There is a brief sight gag before the credits of F Gary Gray’s Be Cool (2005), a happy ending that winks at the audience, aware of its absurdity. As John Travolta and Uma Thurman breeze off into the Hollywood night, they pass a billboard advertising a film starring Nicole Kidman and Elliot Wilhelm (The Rock). A Hawaiian-shirt clad Wilhelm pulls the eyebrow move alongside a photoshopped Kidman. The name of the film-within-a-film advertised? Samoan Rendezvous.
Seen one way, Samoan Rendezvous is a small joke rather than anything trenchant, sticking with the film’s habit of acquiring pop-cultural comedy buzzwords in lieu of actual character development. The bodyguard to a pimp culture-obsessed agent (Vince Vaughn), Elliot dozily recites a scene from Bring It On as a monologue; performs a cover of Loretta Lynn’s You Ain’t Woman Enough; shows a penchant for C&W stetson-wear, slapping his buttocks and beaming “scorchin’!” in as camp a manner as possible.
If you’ve never seen Be Cool, you have most likely decided it is a trifle from these details alone. You would be right. The film breezes by, demanding little from the audience but their patience for self-referential humour as famous people do famous things: Travolta and Thurman dancing together a la Pulp Fiction, The Rock emphatically raising his eyebrow, Cedric the Entertainer doing his Cedric the Entertainer schtick and walking away with the film in his pocket. The film, however, is important in the Rock’s evolution as a screen fixture by being the rare film that makes a point of his Samoan background.
Before we get to the meta-billboard, there is a song: newly famous starlet Linda Moon (Christina Milian) performs a hit single at the MTV Video Music Awards. Gray stages the performance as a mash-up of totally disparate styles, none of them connecting in any immediately coherent way. You have a Cuban-American singer dressed in an ultra-short Chinese qipao, performing a clanging r’n’b song with an old-stylee blues guitar lick propelling it upward. Accompanied by two dancers, His Rockness appears on stage with his hair in cornrows to perform a take on the Fa’ataupati. Then some breakdancers appear on stage to close the performance.
It is a mess, yes, but a special type of mess. The garish presentation can be understood when you consider the performance’s giddy rush to represent a multi-racial pop-cultural landscape of the US. This sentiment is further supported by a Cedric the Entertainer monologue in which he waxes poetic on Caucasian co-opting of African-American culture: “We enrich your very existence”. The fact that he is holding a Russian gangster stereotype at gunpoint could desecrate any wider point that Gray appears to make, but it is totally in tune with the rest of the film. It’s silly and one-dimensional yet naively optimistic about the wide racial make-up of the American entertainment industry, from The Rock to Christina Milian via Cedric the Entertainer and Andre 3000 and Romanian-Polish Harvey Keitel and Italian-Irish John Travolta, and so forth.
(A note: The Milian/Rock VMA performance seems like an attempt to parody Diddy’s insane 2002 VMA performance, which is about a hundred times better because we can point at it and go “yup, that actually happened”. You need to stop reading this feature and watch that video right now.)
For all the cross-cultural/cross-generational appeal, the great majority of videogames stick to a tried-and-tested cast of Caucasian characters. This is a particularly odd sensation when it comes to first-person shooters from Wolfenstein onwards, where you inhabit a character invisible except for his (and it’s usually his) hands and weaponry. Surely this would mean an open array of ethnicities could organically be built into the games themselves, taking into account that the person sitting in front of the console with controller in hand is not always the atypical white male aged 18-49. Of course, this type of natural attempt at representation of people of colour still seems to elude the videogame generation.
In a recent piece for Kill Screen, Jamin Warren describes this very feeling upon completing the survival horror game Dead Space: “This was the man I had embodied for a dozen hours and there was a jarring disconnect between the man that I am and the man that I had played. He didn’t look like me and the immersive connection between me and [protagonist Isaac Clarke] stuttered.”
In the case of Doom the videogame, the avatar you control – later nicknamed ‘Doomguy’ by fans – was left nameless and dumb to guarantee player immersion; still, it is a white face, unrepresentative of the radical makeup of its millions of players. In the 2005 film adaptation, Karl Urban (the future Judge Dredd) steps into the Doomguy role, filling the polygon shoes of the character with a grunting wet-eyed solemnity and – in the film’s only truly exciting sequence – places the audience through his eyes as he shoots his way out of a number of hellish scenarios, directly echoing the feeling of playing Doom at home.
But we are not here for character development, hence the introduction and imminent detachment of The Weird Grunt, The Religious Grunt and The Youngest Grunt as they are sent to investigate a hellish quarantine on a Martian research facility. The Rock, again using the mile-long intense stares we saw in Walking Tall, swears through his role as the Sarge.
Whilst Urban acts as the audience’s point of entry and shares scenes with weird-accent sibling Rosamund Pike, The Rock sheds the charm and self-effacing humour evident from his other roles to play a kind of maniac military bureaucrat, dedicated to ensuring that orders are followed. In the film’s other good scene, an argument rises between the surviving soldiers over whether or not to let a room of frightened human survivors be killed. Sarge orders that they be murdered, echoing his earlier orders of “if it breathes, kill it”, sparking a gory moral-quandary melodrama in the process.
As the film lumbers towards the expected Urban/Rock showdown, Sarge’s psyche unravels farther and he turns into a killing machine, accompanied by a Clint Mansell score that flits between Fennesz-like ambience and nu-metal riffing. In other words, Sarge is a madman firing his way through uneasy stillness and (offscreen) ultra-violent carnage. He also gets to hone the game’s famous BFG plasma weapon. Taking these aspects into consideration, he makes much more sense as the true candidate for the Doomguy role, therefore upending the image of the character as a purely white avatar.
The Rock’s casting in this film guarantees more than a loyal audience honed through his time spent in the WWE. Intended or not, it normalizes racial integration in both film and videogame culture by bypassing the requirement to project him as the Other. Doom may not be a good film, but it would help to define its star’s evolution into becoming a post-racial action hero.
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