The may be outnumbered, but they are never outgunned.
With the utterly fabulous prospect of The Accountant on the horizon, and its irresistible premise that B-Fleck is, like, Agent CPAR-15 or some shit, and with Jack Reacher: Never Go Back arriving in theaters next week – when it will be the subject of its own column – I thought it the right moment to pay homage to the best “One Man” movies of all time. (“In a world where sums are feared and reindeer games bounce phantoms . . . ONLY ONE MAN can prevail,” as such a trailer might have intoned back when trailers still had announcers.) This is not, to be clear, movies in which only one man appears, but ones made in bounteous supply from about the 90s onward in which, due to entertainingly ridiculous circumstances, One Uniquely Talented Man is the only thing standing between paradise and the void.
Superhero movies don’t count here because it’s internally consistent in superhero movie universes that superheroes are a thing and it’s only natural for them to fight the supervillains. James Bond, same reason: in the Bond universe it stands to reason that if the British government needs something to blow up or for a dick to be put into something, it’s 007 time (note, also, that from certain angles, the number 7 looks like a dick). The kind of movie I’m talking about is one where there’s at least one moment where you ask, “Really? No one else is a good enough accountant? Okay . . .”
Here, then, are the five greatest “One Man” movies of all time:
Better – to me, anyway – known as “Space Jail,” this gloriously silly EuropaCorp sci-fi-ish actioner justifies its existence on this list with the scene where, when Lennie James and Peter Stormare are trying to figure out how to keep Scottish people from commandeering an orbital space jail (QED) and apocalyptically crashing it into Earth, and they go through the enormous logistical problems inherent in reclaiming a huge, high security detention facility that’s in space, and Peter Stormare has some kind of boring-ass plan that wouldn’t make for any kind of movie at all, but Lennie James counters with his plan: “We send in one man.” Indeed, Lennie. Indeed. A well-muscled and emotionally immature Guy Pearce saunters into the breach, and the villains’ minutes are thereby numbered.
A bit of an outlier, for no other reason than it’s actually good, John Wick nonetheless bears consideration here because unlike his other movies in which Keanu is better than everyone else because he’s Keanu, here there’s a very focused and specific context. The universe of John Wick is one where, beneath a wispy veneer of anodyne normalcy, there exists an entire society of people just like John Wick, where he’s only notable because he’s better than everyone else in all the areas of skill required in a stylized, comic book-inflected criminal demimonde. And he is notable. He’s John Wick. He’s the Baba Yaga. While it’s a slight reach to include John Wick in this particular list, it’s necessary because it’s important to have an example of something like this where it actually works, and because any movie that can take Keanu and make him even better is worth noting.
This is an important film because Mark Wahlberg plays a character named Bob Lee Swagger, and any additional merits are but icing on that exquisite cake. Bob Lee Swagger’s “One Man”ness in this picture is highlighted formally and textually by his deliberate remove from the rest of society, such an island he. The entire reason Bob Lee Swagger is – mild spoiler – approached by some corrupt assholes in the government who want to frame him for assassinating the president is because Bob Lee Swagger is well-known to be the only person with the necessary set of skills to do the job (“ONLY ONE MAN can kill the president,” which reminds me “Bob Lee Swagger” sort of sounds like “dicks out for Lee Harvey Oswald.”) A bunch of other shit happens in the movie, all of which is ultimately resolved by Bob Lee Swagger LOLing at the suggestion that “it’s not the Wild West where you can clean up the streets with a gun” and proceeding to basically do exactly that. While Shooter isn’t totally “what if John Wick but a bad movie,” because it doesn’t totally suck, its abject ridiculousness (which, note, actually enhances its entertainment value) plants it squarely in the “One Man” genre.
Ah, Cage. The best thing about the loglines to Nicolas Cage movies is they sound like things you would (hypothetically) hear when doing (figurative) cocaine with Nicolas Cage: “I’M A LOUNGE ENTERTAINER WHO CAN SEE INTO THE FUTURE, DUDE, AND I HELP THE FBI SOLVE CRIMES RRRAAARRRR!” That is, gloriously, the premise of Next, wherein a magician is enlisted to stop a nuclear warhead from going off, because he can see glimpses of what will happen two minutes in the future. This may indeed be Peak “One Man,” because, seriously, being able to see two minutes into the future is some serious Nicolas Cage shit, and there is only one and will only ever be one Nicolas Cage. Bizarrely, this is the only movie he has ever made that fits this category; I suppose even a silly construct such as this is still too much of a construct to hold within its grasp the mercury that is Cage.
While this is, hands down, the worst movie on this list, its status as the ne plus ultra of “One Man” movies is clinched by this very factor. Harrison Ford built his career on being better than everyone else at everything in movies, being both Han Solo and Indiana Jones, to say nothing of Rick Deckard and Richard Kimble. And all the rest of them. He’s Harrison Ford, possessed of a movie star persona both indomitable and far too dignified to ever adorn a movie shaky enough to be included in a disrespectful listicle like this. But the thing about winning streaks is, they eventually come to an end.
And so, Harrison Ford did one day make Firewall, in which he was the “One Man” who could bring the villain’s nefarious plan to fruition. Being Harrison Ford, they have to kidnap his family (no one else has ever nailed that Harrison Ford throb with which he intones the words “MY FAMILY,”or “MY WIFE”) and because he’s the bastion of purity and nobility he goes along with it. That would all be fine, and he had the Jack Ryan films as a dry run for this kind of thing, but Harrison Ford being the head IT guy for a bank puts this irreparably in a column adjacent to, never overlapping, “good.” However, in a miraculous triumph of stubbornness and pure star power, Harrison Ford makes Firewall one of the only known movies to be thoroughly and compulsively watchable solely due to its plot synopsis and leading actor. Firewall’s pleasures may be more anthropological than aesthetic, but such is the fate of the “One Man” genre.
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