A dozen years separated the activist uprisings over the homicidal leatherman in Cruising and the icy bisexual ice-pick murderess in Basic Instinct, but the protests over both of those films carried the same message: You can’t keep giving us gay and lesbian murderers in movies if queer characters are going to be otherwise invisible in pop culture.
If there were a broad array of gay representation in film, then the occasional villain would be OK, but it’s a crock to portray us as nothing but victimizers and victims.
Welcome to 2011, where The Kids Are All Right is up for a Best Picture Oscar and “Gay Teens on TV” is the cover story of Entertainment Weekly. The fight for balanced representation – since no one can really agree what “positive” representation means – may not have been entirely won, but there’s no denying that many different kinds of gay and lesbian characters are appearing on both the big and small screens.
And with that in mind, seeing a gay assassin in The Mechanic – a film in which most of the major characters are killers themselves – feels like another step forward on the road to equality.
Ben Foster and Jason Statham
The Mechanic, a remake of the 1972 Charles Bronson film, stars Jason Statham as Arthur Bishop, a hit man who gets an assignment to kill his mentor, Harry McKenna (Donald Sutherland). Feeling guilty about the job, Arthur takes Harry’s son Steve (Ben Foster) under his wing and teaches him everything there is to know about the murder-for-hire business.
Steve’s first assignment is to knock off rival assassin Burke (Jeff Chase), a 6’7” bruiser with a weakness for coffee, Chihuahuas … and younger guys. So Steve has to go to the same coffeehouse as Burke on a daily basis (with a rescue dog) in the hopes that the big guy will eventually chat him up. Which he does.
Burke and Steve on a “date”
Mind you, the film never uses Burke’s homosexuality as an excuse to belittle the character or to question his masculinity. If anything, Arthur makes it a point to tell Steve on numerous occasions that Burke is one big, strong, dangerous character. Steve’s fake-seduction is never mocking or condescending; it’s just part of the job. And if anything, we wonder how far Steve will take it before the knives come out.
Because Steve is so physically unmatched with Burke, Arthur gives him a vial with a lethal dose of rohypnol (aka roofies), which Steve is supposed to pour into Burke’s drink so Burke’s death will look like a heart attack. But Steve, who has anger issues, decides he wants a more mano-a-mano kill.
Steve goes back to Burke’s house with him, and when foreplay begins, Steve removes Burke’s belt so he can strangle him with it. But when Burke realizes what’s happening, a wall-smashing, furniture-destroying fight breaks out between the two of them; Burke gets his licks in before Steve finally kills him with a fireplace poker.
In the bad old days, Burke would have gone on the ever-growing list of queer killers in movies from Vanishing Point to From Russia with Love to The Fan. But we aren’t in 1980 anymore: Queer independent cinema happened, and even Hollywood is finally catching up enough that we get interesting, funny, flawed, three-dimensional gay and lesbian characters with some regularity. And if a gay character can be a bad-ass killer in a Jason Statham movie, that just means they’re letting us inside the tent.
Burke is no effete shrinking violet; he’s played by a former pro football player, and he’s a character who is respected and even feared by the film’s very capable and very deadly hero. So before GLAAD or any of the other professionally offended corners of the community get their knickers in a twist, they should take a step back and see how this actually represents progress for queer visibility.
Yes, we’re still waiting an Oscar to go to someone who plays a gay character who doesn’t die, and yes, we haven’t gotten to the place where out-of-the-closet actors and actresses can have their pick of roles. The fight is not over. But when I can go see a movie like The Mechanic and see a gay character who’s on a level playing field with everyone else in the movie – and when it’s clear we’re meant to be rooting for the hero not to die instead of hoping that he’ll “kill the faggot” – it feels like another battle has been won.
Duralde is the DVD editor of Movieline and author of 101 Must-See Movies for Gay Men (Alyson Books).