The Myth of Macho: Tommy Lee Jones

Ariel Schudson looks at the macho filmography of the Lincoln star and finds Volcano and Black Moon Rising.

Ariel Schudsonby Ariel Schudson

I’m firmly convinced that if there were one man who could save the world in some off-the-wall circumstance, that man would be Tommy Lee Jones. I am also quite positive that if there was someone who could non-chalantly kick your ass from here to Texas, that man would also be Tommy Lee Jones. While not every role he plays is angelic (he’s not the nicest guy in Mike Figgis’ under appreciated 1988 film, Stormy Monday, and as Ty Cobb in Ron Shelton’s 1994 biopic he… had some faults), the characters he selects hold a level of staunch certainty to them, no matter what the conditions might be. His roles will make dead sure the bad guys lose and that dangerous situations get cleared up, come hell or high water and really… let’s just say that if you’re not on Team Tommy Lee, good or bad, you’re going to get it in the teeth, end of story.

Tommy Lee Jones impresses me. I won’t lie. His laid-back manner, Texan drawl and cowboy saunter are far more applicable to films in the Western genre (of which he has made several) than the majority of the other works that he has participated in. On the other hand, when someone says Tommy Lee Jones, you know who that is. He is a force to be reckoned with. For a man whose modus operandi for the majority of his career has been to be cool as a cucumber, people pretty much know: just like you don’t mess with Texas, you don’t mess with Tommy Lee Jones.

As we edge closer to the Academy Awards, and make our way through the male Oscar nominees, their careers have reflected certain similarities and connecting threads. While Daniel Day-Lewis andDenzel Washington’s careers have shown a certain affinity to being selective, Robert DeNiro’s work has displayed his capacity to extend himself past the roles that he is generally known for. Tommy Lee Jones, while probably most famous for the recent Men In Black films (Barry Sonnenfield, 1997, 2002, 2012) and The Fugitive (Andrew Davis, 1993), has an incredibly solid career of other work behind him.  From the Quentin Tarantino favorite, Rolling Thunder (John Flynn, 1977) and the John Carpenter-penned Eyes of Laura Mars (Irwin Kershner, 1978) to television films such as the adaptation of Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song (Laurence Schiller, 1982) and The Park is Mine (Steven Hillard Stern, 1986), Jones’ early career had the strength and charisma of an army. This has lasted up until recent times and this year’s nomination for his role in Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln.

The Myth of Macho: Tommy Lee JonesThe Myth of Macho: Tommy Lee Jones

In The Myth of Macho this week, we will look at how Tommy Lee Jones demonstrates his masculine ability in tandem with the forces of nature, the sheer power of the technological apparatus and the Los Angeles landscape. Within the films, Black Moon Rising (Harley Cokeliss, 1986) and Volcano (Mick Jackson, 1997), Tommy Lee Jones manages to make the impossible possible. When nature itself seems to have the best of humanity, Jones breaks all rules of heaven, earth and science to save the people of metropolitan Los Angeles from harm. When his own physical ability fails him, he knows that he can go for the next best thing (technology) and by utilizing that, and bending all sorts of issues of what is probable or what modern physics may allow, he wins the day. In doing these things, Tommy Lee Jones displays a kind of masculinity that is so strong that any viewer, male or female, may be tempted to check for an increase in hair on their chest, post-film. His attitude may be relaxed, but his methods are testosterone-charged.

The Myth of Macho: Tommy Lee Jones

Black Moon Rising features Tommy Lee Jones as a professional thief named Sam Quint. The film opens with a computer transmission to Lieutenant Jones (Bubba Smith) of the Los Angeles Division from the FBI in Washington, stating that there is a disc that needs to be retrieved with important files on it. In glorious 1980s computer green lettering, the screen reads, “legal procedures exhausted. Use free-lance operative. Time factor: critical.” Quint, as the free-lance operative, becomes mixed up in a few other things during the recovery of the disc. First of all, he runs into his nemesis, Marvin Ringer (Lee Ving), who happens to be working for the company that this disc is being “removed” from. Ringer begins a rabid gun-heavy, bullets-flying assault against Quint as he escapes the compound with the disc. Once away, Quint hides the disc in the license plate “pocket” of a highly specialized designer car called the Black Moon (although all Quint sees is an opportunity to hide the disc briefly while Ringer is after him). What follows is a series of back-and-forth situations between Quint and various people: the designers/owners of the Black Moon, Nina (Linda Hamilton), the woman who steals the Black Moon before Quint has a chance to grab the disc back, Lieutenant Jones (wanting that disc, of course), the larger underworld car-thievery set that Nina is a part of, and Ringer and his gang. Quint manages to keep his cool.

In the very beginning of the film, just before stealing the disc, Quint enters a convenient store for coffee. Just before the cup touches his lips, a young man comes in, all yells and bells, telling Quint and the man behind the counter to get their hands up, pointing a gun at the two men. Quint looks at the young man casually and asks, “Is this something new for you, son?” The kid is infuriated. He tells Quint to shut-up. To which Quint points out the television camera on the wall that has already gotten the would-be robber’s full face-shot, and says, “You gotta think these things through. You can’t just come walkin’ into some place, wavin’ a gun around, expect the world to put up with that. It’s not acceptable behavior.” The kid asks, “Oh yeah? Are you gonna stop me?” Quint looks at him and says, “Hell no. You go right ahead. Prob’ly got a minute or two.” All of a sudden the sound of police sirens comes echoing through. Quint looks back at the kid and says, “Then again, maybe you don’t. Just trying to help you son.”

The Myth of Macho: Tommy Lee Jones

Not only does this scene demonstrate Quint’s attitude towards the world at large (relaxed and immune to stress even at the height of a nasty situation), but it also shows his tech-savvy nature. Quint knew where the camera was, how it was angled, how long it would take for the cops to get there. Only a real professional would know these things. As he said to the kid, he really was “just trying to help.” Quint’s own procedure is shown directly afterwards when he breaks into the building holding the disc with the files. He has a few different kinds of tools, all heightened technology, all requiring special codes and specially designed hook-ups to unlock the doors and inner areas holding the disc. Although when he gets to the final door it does set off the alarm, he is still able to escape with the disc while Ringer is left chasing after him and shooting after him with a machine gun, destroying everything in his path.

The methods of Quint and Ringer are clearly laid out: Ringer is a primal character and a destructive male figure, significantly juxtaposed against the smooth and meticulous high-tech cat-burglar style of Quint. In a later fight scene in the film, Ringer and his goons beat Quint within an inch of his life, using their fists and feet and not much else. During the fight, Quint is able to still think carefully, center himself, move himself underneath the car that he is near and pull out the gun that is stashed underneath. Once again, he has beat Ringer and his crew with his method of meticulous thought and technical implementation. When Ringer and the boys were shooting at Quint it was a free-for-all: no exactness, no accuracy. When Quint grabbed that gun? He was shooting to kill… and survive.

The Myth of Macho: Tommy Lee Jones

The technological precision that Quint applies to his work allows him to do what can’t be done and get by against all odds. During the climax of the film, it becomes crucial that Quint and Nina escape in the Black Moon. From a high rise building. Yes. A car in a high-rise building. This is an awesome movie. The Black Moon is not only a specialized car in its aesthetic design, but it is a specialized car that can go 300mph and looks really good doing it. Not only do we get to watch this amazing vehicle traverse the streets of Los Angeles (mostly Hollywood and downtown) circa 1986, but we get to watch as it does things that… a car would never be able to do; shouldn’t be able to do. Just so that Quint and Nina can escape. I don’t want to spoil it too much; you should see this film. But put it this way: it’s a scene where bullets fly, glass is shattering, a really killer car is being driven by Tommy Lee Jones with Linda Hamilton in the passenger seat wielding a firearm, and the central force of the moment is that the Black Moon has great technology and Quint knows how to work it just right.

While other action films don’t allow their male leads to get hurt, Black Moon Rising shows Quint getting injured like a real human male. This is one of the beauties of the film. It leaves room to be able to appreciate that he is a mere mortal, but one who is incredibly skilled at his thievery profession. The work that he does is not his life, it is simply his livelihood; this is the reason he treats it in such a relaxed manner. At the same time, he is a professional and a skilled one at that, and acts accordingly.

While Tommy Lee Jones’ association with technology in Black Moon Rising showcases his ability to be meticulous and intelligent while balancing that with a certain mortality and comfortable approach to those in the world around him, his position in Volcano is something of a different story. While he maintains a certain level of expert “-ness” in his character’s field and he is certainly portrayed as skilled, the hassle-free mindset has basically disappeared from view. Then again, Volcano is essentially a disaster film that depicts what might happen if a volcano decided to erupt underneath the streets of Miracle Mile and the greater Hollywood area.

While we Angelenos have lived under the looming shadow of The Big One (earthquake) since forever, a volcano hasn’t exactly been on the top of our worry list. So having this film come around and watching it destroy my neighborhood? I’m not going to lie: certain parts of me found it deliciously fun. Much like Black Moon Rising, this film was incredibly accurate to the Los Angeles landscape. While other films have a tendency to “cheat” their way around it, this one displayed the areas fairly well, considering the film had an underlying theme that seemed to be rather anti-public transportation.

The Myth of Macho: Tommy Lee Jones

Tommy Lee Jones’ role in Volcano certainly was not one of his more laidback characters. Jones’ plays Mike Roark, the head of the Office of Emergency Management. The week he goes on vacation to spend time with his daughter, an earthquake occurs, and due to his job, he feels the need to go in. While his co-workers and daughter protest (“It’s just an earthquake!”), the “minor quake” is soon followed up by a series of incidents that cause Mike to think that perhaps it was good that he didn’t stay home. As the title of the film suggests, we soon find out that it is indeed a bigger situation and Roark must join forces with geologist Amy Barnes (Anne Heche) and try to figure out how to save his daughter and Los Angeles from melting to the ground via hot lava.

Let’s get this out of the way first: disaster films should never be taken too seriously. In fact, the best way to watch them is not in irony (will someone please kill the habit of watching films ironically? Pretty please?) but knowing that it’s going to be a good ol’ time. Fun. Remember that? Not too many films these days that are just balls-out ridiculous fun. But a disaster movie… Well, you can literally fiddle while Rome burns, if that’s your thing. Interestingly enough about this particular example of disaster cinema, it does make some interesting commentary on Los Angeles culture and socio-political events of the 1990s (references to the Rodney King incident, other highly L.A.-related phenomena, etc). But that’s really a whole other discussion. Let’s look at Tommy Lee Jones.

The Myth of Macho: Tommy Lee Jones

Mike Roark’s role is to head up the Emergency Management team in L.A., so when the lava hits the streets, so does he. Unfortunately for him, he is also in the role of father, which complicates his first job immensely. At the same moment that the hot molten rock explodes upon Wilshire Blvd, Roark and his daughter Kelly (Gaby Hoffman) are in his car, unwittingly heading straight for the disaster zone. As they’re driving, steam from the sewers sends the manhole covers sky high and fireballs begin to rain down, causing a huge billboard of Angelyne to be demolished, almost hitting the Roarks’ car.

When the La Brea Tar Pits explode and, as the reporter sitting in his car says over the phone to his newspaper they are essentially “on fire and spilling out onto Wilshire Blvd,” Roark goes into high gear. But he has left his daughter in the car alone. He is a divided man: by his job and by his parenting. Can he save the world and be a good father? Is this possible? This is the point where it hits him as well, right as the volcanic emissions come rushing down Wilshire and head straight for Roark’s car and Roark’s daughter. He leaps from the fire truck and the firemen he is trying to save and dashes to save Kelly, but not before she catches on fire and gets slightly burned. While the man literally walks (or jumps, rather) through fire in order to rescue her, the fact remains that he has split loyalties and is struggling with this.

The Myth of Macho: Tommy Lee Jones

Roark seems to resolve this struggle at least temporarily with the help of the doctor who has been assisting him in gathering patients and forces him to let her take Kelly to Cedars-Sinai for medical attention. While Kelly protests loudly, Dr. Calder (Jacqueline Kim) puts it to Roark bluntly: “You’re O.E.M [Office of Emergency Management], right? You need to be here. She [Kelly] doesn’t… this is no place for her. You know it.” Roark, who a few seconds earlier had been making very strong and forceful executive decisions via telephone back to the main office, hesitates for a minute and then concedes, convincing Kelly of what he and Dr. Calder know to be the truth.

From this point on, Roark’s activities are nothing short of heroic. It is almost as though the realization that he could make the right decision for his daughter in a difficult situation made it so he could make other “right decisions” in the current difficult situation. As Kelly pulls away, she asks him why he has to stay. Roark says, “Because it’s my responsibility.” Kelly looks at him tearfully and says, “So am I.” To Roark, responsibility is what drives him, what motivates him to make these right decisions, for work or for family. For Roark, being a man means taking responsibility in all its forms. So, he does… and then some.

The Myth of Macho: Tommy Lee Jones

Roark commandeers some police officers to take a city bus to block off the lava, he sees a homeless person about to be overtaken by lava and rescues him almost getting himself and Amy Barnes melted in the process, he continues to communicate back and forth with the main office and finally… comes up with the plan that saves Los Angeles from becoming Lava-ngeles. By directing firemen and other city workers to do seemingly impossible tasks, discovering last minute geological emergencies with Amy and fixing them in less time than what is necessary, Roark becomes the L.A. hero and Man of the Hour.

The thing about Roark’s heroic finale is that not an ounce of the situation is remotely realistic, believable or within 50 miles of possible. Disaster film or not, there is suspension of disbelief and then there is Volcano. This is not me going back on my word- this film is still fun as hell, and I will always believe that Tommy Lee Jones’ emergency management skills are top-notch. But what is valuable here is the hyperbole in the heroics. They are so over the top, so impossible, so unbelievable that we may ask if Mike Roark’s masculinity in the film is a joke on us and what our expectations on a man’s responsibility are.

The Myth of Macho: Tommy Lee Jones

Volcano was directed by Mick Jackson, who, just a few years earlier, had directed L.A. Story (1991). While he did not write the script for Volcano, there is a certain tongue-in-cheek, critical element that certainly exists within the film. It wouldn’t be hard to imagine how this film, much like certain areas of exploitation cinema, may simply be using the genre to criticize certain elements in our society with Mike Roark (Tommy Lee Jones) as the central figure. The “I can do anything” masculinity that he shows within the film is so over-arching and complete in this film that it seems almost comedic. Yet… if you want to, you can believe. It is a complicated but fascinating position to place your audience in, and one that I believe works quite well, both for Tommy Lee Jones and for Volcano.

While you watch the Academy Awards this year, I hope that you take a chance to check out or appreciate the other roles that men like Tommy Lee Jones have played. Whether it’s Volcano or Black Moon Rising or whether it’s The Missing (Ron Howard, 2003) or his own theatrical directorial debut The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (2005), he’s got a great body of work. I will admit that in my eyes he can do no wrong and I could watch him for hours at a time (and have). But I feel that it’s in the way he carries himself and presents the men he plays that leads me to want to do that. Tommy Lee Jones is a man, through and through, and from historical biographies to westerns to action films to disaster flicks, that is something that no one can argue.

It was great to have you along on this week’s fiery journey through fast vehicles and eruptions of high frequency! See you next week for an all-new Myth of Macho, and until then, remember: the brain is a muscle… pump it up!

Ariel Schudson is a featured columnist at CraveOnline and the president of the Student Chapter of the Association of Moving Image Archivists at UCLA. Stalk her electronically at @Sinaphile.