Top 100 Blockbusters of the Multiplex Era: Cowboys on a New Frontier

You can find the full list of the top 100 blockbusters since 1972 here, as well as an index for other posts in this series.

The westerner is one of the most hallowed figures of American moving images, an icon for film and television alike. His virtues (toughness, persistence, wherewithal) and his faults (prejudice, temper, ignorance) are on-the-nose American stereotypes. Put on that wide-brimmed hat and the potential roles follow like cows in a herd. Perhaps he is a lawman, like Henry Fonda in My Darling Clementine. Maybe he’s a criminal, like John Wayne in Stagecoach. He may seek vengeance, like Jimmy Stewart in Winchester ’73. Maybe he’s a literal cowboy, like Glenn Ford in Jubal. In any event, the tone set from seeing someone in the hat and the boots, the flannel and the chaps, is instantaneous. That impression repeats itself, perhaps not literally for the first time but pretty close to it, in the opening sequence of Toy Story. We see “Sheriff Woody” slouch down from Andy’s bed, land with a thud on the hardwood, and hear a voice sneer, “Reach for the skyyyyyy.” The slouch is not because he’s bowlegged from horseback riding; it’s because his plastic head is a lot heavier than the rest of his body. The command is restricted in potency a little bit because it turns out that the cowboy’s face, revealed in close-up, is a smile so amiable. that he makes Howdy Doody look like a serial killer by comparison. It turns out that Woody does most of what you’d expect your rural sheriff to do in the sense that he foils bank robberies and has some tasty puns on hand, but also has some unusual tools in his belt like a dinosaur who eats forcefield dogs, nom nom nom. The film sets our cowboy on a path he’s never followed before, for he cannot remember a time when he was not Andy’s favorite toy. Equally fascinating is the new frontier of computer animation that Woody is in the foreground of so often. In the march of technological progress—a march that has probably been a net negative for the quality of American studio movies—it is a cowboy with a friendly face and a jealous heart who leads the way.

I’ve named this group purposely, because it’s made up of films which give the new frontier to men to discover. The one exception to this sausage fest is The Exorcist, which is less about discovering a new way of being or a new place to be in and more about unprepared individuals meeting each other in the middle. On one side, the inexperienced Father Karras, basically there to assist and understudy Father Merrin as necessary. On the other, the MacNeils, the horrified mother Chris and the possessed daughter Regan, individuals who have absolutely been experiencing something new. When the latter half of the expedition is highlighted, the movie is as terrifying as any other film in history, visually shocking and upsetting, gruesome in one moment and chilling in another. The Exorcist understands that the audience must see the exorcism itself as a necessity as opposed to antediluvian barbarism, running Regan through a number of physicals, tests, and psychological probes on top of seeing events like the shaking bed which are clearly beyond the ability of even the most disturbed preteen to fabricate. It’s what gives that spectacular battle at the end of the film between Merrin, Karras, and Pazuzu so much of its weight; it feels at that point like we are witnessing an armageddon in a D.C. residence. The focus of that battle begins with Pazuzu and Merrin going after each other, trading blows over the body of a girl who seems littler the longer the movie presses on. Yet The Exorcist culminates when Miller, the most tenderfooted tyro of anyone in that room, recognizes that the only way to conquer the demon is to explore a new frontier of his own: an undiscovered country.

That is the terrain that Malcolm Crowe treads in The Sixth Sense, although it’s so new to him that he fails to even understand that he’s one of the dead people Cole is seeing. Almost fifteen years distant from the original Die Hard, Bruce Willis is playing a very different kind of adventurer with surprisingly similar motivations. Both McClane and Crowe are unwilling figures in the new worlds they’ve been tossed into. John McClane is 3,000 miles away from his jurisdiction, and came to Los Angeles to put things right with his wife, not to crawl through air ducts while getting shot at nor to drop a terrorist off a 34-story building. Malcolm Crowe is even less prepared for the life, haha, that he’s walked into after being murdered in his bedroom, so uncomprehending of his own situation he believes that his wife has given up on his marriage. These men are professional problem-solvers at heart, which is why their marriages would have been on the rocks anyway. John can only follow Holly out to California once it becomes clear that she was serious about keeping on her career path, too reluctant to leave the NYPD for some other PD in Southern California. And Malcolm fears, before the truth comes to him, that his professional life is overwhelming his personal one. In the end, Bruce Willis is forced to step out of his comfort zone, whether that means he’s a dead man who puts his life down for good or a scared police officer actualizing himself into acting decisively in a place where he has no jurisdiction.

With apologies to Die Hard (and The French Connection, which would be in contention for this list if it weren’t a year too early), I’m not sure that there’s a movie more focused on a cop working outside his bounds than Beverly Hills Cop. In the first place, it is a decisively misleading title, because the film is about a Detroit cop who winds up in Beverly Hills chasing his friend’s murderer. I know, not exactly an earth-shattering realization, but for someone who had heard of this thing long before he actually saw it, this was a twist. While for my money the funniest sequence of the picture is features Eddie Murphy stuffing food into a cop car, the glitz of Beverly Hills is a lesser frontier for Michigander Axel Foley than the risk he takes being a Black man in white Los Angeles.

The pre-Rodney King LAPD doesn’t come off too bad in this movie, as eventually Ronny Cox, John Ashton, and Judge Reinhold come around and recognize that Murphy is a talented police officer who’s leading them to an opportunity they’d whiffed on themselves. All the same it’s impossible to ignore the suspicion that Bogomil, Taggart, and Rosewood automatically have regarding Foley. Everyone at the precinct is very prepared to believe that Foley deserved to be tossed out a window based on the testimony of the impeccable Victor Maitland (a name so brilliantly chosen he might as well have been “Wilhelm Keitel” or something), and the surveillance campaign that follows Foley badly from there on only gets to be funny because Murphy makes it funny. It’s hard not to read Beverly Hills Cop as a metatext. Just as Foley’s boss in Detroit is African-American, Garrett Morris preceded Murphy on SNL; there is no precedent, though, for a Black comedian like Eddie Murphy as the undeniable star in an enormous popular movie.

While we’re talking about urban crime, might as well chat about Spider-Man. There’s not that much to say about the obvious metaphor of a teenage boy learning how to handle his new and messy, haha, “powers,” especially because it’s a metaphor that basically every Spider-Man property feels a need to get into one way or another. Everyone loves that scene in this film where Peter stands on top of a building and desperately tries to figure out how to make the web-slingin’ happen. “Go, web!” he tries. “Fly! Up up and away, web!” And so on, going through various intonations and commands and finger motions before he finally lands on the right motion to make it happen. Tobey Maguire, Kirsten Dunst, and James Franco are wonderful in that first movie, even if they are a little too old for the characters they’re supposed to be playing; a scene like that helps us to believe in the youth of Peter Parker, who knows he’s supposed to be able to sploosh this funny gray substance out of his body but is a little fuzzy on the details of how to do it on purpose. Manhood is bestowed on Peter in other ways too, as the inevitable death of Uncle Ben has to bring about. Not only does he have to live with the whole “With great power…” thing that has filtered its way down into every other movie in this genre since then, but there’s the fact of being more responsible at home and to Aunt May as well in her hour of greatest need. All of this comes up with more of a vengeance in Spider-Man 2, a film which treats delivering pizza on a bike as at least as titanic a task as stopping an elevated train from vaporizing itself and its passengers. But Spider-Man has a different take on this new frontier, which is that it’s also a little bit fun. It’s not just responsibility that makes Peter create this new persona, but there’s incredible joy in being able to do the next-best-thing to flying between skyscrapers as well. The new frontier that Peter Parker has to navigate lets him get on and off a roller coaster of his own making so he can punch out people at the stops, to say nothing of the gravity-defying kinds of kisses he can collect from pretty girls as long as he’s in the persona.

Spider-Man is at least an easier persona for Peter to put on than Dorothy Michaels is for Michael Dorsey, a process that gets used as a gag a couple times in Tootsie but which honestly could have been the entire movie. In one way, Dorothy is not all that new a frontier for Michael, an actor’s actor who is a director’s and an agent’s nightmare alike. (If Eddie Murphy as the new guy taking L.A. by storm wasn’t on the nose enough for you, you’ll love Tootsie.) Michael is all crackling energy and demands to know why his character acts the way he acts at each moment of the performance. The most charitable interpretation for his mania, not coincidentally the one that he would proffer, is that he takes his craft so seriously and wants to be part of the creative process in lovingly shaping that character. Dorothy Michaels starts out as a kind of troll persona, undertaken without considering what it would mean if Dorothy got the part of Emily Kimberly rather than Sandy, Michael’s ersatz girlfriend who he’d coached before her audition.

It turns out to be the role of a lifetime for this control freak, in large part because he finagles and browbeats his way into making Emily Kimberly his creation. He ignores the teleplay, improvises constantly, bedevils basically everyone on set, even manages to keep up the ruse of being a woman by convincing the studio that Dorothy has sensitive skin and needs to do her makeup before coming in. It’s perfect for Michael the actor, but for the first time in his career Michael finds himself chafing at the idea of working this hard; he loves acting, but he didn’t expect to do it at the cost of his entire life. The new frontier that he has to come to terms with is one in which he can be wrong. Michael has never been wrong before in his entire life, or at least he wouldn’t cop to it, which is practically the same thing. Yet he finds himself wrong about Sandy, about his co-star Julie, about Julie’s kind father Les. This is a deliriously funny movie, but it is tempered with a deep, almost biting sadness in the last reel or so. Michael is used to treating his life as a series of events that trouble him, not as a piece of a larger picture in which he can do damage to so many other people. Success is as foreign to Michael Dorsey as it is to Rocky Balboa, and when it comes to both men it has to come to a version of them which doesn’t quite square with the version their friends would recognize. The older I get, the more the actual boxing match in Rocky feels kind of like an afterthought; the most important stuff in the actual match is probably the dialogue that shows that Rocky Balboa, the reluctant fixer from Kensington, had put Apollo Creed into enough physical danger that only Apollo’s pride allowed him to keep his belt. The Rocky identifiable to his friends from the neighborhood is sort of a sweetheart ne’er-do-well who gets along well with everyone who doesn’t owe money and who has a pair of turtles in his dingy apartment. Being famous is a strange road for Rocky, who does his best work out of sight: in meat lockers, gulping eggs and climbing the Art Museum steps before dawn. It turns out that he treads this new trail about as well as any other ‘poke listed here, and he does so by remaining himself instead of giving in to the temptations of Apollo’s showmanship.

Definitionally a cowboy must be on the move at all times, for there can be no new frontier without moving towards that next horizon. The blockbusters that feel most active and kinetic on this front are about murder: The Fugitive and Apocalypse Now. Nattily dressed and wearing whiskers, Richard Kimble is a semi-famous surgeon in his happy marriage and beautiful quarters. When it goes, it goes rapidly; his wife is murdered, he is convicted for it, and although I’ve always liked the way The Fugitive looks, it’s never as pretty again as it is after we leave the Kimble home for good. Richard Kimble, eminently respectable, is forced to live an underground life, stuck in seedy places, working jobs for subsistence that would have been self-evidently “beneath” him months before, and most of all doing crimes that this honest man would never have done if he hadn’t been sent up. The Fugitive runs us around Chicago over and over again. Here’s another movie with a climactic sequence on an el train. Everything always seems a little damp in this picture, whether it’s a parking lot or a lab inside a hospital; even when we get our denouement at a fancy hotel, most of it happens in the guts of the place or outside, where grandeur or opulence are replaced with functionality. Richard Kimble is a brilliant man, but what the events of The Fugitive show us is that he is a resourceful one as well, perhaps for the first time in his life. Brilliance and resourcefulness don’t come into it so much for Willard, who we first meet bleeding and screaming and crying under the helicopter rotor ceiling fan mashup in his room. This is as much piss as we’re liable to get from Willard; the rest is all vinegar, a sour face in a curdled war. The job of the cowboy is to get the cattle one step closer to slaughter, pushing the herd forward so that it can be sold off as steak or chuck or dog food, and there’s a brainless, unceasing energy to how Willard pushes his boat out of Vietnam and into Cambodia in order to serve the slaughter at the end. The new frontier might be Cambodia. It might also be that Willard and Chef and Mr. Clean and Lance and the Chief have managed, between themselves, to feed a cannibal banquet on their way to kill Kurtz. In this film, there is not that much difference between the cowboy and the steer, for neither one seems to really know where he is headed, is only pushed on by some finger in the small of the back or some whiplash to the rump. All he knows is that he has to get there because someone told him to do so.

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