The boys are back in town.
The arrival of "The Rookie," with the two actors in the familiar gruff mentor-mentee relationship, signals merely the arrival of another buddy movie. And buddyhood -- male bonding under the stress of violent action, with its strains of jocular hostility disguising affection -- has become one of the most persistent and resonant themes in American movies, a line of material that completely transcends genre. Buddies have buddied up to each other in mean urban streets, in the dusty arroyos of the Wild West, in outer space, in operating rooms, subs and at King Arthur's round table.
Classic buddy movies take one of two forms. The Eastwood-Sheen variation might be called "Me and Dad": It's always a rite of passage drama, about an unofficial father and his disreputable son, in which the bad boy disbelieves the wise dad's counsel, but over the course of the adventure sees the wisdom, and ultimately uses it to prove himself a man in his own right.
The other variation might be called "Uneasy Equals": In it ("Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid"), two characters of considerable power and personality but separated by external mandates (race, class and so forth) are thrust together by freakish circumstances and must develop a working relationship in spite of conflicting agendas. In this case, the movie usually ends reaffirming the commonness of the human condition, as each realizes that the other is basically a decent guy.
Thus it is that mentor-mentee buddy films are usually conservative, as they tend to validate the wisdom of the father figure; and uneasy equals films are generally liberal, emphasizing equality and cooperation.
In literary tradition, buddying up may be traced back at least as far as the last century, to the one work of art from which Hemingway declared "all American literature sprang." That was Mark Twain's "Huckleberry Finn," in which Huck and the runaway slave Jim fled a hostile society for the solitude of the river and the wilderness, and there had a number of adventures that intensified their bond and advanced their maturity.
In the mid-'50s, literary critic Leslie Fiedler even advanced the thesis in an essay called "Come Back to the Raft Again, Huck Honey" that the core of Huck Finn was the core of all great American novels -- two men with mutual interests but vivid differences (usually racial; sometimes generational or experiential) flee civilization for an epic journey, bond, and are the better for it.
There may be something to this as it extends into the popular film: We can certainly see echoes of it in the key buddy movies of our own time, from Stanley Kramer's "The Defiant Ones" of the '50s on through the "48 HRS" and the "Lethal Weapons" and "Rookies" of more recent vintage. The wilderness has usually become underworld society and the enemies not bandits but firepower-crazed drug dealers.
Still, it hasn't been a straight shot. In the '30s and '40s, for example, the boy-buddy picture was an anomaly. Rare exceptions to the rule include the great pairings of Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy, most famously in "Boom Town," one of those they-don't-make-'em-like-that-anymore classics. In this one, the two guys are oil field roustabouts and wildcatters, who manage, over the movie's adventurous course, to find and lose several fortunes in the Oklahoma oil fields.
But far more typically during the high-water mark of the studio system, the buddies were guys and gals. In the "Thin Man" pictures with William Powell and Myrna Loy and the Spencer Tracy-Katharine Hepburn films, buddyhood became one of the highest achievements of American films. These films, though they are coed, embody almost exactly the virtues that were later to become the hallmark of the high buddy movie: that is, a non-sexual friendship based on mutual trust but also comprised of a lot of hostility disguising the rich fund of touchy-feely passions underneath it all.
The charm of these movies -- and subsequent distillations -- was the effortless way in which the participants could keep up a high level of banter while progressing through the coils of the plot and solving the immediate action. This is a tradition carried through to our times where, in an excellent buddy picture such as the original "48 HRS," the relationship between Eddie Murphy and Nick Nolte is at least as interesting as the nominal "story," which concerns the pursuit of two escaped killers.
But another tradition also has filtered into today's buddy films. In a straight line from the high days of vaudeville, there's been a long history of two-man comedy teams -- from the famed Smith and Dale to Olson and Johnson and Abbott and Costello. In the early films, it was Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy who most brilliantly brought the highest level of physical comedy. They were an interesting pair, most brilliantly subverting the stereotypes before they had been established.
Laurel and Hardy pioneered one other key bit of business to buddy culture: the concept of misplaced aggression. Buddies rarely directly confront each other; rather, they deploy their aggressions in what might be called display combat. They destroy something outside the relationship (in their case, usually a piano, a small house or a room) as an effort to show off their power and impress the other. This is another buddy habit that shows up again and again in buddy pictures, proving that there's nothing new that isn't old.
In the '50s, the buddy tradition had almost completely retreated to the realm of lighter-than-air comedy, particularly as carried along by the Bob Hope-Bing Crosby road pictures, and the easy grace between the participants. A more frantic variation featured the laid-back Dean Martin and the completely nutty Jerry Lewis.
The one exception to this was John Ford's brilliant "The Searchers," probably the darkest, most neurotic buddy picture every made. In Ford's film, John Wayne plays Ethan Edwards, an obsessed ex-Confederate cavalry officer, who, with his young nephew Martin Pauley (Jeff Hunter, a much underrated '50s actor), sets out in search of the one survivor of a Cheyenne murder raid directed against his brother's family, the daughter Debbie (Natalie Wood).
The odyssey takes 10 years as the two roam the West, closing with, then losing, the Indians. Though Ford was in many ways a sentimentalist, with a fondness for Irish blarney, there wasn't a shred of the sentimental to the relationship between Ethan and Marty: This was classic mentor-mentee, tough, stern, cruel, unforgiving. I think that many of the mentor-mentee buddy jobs that have come since have emulated this brilliant relationship, surely one of the most passionate and convincing in American films.
Buddies for real returned in "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" and "The Sting," in which the two reigning male sex objects and blue-irised icons of the day, R. Redford and P. Newman, joined forces. It was a match made in heaven, as the two appeared to genuinely like each other and to get on in believable ways. They had chemistry.
And, also in the '60s, could it not be said that the buddy movie went through its counter-culture phase in Dennis Hopper's "Easy Rider," in which Hopper and Peter Fonda, in classic Huck Finn fashion, chose Harley hogs for their raft and went looking for America, though many revisionist critics have conveniently forgotten than they were drug dealers who financed their roamings with a big score?
But it can't be coincidental that the buddy picture has returned with a vengeance in days when feminism, almost inconceivable in the earlier days, has become a dominant cultural value. Buddy movies today -- good, bad or indifferent -- are almost always part of a post-feminist backlash. They work to isolate men from women and from families and to give them passionate emotional relationships with only other men. They almost always take place in an explicitly violent subculture -- criminally, usually -- and they are visually festooned with male fetish objects, particularly guns but also fast cars and beautiful female trophies. They are unrelentingly hostile -- not just in the contests between good guys and bad, but more tellingly between the two good guys, with that hostility taking the form of an elaborate courtship ritual, in which insult, physical intimidation, aloofness to danger and lack of emotional expressiveness are the stations of the cross.
In a society increasingly suspicious of traditional masculine values, the buddy picture is like the men's room -- it's the last place on earth where men can behave like boys and not get in trouble for it. Not yet, anyway.