2 Guns, Safehold, and Political Defaults

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2 Guns has received solid reviews as an action comedy, but this movie is solid silver.

(I reserve the term solid gold for those movies where the credits roll and you want to shout at the screen to let you back into that world.)

It’s widely known that this movie was originally intended for a pair of comedians, but I cannot imagine this movie without Denzel Washington and Mark Wahlberg.  A script originally written for comedians played by more serious action and drama actors managed to maintain a balance between the genres that surpasses most attempts, where the comedy drowns the action or the action kills the humor.  The serendipitous combination of the new actors give the film more latitude to go either direction so that the humor isn’t missed when it is inappropriate, and when the action eases the humor can take the lead without taking away from the gravity of the heroes’ predicament.  2 Guns begins firmly in the comedy department, and then leans towards action-thriller as the story progresses.

Blake Masters and Steven Grant put together an increasingly rare treat: a film with persistent comedy that does not revolve around profanity.  Swearing, like nudity in this movie, only appears when it is relevant to the story.  The change in verbal gears is praiseworthy by itself, but it means that when the jokes do flow, they flow with wit, situational awareness, and deft irony.  I was pleasantly surprised many times.  There are moments of banter, but the film rejects the Whedonesque reliance on repartee as much as it rejects reliance on profanity.

Comedy has relied on stock characters since the Greco-Roman plays, but good comedy does not confuse character depth with character growth, and none of the main characters are static.  “Bobby” (Washington) journeys from a false sense of independence that has destroyed and estranged his relationships to openly admitting relationships.  I was particularly fond of this journey because it was not just the journey of a womanizer to valuing ‘real love’ but it was also a non-sexual acceptance of meaning in his friendship, which isn’t as common in American cinema in general, but 2 Guns avoided self-mocking homophobic gay jokes in the developing partnership (one of the few blemishes in the otherwise excellent first few Lethal Weapon movies), another excellent departure from buddy-cop tropes.  Michael (Wahlberg) ‘grows up’ less visibly in the story, but there is more than enough inferred that his path from blind allegiance to disappointment may yet recover to a more balanced loyalty to his country.

For the second time in two weeks I was treated to movies where the one-liners were superb.  Both Washington and Wahlberg get their fare share, but they are also as different as the characters themselves.  Military-intelligence-trained Michael fires off a crack about the drug cartel people shooting at chickens buried in the ground up to their necks for target practice, “That’s not fair.  At least give the chickens guns so they can shoot back.”  And Bobby plays off of it by pointing out that Michael is actually eating a chicken as he advocates the poultry’s right to self-defense.

Edward James Olmos and Bill Patton are not the only supporting actors (there are many, and they all put in good performances) but they are two of the best non-Bond villains I’ve encountered in a long time.  Olmos’ character, Papi Greco, is a drug-dealer who is both intelligent and bitingly post-colonial in his commentary without being one bit weak.  He’s aged a bit since Battlestar Galactica but Olmos delivers.  That being said, Bill Paxton’s role as a corrupt CIA official is equally well done, although I’m sick to death of Hollywood stereotypes about moral corruption in that agency.  Everyone I’ve ever met, read, or watched in the intelligence community have been intelligent and pretty nice guys.

The action choreography was neither flashy nor understated, and Baltasar Kormakur does a wonderful job.  Both of the heroes come across as tough and well-trained without stepping over the line into pulp fiction.  No one shrugs off bullet wounds, they actually have to get stitched up.  While there are a few flashes of self-defense work, the answer to guns is guns, and so it remains.  No one pulls an Equilibrium bullet-dodging and slapping guns out of the hands of trained, armed men.  Likewise, there are car chases and explosions, but they are neither gratuitous or overstated.  If a 3-meter explosion works, you won’t see a 10-meter one just because there was enough extra in the budget for some napalm.  This doesn’t just please me as an action fan, it bolsters the story nicely.  The merely-human heroes are faced with so many problems tangled up in each others’ angles that Kormakur maintains dramatic tension to the end.

There’s little else that I can say without giving something away that would rob someone of the joy of experiencing it themselves, but I heartily endorse this one, so go… see for yourselves!  You won’t regret it.

***

In mid-July I returned to the Safehold books by David Weber.  I write and read lost-colony fiction with delight, and Safehold has some of my favorite premises of all time.  An alien race wipes out almost all of humanity, tracking them by the emissions of advanced technology, and only a single hidden colony escapes at a terrible price.  The colony’s leaders erase all memory of Earth (part of the plan) and program the colonists to worship them as archangels (NOT part of the plan) in a technology-hating revision of Anglo-Catholic deism.  Of course, there are a pair of hopes for humanity.  The first is a free-thinking, outnumbered sea nation (because even when his stories take place in space, Weber always seems to write about reformation-to-Napoleon-era England) and the other is Nimue Alban, the last surviving member of the original space crew whose mind was downloaded into an immortal android body.  Going about as the male hero named Merlin, Lt. Alban is on a mission to get the planet back on track, rebuild society after 700 years hiding in the middle ages, and then build a fleet to defeat the enemy more powerful than earth and all its colonies combined.

I say I returned to the Safehold books because I’m going to be here for a while.  Weber cranks out about 2 million words worth of prose per year.  The books that he does turn out are long.  His earlier books are stronger in the pacing department for two reasons.  First, when he wrote the first four or five Honor Harrington books Weber was a relative unknown, but as he became more successful, he seems to have reached the status of Golden Goose much as the late Robert Jordan about halfway through the Wheel of Time series.  Suddenly editors stopped cutting out five-page-long tangents and simply trusted that if the writer needed to interrupt a sword fight to discuss the history of metallurgy in society for a few dozen minutes in mid-swing of the heroe’s life or death struggle, they knew what they were doing.

What’s great about Safehold?

David Weber is one of the better world-builders in the business.  When it comes down to the fundamental Story Question, Weber has it down.  He builds interesting political systems highly informed by actual history.  His knowledge of military technology and the science of the industrial revolution are stunning.  I have spent time pursuing physics and history degrees, and I still learn something new every time I read one of Weber’s Safehold books.  He does his research.  His political systems are balanced and credible.  His heroes are interesting.

The sea battles are amazing.  Weber’s characters are mostly static, mostly bold brush strokes, but he has such a broad case in the world-wide plot that it doesn’t become as tiresome as it might.  They swash, buckle, and flair their way through the story like stage actors in Shakespeare.  If it isn’t super-nuanced, neither is a burden, and fun is had by all.

One of the big draws in this book is the ongoing nod to slightly-old fashioned nerd culture, CS Lewis, Arthurian Legend, and more show up all the time.  Merlin emerges from hiding in a secret cave in the mountains, and of course Nimue’s name is no coincidence.  The surveillance drones Merlin uses are called SNARKS, and it keeps going from there.  His secret base AI is called owl.

I said in my ‘about’ page that I would cry foul on gratuity, and one of my least favorite forms of gratuity is political sniping.  Weber has a lot of fun with names (the tall, Superman-looking Marine captain is named Kent Clark, for example.)  Some of his uses are not so innocent.  The corrupt man in control of the church’s (world’s) military is a sexually immoral hypocrite Weber named Clinton (the spelling is changed.)  And the first book in the series was written during the Bush years when President Clinton occupied a lot of the feelings and disrespect on the Right that Bush now enjoys from the Left.  This is just free cheap shot stuff to please the audience, and it’s not terribly helpful unless you’re deliberately writing political satire.  Just because David Weber’s closer to my political leanings than most authors (He’s published by BAEN) doesn’t make it any better for him to do what I’m so thoroughly nauseated by the opposition doing.  Don’t make your opponents’ name a curse word.

Mind you, this is trivial compared to making entire movies about assassinating a look-alike to the sitting president, as was done during the Bush years, but two wrongs don’t make a right.  If you don’t like the fact that the Republicans are the bad guys in every political drama ever shown on TV, then don’t be part of the problem.

Accepting those weaknesses, I am a fan of the series.  Yes, there is a corrupt church, but there are many people of genuine faith within (and later outside of) it.  There is a lot of technical details, but it’s a story about starting an industrial revolution, so those details are relevant plot points, technical victories in place of dragon slaying.  There’s also the added bonus that by the time the cataclysmic action sequences begin, you know exactly how bad-ass the Charisian Navy has become.  If the characters do not change overmuch, they are not frozen in time.  The plucky ensign who fights by the king’s side as a 13-year old is a young man leading missions of his own a few books in.  Weber uses plot to reward his readers where others use character change, and that’s his choice.  It works.

Weber’s vision is impressive in its sheer jaw-dropping ambition.  He’s changing more of his world than Jordan ever did with The Wheel of Time.  Advancing military technology and historical knowledge pattern great battles after classic engagements, and the fights rarely stay the same.  Weber is great at keeping a blaster from being a blaster, in science-fiction terms.

Weber’s books have been described as airplane fiction, not super-heavy, but long and time-consuming.  They’re great for the back seat of a car in summer, or a long winter’s night by the fire.  If you have some time on your hands you could do a lot worse than the Safehold series.

2 comments

  1. The Safehold Series is an amazing and interesting read at the same time thans for introducing it to me my friend. Also remember while he does do his share of political sniping lol if does make for a good read and while the background on some of his characters is still a lil unclear even 6 books in some of these snipe do have validity! But overall well written commentary on the books my friend!

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