Getting the Gang Together

I’m a sucker for an ensemble piece.

Don’t get me wrong: the lone heroes (John McClane from Die Hard, Harry Callahan from Dirty Harry, Jack Reacher from his series of novels that started with Killing Floor, Indiana Jones from…well, Indiana Jones) are awesome. There’s something exciting about one man overcoming impossible odds and taking down the bad guys.

Dynamic duos are cool, too! Hot-headed Gabriel Cash and meticulous Ray Tango in Tango&Cash; unhinged Martin Riggs and family man Roger Murtaugh in Lethal Weapon; neurotic and brooding Batman and inspirational, idealistic Superman; brash and flamboyant Mugen and elegant, precise Jin from Samurai Champloo.

Even The Way of the Gun, in which both gunmen (George Parker and Harold Longbaugh) are small-time but consummate professionals, does duty to make them stand out as having distinct differences in their personalities. Parker is a little more impulsive and a lot more loquacious while Longbaugh has a consistent air of intrigue about him.

These are good things. These are good characters and good match-ups and good stories.

But I am a sucker for an ensemble. I’m not just talking a group, like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but a group where everyone has a specialized purpose for being there, like Firefly.

I’m talking about The Magnificent Seven, where Chris Adams and Vin are a couple of old, weather-worn dogs with a shared moral compass, Chico is an impetuous young man trying to prove himself, Britt is an aimless knife-man with nothing better to do, Harry Luck is hoping for riches, Lee is on the run from the law and going through a crisis of self, and Bernardo is just trying to get by. And these men, with their speed and their smarts and their guts and their experience get drawn together to save a village.

I’m talking about Ocean’s Eleven, where Danny Ocean and Rusty Ryan pull together a pickpocket, a pair of mechanics, a surveillance expert, an explosives expert, an experienced grifter, an acrobat, the femme fatale and an inside man to pull off an audacious heist.

I’m talking about 100 Bullets (my favorite story of all time) where one man tries to wake up his seven sleeper assassin’s (The Dog, The Wolf, The Bastard, The Rain, The Monster, The Saint, and the Pointman) to bring down the thirteen families running America but bad blood, conflicting loyalties, personal demons, and bloody grudges make the scheme more complicated and more deadly than expected.

The trick is not making the characters carbon copies of each other. A squad of mercenaries can be bad-ass, but in different ways. They do things differently from each other. They act differently from each other.

In The Losers, the group in question is former black ops military. Jensen is an electronics specialist and can (has killed), but he’s more like than not to duck away from direct conflict and crack wise to mask his fear. Rorque is a killer through and through, ruthless and unlikable even by his comrades, but efficient. Pooch is the vehicles expert, along for the ride and to pull his comrades out of the fire, but also the only one with familial ties back home. Cougar is a sniper, and a good one, but he keeps quiet and to himself, haunted by the things he’s seen during war.

This is what makes a good ensemble. Variety. Complexity. It doesn’t just flesh out each character more and make them feel like real people. It also breeds opportunities for real relationships and conflicts within the group itself. That’s where great storytelling is made. That’s where the stakes are raised. That’s what makes each betrayal sting so much more. That’s what makes each death hurt so deep. It’s what makes each victory, last-minute save, reluctant confession, and occasional hook-up such fist-pumping moments.

There’s a movie coming out soon called Fury, headlined by Brad Pitt and starring some other rising name actors (Shia LaBeouf is probably the next biggest, then Logan Lerman, Michael Peña, and Jon Berenthal) about a five-man tank crew stuck behind enemy lines in war-torn Germany.

Lerman is the new gunner on the crew, untrained and untested and thrown into a harrowing situation. Pitt tells him that he’s served with the other three members on the tank for years and across two continents, and he looks it, with deep crow’s feet etched around his eyes and a wicked scar across his mouth. From the previews, there is conflict, with the veterans pushing Lerman to do his job before he gets them killed. There are also several scenes between Pitt and Lerman where the tank commander endeavors to teach the boy about the nature of war and their place in it.

It looks excellent. From the cinematography to the interactions, from the action to the character, it looks fantastic.

But maybe I’m biased. I am, after all, a sucker for an ensemble.

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