The Big Man in Film: From Mike Hammer to Jack Reacher

Oisín Murphy-Hall
Posted August 21, 2013 in Film

big men on camera

Nicolas Winding Refn, a man who once claimed that ‘making a film is like fucking’, has reprised his partnership with Drive‘s Ryan Gosling to produce Only God Forgives, a film which opens on our shores this month and of which preliminary reviews have alternatingly sung ’empty, hyperstylised ultraviolence’ or ‘visceral, vital brilliance’. The Danish director has found his work oscillating between these critical poles for most of his career, having risen to prominence with the release of 2008’s Bronson, in which Tom Hardy plays a Big Man who punches lads and coppers like in that film Chopper, which maybe didn’t do as well because Nuts magazine didn’t exist in 2000. To celebrate the abiding cinematic archetype of the Big Man, Totally Dublin has selected three of its prime exponents from the burgeoning canon. There are some excellent broadband providers available in Ireland so you can watch all of the films mentioned in full online.

Kiss Me Deadly‘s Mike Hammer

Isn’t it funny how violence visited against the weak is considered a vital or visceral experience when presented on screen? Ralph Meeker’s Mike Hammer (of the Mickey Spillane novels) is film noir’s iconic Big Man, and Kiss Me Deadly (1955) heaps the bullying on in spades. Hammer is about as sadistic as anti-heroes come, slamming old men’s hands in drawers and generally accepting no guff in his relentless pursuit of ‘the great whatsit’, a glowing valise that would eventually be paid homage to in Big Man enthusiast Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction. Screenwriter A.I. Bezzerides wrote the script with ‘contempt’ for Spillane’s novel and its protagonist, resulting in an uneasy, seminal noir-sci-fi experience. What Bezzerides didn’t know is that Big Men can’t be satirised: as Steve Martin’s flatfoot Rigby Reardon would later diarise of the fictional island of Carlotta in 1982’s comic neo-noir Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid, the demesne of Big Men is ‘a place where they spell trouble T-R-U-B-I-L, and if you try to correct them, they kill you.’ Fittingly enough, Bezzerides found himself on the McCarthy-era Hollywood blacklist, a fate also to befall Fred Zinnemann, the director of High Noon (1952) which, in terms of its relationship to Big Men, is essentially Kiss Me Deadly‘s Western equivalent.

Heat‘s Lieutenant Vincent Hanna

Al Pacino’s portrayal of Lt. Hanna, three years after Scent of a Woman (1992), is the just about the tip of the iceberg of what we can consider late-career Pacino, the point beyond which his performances take on a perpetually manic quality, characterised by incongruous yelling and being present in terrible films. Michael Mann’s Heat (1995) has Pacino at his Big Man best — of course, you don’t need to physically be a big man in order to be a Big Man — as he neglects his family in order to pursue fellow Big Man (and bank robber) Neil McCauley (Robert De Niro). Hanna’s heroism is twofold: he is not only a great detective, but he is disdainful of his wife in every way other than the sexual. In fact, his prowess as a policeman seems to be almost a direct result of his emotional neglect of his wife: ‘He’s a weird guy, but he’s a great cop!’. And despite his prioritising of police work over family life, he still manages to be a better parent to his teenage stepdaughter (Natalie Portman) than his wife or her ex-husband, rescuing her from a bath following a suicide attempt. Big Men always prevail. When his marriage is pushed to breaking point due to his wife’s infidelity, Hanna keeps a cool head, allowing her to explain in her own words (written by a Big Man): ‘I have to demean myself with Ralph just to get closure with you.’ Ralph is still in the room while this is being said, speechless before a true Big Man, getting things done.

Jack Reacher‘s Jack Reacher

Tom Cruise’s diminutive stature would make him, on the face of it, an unrealistic piece of casting for author Lee Child’s 6’5”, 240lb former Military Police sleuth and all-round Big Man, but the New York Scientologist made the role his own in 2012’s least ironic action film, channeling the macho charisma and quiet anger that made the books bestsellers among, as the PR tells us, admiring men and lustful women alike. Big Man and former US president Bill Clinton’s endorsement (‘I love Jack Reacher!’) adorns the jacket of each of Child’s thrillers, which hit Hollywood like a cruise missile hitting a pharmaceutical factory late last year, to mixed reviews. Notably, Big Man-admirer Werner Herzog lent his acting talents to role of The Zec (Russian for ‘prisoner’), the film’s villain, in a rare engagement with Hollywood cinema. Jack Reacher started drinking coffee when he was four years old, one of the hallmarks of Big Men in their early years, and while the film excises some of the more explicitly sexual elements of Child’s novel, there remains enough macho bluster (‘I mean to beat you to death and drink your blood from a boot.’) and condescension towards women to make it an instant classic of the Big Man canon.


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