Eastwood report: The Rookie

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The Rookie is known these days as "The Movie Clint Eastwood Made Just Before Unforgiven."  Looking back on it now, it almost seems designed as a supreme fake-out: knowing he had his masterpiece in his hip pocket, Eastwood lowered everyone’s expectations with this formulaic, rote cop-buddy movie.

The Rookie isn’t just rife with cliches, it positively bristles with them, right down to its utterly generic title. I don’t think there’s a single scene that doesn’t try to work at least one in somewhere. This is especially upsetting because Eastwood is known for minting cliches, not reciting them. But to see The Rookie in the context of the post-Lethal Weapon, post-Die Hard cop action comedy milieu is especially depressing. Eastwood doesn’t just quote himself in The Rookie, he quotes filmmakers far below his stature and talent. There are few scenes in The Rookie that have not been seen in any number of 80s action comedies — the mismatched detectives, the cop on the edge who doesn’t play by the rules, the supervising detective who constantly yelling at the protagonists, the young detective with a chip on his shoulder, the older detective with a grudge match, the young wife confused by the changes her young husband is going through, the older detective with no wife and no friends. We have a younger detective whose brother died when he was a boy (in a Vertigo homage that seems way out of place), we have an interview scene that turns surreal before cutting to a protagonist bolting up in bed from a nightmare (let’s get one thing straight — no matter how bad the nightmare, people do not bolt upright from their sleep), we have a crime boss with a girlfriend who’s both beautiful and deadly, we have the boys down at the station who are always playing pranks on the new guy, we have the rich young man who rebels against his father by taking a dangerous, blue-collar job ("You were never there for me, dad!"), we have a showdown at an airport lifted straight from Bullitt, and on and on.

And the wisecracks. Oh, the wisecracks. Eastwood generously (I think) gives most of the wisecracks to co-star Charlie Sheen, who plays all of them straight, which leads me to wonder if there’s supposed to be some level of satire I’m missing here. Sheen’s character David Ackerman, it’s like he’s grown up watching 80s cop action-comedies, and assumes that every act of brutality must be joined with a corresponding wisecrack or else it doesn’t count or something. Whether he’s in the middle of destroying a bar or beating a guy to a pulp or consoling his inconsolable wife after she’s just shot a man to death, David must wedge a wisecrack into the scene, it’s like a compulsion. There’s even a moment late in the movie when David kind of goes wisecrack-happy while torturing a henchman and Eastwood actually cocks an eyebrow and makes a remark about it.

If we’re supposed to chuckle knowingly at David’s pathology, no one seems to have informed Charlie Sheen, who could have easily played the part as comedy, but who seems terribly, terribly serious throughout. Not so with Eastwood, who, despite being more garroulous in The Rookie than he is in most of his movies, gives a wise, nuanced, witty, even charming performance in a role far beneath him.

When The Rookie has an original idea, it’s also a completely ludicrous one. At the top of the list is a scene where Sonia Braga (the beautiful-but-deadly second villain) tortures Eastwood while he’s bound to a chair, then forces him to have sex with her. A casino robbery suddenly turns into a hastily-improvised kidnapping, which brings the bad guy and the good guy into the same plot strand but which also makes no sense at all. Also the movie casts the utterly overqualified Raul Julia and Sonia Braga as, for some reason, Germans.

As The Rookie is a narrative about detectives busting up an auto-theft operation, vehicular mayhem abounds. Some of it is well-staged, but none of it carries any weight. There is nothing to compare to the famous chase scenes of yesteryear. It’s spectacle without import: if a cop is chasing a guy and must resort to a dynamic, furiously-cut car chase to do so, I’m right there with them. But if the narrative invents a bunch of nonsense because the stunt coordinator has an idea for a gag, I couldn’t care less.

The Rookie is, of course, a coming-of-age story, a mentor-protege story and a last-hurrah story as well. (All cop-buddy movies are love stories, so it’s perfectly okay to have two protagonists.) Eastwood’s character is, supposedly, teaching young David Ackerman the things that he needs to know to Be A Man, which in this case involves indiscriminately destroying property, torturing and killing informants and generally blowing shit up. Eastwood’s Nick Pulovski is a slightly-more-yakkity version of Harry Callahan, a loveless, cantankerous bastard who bears his loneliness and isolation in exchange for being society’s line of defense against those who prey on it, but The Rookie reduces his pathology to a cartoon, which makes David’s path to Nick-ness nothing more than "Act like a violent, irresponsible asshole and you, too will Be A Man." And when Nick and David finally murder their targets in cold blood and then share a cigar while trading final wisecracks one feels nothing but ick.

That said, the movie is beautifully photographed by Jack Green, who manages to make drab Los Angeles locations and long stretches of urban night gorgeous.


14 Responses to “Eastwood report: The Rookie”
  1. laminator_x says:

    My favorite moment of utterly-overqualified-Raoul-Julia-ness comes from the generally aweful Street Fighter motion picture.

    As the young heroine Chun-Li confronts the villainous Mr. Bison (Julia)for having razed her villiage and murdered her father, she is shocked that Bison doesn’t remember. Julia’s delivery of the following lines is the best part of the movie:

    Bison: I’m sorry. I don’t remember any of it.
    Chun Li: You don’t remember?
    Bison: For you, the day Bison graced your village was the most important day of your life. But for me, it was… Tuesday.

    • Todd says:

      Action movies got really bad in the 90s.

      • stormwyvern says:

        For a time, anyways. God help me I do actually like Bad Boys, though it might be that I haven’t seen enough buddy cop pictures to feel like it’s something I’ve seen before. And though it’s been a while since I saw it, I think Face/Off did a lot of things really right, though that does not include the science. (Thank you for the blog recommendation.)

      • craigjclark says:

        You would have thought Last Action Hero would have been their death knell, but sadly that was not to be.

    • black13 says:

      That is one of the best lines ever in action movies.

      The rest of the movie is utter gutter trash. But that line is genius. Especially the way Julia delivers it.

  2. mr_noy says:

    Thanks Todd. I had managed to supress ever having seen The Rookie until you brought it up. It’s one of many films that I can sum up with a one line review: “I saw this movie”; the kind of movie that is so mediocre you forget it even as you’re watching it. The only thing I recall was thinking how disappointing it was to see Julia and Braga in such a piece of forgetable dreck.

    I had forgotten that he followed this up with The Unforgive; the film that first made me sit up and take notice of Eastwood as a director. Up until then, I had thought of him as an aging, increasingly irrelevant, action star. Unforgiven made me take a second glance at his body of work and now I think of him as one of the best directors working anywhere – something I would have never imagined had I not looked past The Rookie.

    • Anonymous says:


      When I saw this the crowd consisted of me & two other guys, one of whom was in the back of the theater & promptly fell asleep snoring through the entire movie. Appropriate response I think. I forgot Clint followed this up w/”Unforgiven”. That is a helluva turnaround.

      – Bob

  3. stormwyvern says:

    OK, now I feel like you’re dancing around Unforgiven and I haven’t even seen the film or the on discussed here. I think you’re going to have to tackle it at some point in the Eastwood Report, as all roads appear to lead to it.

    Since we seem to be on the borders of Dirty Harry territory, I thought I would mention a speaker i heard on NPR last night who was contrasting Alias with 24 in terms of each show’s treatment of gender politics and information gathering methodology. I only caught about half of the lecture and I haven’t seen enough of either show to really make an informed judgment about the merits of this woman’s arguments. (None of the former, about two early episodes of the latter.) But I did briefly wonder what critics who were aghast at the Eastwood film’s supposed advocating of Harry’s brutal methodology would make of 24, which, the speaker argued, sets is self up as being a more accurate depiction of “reality” than the average TV drama through its gimmick of “real time” and also appears to present the viewpoint that torture is a necessary and effective method of obtaining information from a suspect.

    • Todd says:

      I’ve never actually watched 24, in spite of its must-see nature. As the show so eloquently points out there are only so many hours in a day.

  4. 55seddel says:

    yeah, sounds about like Space Cowboys a little, in regards to quality.

  5. craigjclark says:

    I never made it all the way through this. What little of it I saw convinced me that it wasn’t a movie I would ever regret not finishing.