Guerrilla Patton

Soderbergh's supersized retelling of the Che Guevara legend is an uncomfortable mix of war procedural and unabashed hero worship; ingenious but flawed.


Director: Steven Soderbergh
Cast: Benicio Del Toro, Santiago Cabrera, Demián Bichir, Kahlil Mendez, Rodrigo Santoro, Catalina Sandino Moreno, Marisé Alvarez, Carlos Bardem, Franka Potente, Edgar Ramirez, Elvira Minguez, Benjamin Benitez, Victor Rasuk, Yul Vazquez, Julia Ormond, Lou Diamond Phillips, Joaquim de Almeida
MPAA rating: R
Studio: Focus Features
First date: 2008
UK Release Date: 2009-02-20 (General release)
US Release Date: 2008-12-12 (Limited release)

Patton: Two-Disc Collector's Edition

Director: Franklin J. Schaffner
Cast: George C. Scott, Karl Malden
Distributor: Fox
MPAA rating: PG
First date: 1970

With his bifurcated status as Hollywood powerhouse and indie maverick, there are few directors besides Steven Soderbergh with both the creative chops and the stubborn drive to make a film like Che. A more mainstream director would feel forced to smooth the political edges, and a more resolutely indie director might be tempted to make a retro-propaganda film about Che Guevara, all fluttering flags and poster-ready stalwart revolutionaries sweeping the capitalists from power.

To his credit, Soderbergh doesn't fall into either of these traps with Che. But he also never figures out a convincing third path to follow. The resulting film is an uneasy mix of war procedural and unabashed hero worship, something like a guerrilla take (both in the artistic and military sense) on Patton.

In Franklin Schaffner's 1970 ode to glorious machismo, General George S. Patton is seen through a lens of unalloyed admiration. He may be a bastard, striding around in ridiculous spit-shined glory and sacrificing soldiers’ lives for his greater glory, but the film definitely wants him to be our bastard. Those hushed scenes in German headquarters, as the Wehrmacht fairly shakes in their boots at the sound of Patton’s approach, and the reverent fear of him that his men hold, they’re all wood for the fire of hero-worship. No matter how many counterpoints that Francis Ford Coppola’s blunt but crafty screenplay interjects, Patton appears here as a soldier-god striding the earth. Coppola no more truly critiques the mad warrior of World War II than he does Michael in The Godfather or Kurtz in Apocalypse Now; moral uncertainties be damned, these are men to be reckoned with.

Stylistically, Soderbergh’s Che is night and day from Patton. The latter was a three-hour Oscar-magnet epic, complete with intermission, thrown together at the end of the studio era with all Hollywood’s arsenal at its disposal. Schaffner’s direction is about as subtle as a fist to the face, though he does know when to stand back and let George C. Scott’s leonine majesty roar. There are indelible moments of artistry, whether it’s the infamous (and curiously abstracted) opening scene of Patton haranguing his troops in front of an American flag that seems bigger than the world, or the haunting flashes of bloody combat flecked throughout. A four-square Hollywood history loaded with the usual elisions of fact, Patton was nevertheless produced with the kind of bravura that today’s meek studios would never dare.

Instead of waiting for an $80 million budget and A-listers to headline, Soderbergh packed himself off into the jungle with a few digital cameras, Benicio del Toro, and an almost entirely Spanish script. He came back with a four-and-a-half-hour film cut into two slabs (the two were initially shown together, with intermission, before being released as two separate entities) which together more resemble a cinematic primer in small-unit guerrilla warfare tactics than an epic drama.

The first and most thrilling half, The Argentine, follows the Che everyone wants to see: the lean, blazing-eyed former medical student from Argentina who helped launch the invasion that overthrew the Cuban dictator Batista in 1959. As Che, del Toro is every inch the leader whose face has illustrated a million T-shirts and protest banners. His coiled intensity -- particularly on display in flashforwards (shot in grainy black-and-white as a nicely chilled alternative to the bulk of the film's jungle-green hues) to Che's thunderous address at the United Nations -- is shown at a cool remove. Soderbergh rarely jabs the camera in there for emotive closeups, leaving the viewer to see Che much as his threadbare band of fighters come to see him: a calm, caring, natural-born leader.

Soderbergh tries to let Che's actions speak for him. The Argentine follows, free-form, Che and the Castros' campaign of lightning strikes and humane attitudes that swiftly crippled Batista's much larger and better-armed force. It is not a film of speeches or personal asides. About the only conversations seen are brisk tactical exchanges between Che and the Castros. Mostly we're watching him in action. It's a portrait that rings pretty true to historical accounts, with Che quickly establishing his authority as both a tough and smart fighter but also a crackerjack field medic; and one who had to struggle through the Sierra Maestra mountains wheezing from chronic asthma, no less.

That adulatory attitude, though, almost does Soderbergh in. He films the battle scenes in a lean manner that avoids war-flick thrills, shooting in natural light with an unhurried editing scheme and very little music. But even so, Soderbergh can't avoid inserting a scene where Che takes a rocket launcher from a soldier who'd failed to shoot it correctly and, on his first try, scores a direct hit on a house filled with government soldiers. Patton himself hardly did better in the scene from Schaffner's film when he stands atop a jeep emptying his pistol at German bombers roaring right at him while his men dive for cover. One treatment might have been more bombastic than the other, but the message is the same.

Both men are leaders their men would have died for, and did, but sadly it's the big, stomping Patton that occasionally tries to see what powers its subject's manias. Soderbergh is a calmer sort, content to sit at a distance and map things out, watching his hero stride tall across the landscape. There are times when The Argentine is like Aleida March, the beautiful young revolutionary (played by a gorgeous but blank Catalina Sandino Moreno) who insistently tags along with Che near the conclusion of the campaign, and later became his wife.

The second film, The Guerrilla, is less adulatory, if only because it shows Che in the sunset of his life. It's a neat trick by Soderbergh, jumping from Cuba's liberation and the few glimpses of Che soon afterward -- all cigar, beard, beret, and swagger -- right past the desultory aftermath (a failed insurrection in the Congo, a frustrating stint as government bureaucrat) to his final days of revolutionary martyrdom.

The Guerrilla is a catalog of tactical failure. A poorly thought-out plan sends a disguised Che to Bolivia to foment revolt against the American-backed military government. But whereas all the factors worked in Che's favor in Cuba, none do in Bolivia. Che's team seems less than motivated, the Bolivian army is far more competent than Batista's undisciplined mob, and the peasants themselves are less than thrilled about this hacking, bearded Argentinian trying to tell them what to do. It's as through the tide of history simply reversed, and is now flowing against the man who once had everything turning out right.

As the noose tightens around Che's dwindling band, and the army chips away at them in one skillful ambush after another, Soderbergh slowly ratchets up the tension to a gut-churning degree. But even though everything goes wrong in his campaign (whether through bad luck or hubris), the film never puts the blame at Che's feet. By the time he's ignominiously gunned down in a rude hut, it's as though Che has undergone his stations of the cross, bloodied but unbowed, ready for martyrdom.

The two parts of Che are less a biography than a war film in the final reckoning, and as such, an exceptionally good one, rivaling The Battle of Algiers in its You-Are-There sensibility. But no matter how guerrilla-style Soderbergh may have shot his epic, his treatment of the man is a quite conservative one. Soderbergh's Che is just another Great Man of history, staring into the future with pained and wizened eyes, distant as a statue and just as unrewarding a subject. At least the Patton of the film wrote poetry.

From drunken masters to rumbles in the Bronx, Jackie Chan's career is chock full of goofs and kicks. These ten films capture what makes Chan so magnetic.

Jackie Chan got his first film role way back in 1976, when a rival producer hired him for his obvious action prowess. Now, nearly 40 years later, he is more than a household name. He's a brand, a signature star with an equally recognizable onscreen persona. For many, he was their introduction into the world of Hong Kong cinema. For others, he's the goofy guy speaking broken English to Chris Tucker in the Rush Hour films.

From his grasp of physical comedy to his fearlessness in the face of certain death (until recently, Chan performed all of his own stunts) he's a one of a kind talent whose taken his abilities in directions both reasonable (charity work, political reform) and ridiculous (have your heard about his singing career?).

Now, Chan is back, bringing the latest installment in the long running Police Story franchise to Western shores (subtitled Lockdown, it's been around since 2013), and with it, a reminder of his multifaceted abilities. He's not just an actor. He's also a stunt coordinator and choreographer, a writer, a director, and most importantly, a ceaseless supporter of his country's cinema. With nearly four decades under his (black) belt, it's time to consider Chan's creative cannon. Below you will find our choices for the ten best pictures Jackie Chan's career, everything from the crazy to the classic. While he stuck to formula most of the time, no one made redundancy seem like original spectacle better than he.

Let's start with an oldie but goodie:

10. Operation Condor (Armour of God 2)

Two years after the final pre-Crystal Skull installment of the Indiana Jones films arrived in theaters, Chan was jumping on the adventurer/explorer bandwagon with this wonderful piece of movie mimicry. At the time, it was one of the most expensive Hong Kong movies ever made ($115 million, which translates to about $15 million American). Taking the character of Asian Hawk and turning him into more of a comedic figure would be the way in which Chan expanded his global reach, realizing that humor could help bring people to his otherwise over the top and carefully choreographed fight films -- and it's obviously worked.

9. Wheels on Meals

They are like the Three Stooges of Hong Kong action comedies, a combination so successful that it's amazing they never caught on around the world. Chan, along with director/writer/fight coordinator/actor Sammo Hung and Yuen Biao, all met at the Peking Opera, where they studied martial arts and acrobatics. They then began making movies, including this hilarious romp involving a food truck, a mysterious woman, and lots of physical shtick. While some prefer their other collaborations (Project A, Lucky Stars), this is their most unabashedly silly and fun. Hung remains one of the most underrated directors in all of the genre.

8. Mr. Nice Guy
Sammo Hung is behind the lens again, this time dealing with Chan's genial chef and a missing mob tape. Basically, an investigative journalist films something she shouldn't, the footage gets mixed up with some of our heroes, and a collection of clever cat and mouse chases ensue. Perhaps one of the best sequences in all of Chan's career occurs in a mall, when a bunch of bad guys come calling to interrupt a cooking demonstration. Most fans have never seen the original film. When New Line picked it up for distribution, it made several editorial and creative cuts. A Japanese release contains the only unaltered version of the effort.

7. Who Am I?

Amnesia. An easy comedic concept, right? Well, leave it to our lead and collaborator Benny Chan (no relation) to take this idea and go crazy with it. The title refers to Chan's post-trauma illness, as well as the name given to him by natives who come across his confused persona. Soon, everyone is referring to our hero by the oddball moniker while major league action set pieces fly by. While Chan is clearly capable of dealing with the demands of physical comedy and slapstick, this is one of the rare occasions when the laughs come from character, not just chaos.

6. Rumble in the Bronx

For many, this was the movie that broke Chan into the US mainstream. Sure, before then, he was a favorite of film fans with access to a video store stocking his foreign titles, but this is the effort that got the attention of Joe and Jane Six Pack. Naturally, as they did with almost all his films, New Line reconfigured it for a domestic audience, and found itself with a huge hit on its hands. Chan purists prefer the original cut, including the cast voices sans dubbing. It was thanks to Rumble that Chan would go on to have a lengthy run in Tinseltown, including those annoying Rush Hour films.

Next Page

Pauline Black may be called the Queen of Ska by some, but she insists she's not the only one, as Two-Tone legends the Selecter celebrate another stellar album in a career full of them.

Being commonly hailed as the "Queen" of a genre of music is no mean feat, but for Pauline Black, singer/songwriter of Two-Tone legends the Selecter and universally recognised "Queen of Ska", it is something she seems to take in her stride. "People can call you whatever they like," she tells PopMatters, "so I suppose it's better that they call you something really good!"

Keep reading... Show less

Morrison's prose is so engaging and welcoming that it's easy to miss the irreconcilable ambiguities that are set forth in her prose as ineluctable convictions.

It's a common enough gambit in science fiction. Humans come across a race of aliens that appear to be entirely alike and yet one group of said aliens subordinates the other, visiting violence upon their persons, denigrating them openly and without social or legal consequence, humiliating them at every turn. The humans inquire why certain of the aliens are subjected to such degradation when there are no discernible differences among the entire race of aliens, at least from the human point of view. The aliens then explain that the subordinated group all share some minor trait (say the left nostril is oh-so-slightly larger than the right while the "superior" group all have slightly enlarged right nostrils)—something thatm from the human vantage pointm is utterly ridiculous. This minor difference not only explains but, for the alien understanding, justifies the inequitable treatment, even the enslavement of the subordinate group. And there you have the quandary of Otherness in a nutshell.

Keep reading... Show less

A 1996 classic, Shawn Colvin's album of mature pop is also one of best break-up albums, comparable lyrically and musically to Joni Mitchell's Hejira and Bob Dylan's Blood on the Tracks.

When pop-folksinger Shawn Colvin released A Few Small Repairs in 1996, the music world was ripe for an album of sharp, catchy songs by a female singer-songwriter. Lilith Fair, the tour for women in the music, would gross $16 million in 1997. Colvin would be a main stage artist in all three years of the tour, playing alongside Liz Phair, Suzanne Vega, Sheryl Crow, Sarah McLachlan, Meshell Ndegeocello, Joan Osborne, Lisa Loeb, Erykah Badu, and many others. Strong female artists were not only making great music (when were they not?) but also having bold success. Alanis Morissette's Jagged Little Pill preceded Colvin's fourth recording by just 16 months.

Keep reading... Show less

Frank Miller locates our tragedy and warps it into his own brutal beauty.

In terms of continuity, the so-called promotion of this entry as Miller's “third" in the series is deceptively cryptic. Miller's mid-'80s limited series The Dark Knight Returns (or DKR) is a “Top 5 All-Time" graphic novel, if not easily “Top 3". His intertextual and metatextual themes resonated then as they do now, a reason this source material was “go to" for Christopher Nolan when he resurrected the franchise for Warner Bros. in the mid-00s. The sheer iconicity of DKR posits a seminal work in the artist's canon, which shares company with the likes of Sin City, 300, and an influential run on Daredevil, to name a few.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.