the same breath that I worry about her advocacy for the young women in her employ and care who might report a sexual assault to her, the most powerful person of authority at their college. How terrible is wisdom when it brings no profit to the wise.
Mrs. Parker kills herself, and Mr. Clay is infuriated. He can't do anything as a beekeeper, but as an ex-professional killer, he starts blowing up call centres and forcing the unctuous hucksters who run them to give up the names of the higher-ups, leading him all the way to 1400 Pennsylvania Avenue. That's right, the American government is a cheap crime syndicate run by opportunistic white-collar criminals using street-thug tactics. As in The Bricklayer, The Beekeeper's thin plot is just the bone upon which Ayer hangs a series of cathartic and brutal action sequences. His differ from Harlin's in that Ayer is more interested in efficiency than in sadism: less slow-motion and more rapid-fire feints and blows. The best of these is a final fight in a hall of mirrored doors between Clay and giant Maori strongman Lazarus (Taylor James)--Clay armed with a shard of broken glass, Lazarus with a knife. It reminded me of the funhouse sequence from The Lady from Shanghai in its shattering of reflective surfaces: the illusions of the security of our most sacred places, destroyed in one propulsive act of insurrection. The Beekeeper is bloody and fun, and I appreciated the portrayal of our President as a lying sack of shit riding a fetid wave of hangers-on and grotesque human family detritus in the post-Trump era. I liked that the President (Jemma Redgrave) was a woman, too, because it's more likely our first woman President will be the product of a cult than of the tatters and rumours of a representative democracy.
The Beekeeper is finally, like The Bricklayer, a specific variety of cathartic propaganda that seeks to reassure us there are secret pockets of King Arthurs hiding amongst us, biding their time until the nation needs them to rise up, shake off the shackles of their disaffection and ordinariness, and save our asses. I'll be interested to see how Alex Garland's upcoming Civil War film portrays the face of America's future. Me, I'm haunted by images of slack-jawed y'all-qaeda domestic terrorists marching the Confederate battle flag into our Capital while shitting excitedly like black-market gibbons. "Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio" has never felt more plaintive as a song lyric. I hear in it an unrequitable longing for a time when we were innocent enough to believe in individual heroes. Now we just have the lesser of two evils: the one threatening fascism here and the other bankrolling it abroad. The lesser of two evils is still evil, after all, and is that really the best we can do? These films are good examples of how we have always been and continue to be sustained by the myth of the American hero: a nation of bricklayers and beekeepers landing on the moon because human achievement was a good thing, and impossible feats weren't impossible for long. But we've stopped going to the moon. And the party that will elect our last President doesn't believe we ever made it there in the first place. Make that into a movie.