This weekend marks the release of The Losers, the first of at least three major motion pictures to star an elite team of specialists on the mission of their lives in 2010. So in honor of The Losers, and later The A-Team, and later The Expendables (seriously, you’d think guys this talented could have earned more flattering monikers by now), Julia Rhodes and I (William Bibbiani!) present our very favorite elite teams in cinema history.
As near as I can determine (and if you can think of an earlier film let me know in the comments below), the elite team dynamic was codified in 1954 by Akira Kurosawa in The Seven Samurai, in which a group of samurai with distinct talents and abilities were formed to undertake a seemingly impossible mission. Although the trope existed beforehand in literature (for what else, really, was “The Fellowship of the Ring?”), most film portrayals of elite teams in some way play off of the Seven Samurai dynamic, or at least Rififi’s, which in 1955 brought the concept into the world of the heist thriller. Since then there have been no shortage of classic teams, from Danny Ocean’s famous “11,” to the famed “Impossible Mission Force,” to the smooth-as-water space cowboys of the illustrious Bebop.
But you know what? If I had a job to do, and the fate of the world was riding on the outcome, there’s only one elite team I’d want to call:
“Martin Bishop & Associates” (Sneakers, dir. Phil Alden Robinson)
All right boys, let’s break into that toy company…! The one with laser fencing, state of the art motion sensors, voice-print identification and heavily armed guards. Geez, are they inventing the Wii in there or what?!
After Phil Alden Robinson wrote and directed the sentimental classic Field of Dreams he followed that success with a little film about a group of computer hackers hired by the NSA to steal a “Little Black Box” from a mathematician who may, or may not, be working for Russia. Amongst fans, Sneakers is nothing short of legendary – a beautiful film that’s as thrilling as it is emotionally involving. If you’re not a fan, then the odds are good that you’ve never heard of it, which is really weird given that the film stars Robert Redford, Sidney Poitier, Ben Kingsley, Dan Ackroyd, River Phoenix, David Strathairn and Mary McDonnell.
Ordinarily, Martin Bishop & Associates are hired by large organizations, like banks, to break into their establishments and then give a detailed report explaining how they were able to do so. It’s a sweet gig for a team of misfits and ex-cons like Redford’s Martin Bishop (a very wanted man after donating all of Republican Party’s funds to the Black Panthers), Poitier’s Donald Crease (former CIA, fired under mysterious circumstances), Phoenix’s Carl Arbogast (hacked into his college mainframe to change his grades… Bishop & Associates caught him), Dan Ackroyd’s “Mother” (served time, says he was framed), and Strathairn’s Whistler (a blind communications expert with over 65 felony charges from the phone company).
Dan Ackroyd demonstrates how to avoid setting off a motion detector. Unfortunately, this particular method will suffocate you.
Unlike many elite teams, Martin Bishop & Associates have no weak link or rookie to train or double-cross them. Though funny and competitive they are a perfectly functioning unit that can perform any task, with often hilarious results. (Bishop is caught mid-heist by their mark’s lover, and the entire team contributes to his increasingly ridiculous cover story via hidden microphone, and their solution to hacking an electronic keypad is nothing short of revolutionary.) Occasionally, the team seems a little unbalanced – if anything, Whistler gets the MVP award in Sneakers, as his unique insight and superhuman hearing solve more problems than the efforts of any other individual character. But hey, don’t fault the Justice League for hiring Superman, right?
This is what hacking looks like. It’s just a shame Whistler’s blind.
I made the mistake of describing Sneakers to a good friend who hadn’t seen it as “The Best Hacker Movie Ever Made.” It is, don’t get me wrong, but I left out the key information that the film was made and set in 1992, back when hacking required more than simply typing really fast and MTV-Generation films like Hackers and Swordfish had decided that the only way to film hacking was to use unrealistic lighting and swoop cameras around really fast. Sneakers is a low-tech hacker film, but it also uses exceptional character and storytelling to keep things interesting as opposed to gimmicky stylizations. It’s a classic film in every sense, except the one in which you haven’t seen it, and a huge part of that is thanks to the exceptional talents of Martin Bishop & Associates.
But if Bishop’s team needed a little backup, then my friends there’s only one elite team I’d pick:
“Dutch’s Commandoes” (Predator, dir. John McTiernan)
Gather ’round for the hero shot, everybody! And remember our motto: “Nothing can possibly go wrong.”
For my money (not that I have much), Predator remains one of the finest movies of the 1980’s. Directed by John McTiernan back when that really meant something, Predator sported a cast of the machoest macho men in cinema history and pitted them against one of the greatest monsters to come out of a decade littered with fantastic cinematic beasties. But whereas Freddy Krueger, Chucky and the rest of their 80’s ilk spent their time picking off teenagers, suburbanites or other “easy” prey, the Predator was unique in that it didn’t just want to kill something. No… the Predator wanted to be challenged. And in order to do so McTiernan, along with screenwriters Jim & John Thomas (featuring uncredited rewrites by cast member Shane Black), had to come up with a team of badasses worthy of being their monster’s prey. Enter… Dutch’s Commandoes.
“We have HUUUUUUUUUUUGE penises!!!”
In a team so virile it could only be lead by Arnold Schwarzenegger, it fell to like-bodied muscleheads to fill it out: muscleheads like Carl Weathers (Rocky), Bill Duke (Commando), Sonny Landham (Poltergeist), Jesse Ventura (The Running Man) and, well, Lethal Weapon screenwriter Shane Black as comic relief. Jesse Ventura in particular steals the show as a man powerful enough to handle a minigun by himself (a complete fantasy, as the gun had to be carried by a crane during production), and who micromanages his time to such a ridiculous degree that he “ain’t got time to bleed.” Hired by the American government for a black ops mission in enemy territory, the team spends the first act of Predator proving themselves the greatest fighting force ever assembled, and McTiernan wisely pulls no cinematic punches in filming the chaos they perpetrate taking down a team of heavily armed Central American guerillas, seen here:
Ordinarily a skillful action director would save an action sequence like that for the big climax, but McTiernan found it necessary to blow his wad early, because he was about to make this elite team of unstoppable badasses scream for their mothers like little itty-bitty womenfolk girlymen of weakness. As the Predator picks these bad mother so-and-so’s off one by one, their skill as a fighting force instantly elevates the Predator to iconic status, where he has remained to this day despite sequels which rapidly decreased in quality (although Predator 2 isn’t half-bad). Dutch’s commandoes were true heroes, and sacrificed themselves for the good of us all… or at least our entertainment. The Weekly Listicle salutes you, boys!
THE USUAL SUSPECTS (dir. Bryan Singer, 1995)
A lineup of the ultimate elite criminals (The Usual Suspects).
Bryan Singer’s The Usual Suspects features one of the oddest elite teams in film history. When a team of hardened criminals are shoved together in a lineup (the movie’s iconic cover shot), they decide to work together and take down a corrupt police ring. Mysteries unravel and no one is who he seems. Kevin Spacey is perfect in the role of “Verbal” Kint, an obnoxious con artist who comes by his nickname honestly—but as anyone who’s ever been acquainted with a big talker knows, sometimes people run their mouths to cover up the truth. Verbal is unassuming and irritating, and his cerebral palsy makes him a somewhat pathetic character (portrayals of disability in film—especially this one—are a topic for another day). The film is based around his narration to detectives investigating a number of deaths. The titular characters are professional thief McManus (Stephen Baldwin), former corrupt police officer Keaton (Gabriel Byrne), McManus’s partner Fenster (Benicio del Toro), hijacker Hockney (Kevin Pollak), and Verbal himself, all of whom contribute different elements to the team. They’re the best at what they do, and with their talents combined, they assume they can take down the biggest crime ring in NYC.
Kevin Spacey as “Verbal” Kint in The Usual Suspects.
The film meanders through twists and veers through turns, each loose end bolstering the legend of Keyser Söze, a Turkish criminal whose reputation has even the hardest con-men terrified. Söze is a mythical character reputed to have killed his own family to keep himself alive; who runs the country’s largest crime ring from the shadows; who lives almost entirely in the minds and memories of those who crossed him. According to legend, he’s both omnipotent and frighteningly clever: Söze is the equivalent of a malevolent god, keeping the bad guys in check and the good guys in line. Söze’s lawyer Kobayashi (Pete Postlethwaite, a fantastic character actor whose roles are infinitely memorable) is a prophet of sorts, expounding on the legends.
Who is Keyser Soze? This guy.
The end of The Usual Suspects is one of the most satisfying twists in film. “Who is Keyser Söze?” is the most pervasive question in the world of The Usual Suspects, and when Singer finally lets the audience in on the answer, it’s completely rewarding. If you’re like me and immerse yourself completely in a story, your eyes will pop and you’ll grin like a madman. Though Keyser Söze is the most important character in the film, his will could not be done without the team of criminals he winds up and sets in motion.
“FIREFLY” (created by Joss Whedon, 2002)
Requisite iconic shot: Jayne (Adam Baldwin), Mal (Nathan Fillion), and Zoe (Gina Torres) aboard Serenity, being badasses.
“Firefly” marks the first time Joss Whedon got screwed over by the Fox network. Last year’s “Dollhouse” was the second. “Firefly” ended after only one season, but is in fact one of the best series ever to air on TV. The show is a space western about nine people that live and travel on a “Firefly-class” spaceship called Serenity. The ship’s core inhabitants are Captain Malcolm Reynolds (charming and hilarious Nathan Fillion), his second-in-command Zoe (Gina Torres), Zoe’s husband and navigator Wash (Alan Tudyk), engineer Kaylee (Jewel Staite), Companion—a.k.a. high-class escort—Inara (Morena Baccarin), and criminal Jayne (Adam Baldwin). Shepherd Book (Ron Glass), a preacher who pays his way to travel on the ship, and two accidental stowaways, siblings Simon (Sean Maher) and River (Summer Glau) Tam form the final crew of Serenity.
The crew of Serenity navigate the city of Jaynestown, a Western sort of town if ever there was one.
In the year 2517, Earth isn’t a viable option for habitation anymore and humans are spread across the galaxy, living nomadic existences on spaceships or on other planets whose harsh landscapes always bear a remarkable resemblance to the Old West of America. As with most of Whedon’s work, each character has an intricately detailed past and personality. Combined, the crew of Serenity can perform heists, escape the baddies (in this case, some of the most genuinely terrifying villains in TV history, the Reavers), and get on each other’s last nerves with wit and grace. There’s as much fist-fighting as there are unrequited loves and life-or-death situations. The mark of a good elite team is one in which each character plays a singular, indispensable role, and no one aboard Serenity is unnecessary, either to the show’s plot or the machinations of the characters.
Blame: she doesn’t have it. River (Summer Glau) and the rest of the cast inspired metric tons of Internet memes.
Unfortunately, though, Fox aired the series in muddled order on Friday nights, and the network didn’t finish airing the fourteen episodes filmed or pick up a second season (curse them!). The movie Serenity (2005) winds up some of the characters’ storylines (unsatisfactorily, I might add) and gives the show a less ambiguous ending. Despite its lackluster airing on Fox, the show is a cult favorite, making the movie and all sorts of ancillary merchandise possible. Whedon moved on to other things (though “Dollhouse” was also unsuccessful), and he recasts Serenity’s crew members when he can. Fillion was in Whedon’s web series “Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog” and Tudyk was in “Dollhouse.” As far as elite teams go, this one will continue to live in on the hearts and minds of Whedon fanatics like yours truly.