At 25: “They Live”

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November 4, 2013 by billysparrow


They Live

Released: November 4, 1988

Starring: Roddy Piper, Keith David, Meg Foster

As previously mentioned, the prospect of a professional wrestler appearing in a film in 1988 was glorious news indeed. And the thought of a wrestler being the lead star of a movie and not just a mover with a few brief scenes? Well, that seemed so unlikely that it was hardly worth contemplating.

But then, faster than a sunset flip, it was true. Roddy Piper (who had already starred in “Body Slam,” as much as it could be said anyone “starred” in that movie, which I say with love considering how many times I’ve watched it) was set to be the lead in a John Carpenter movie called “They Live.” I had no idea who John Carpenter was, but if he had the foresight to cast the man who smashed a coconut over Jimmy Snuka’s head in 1984 as the star of his movie, I assumed he must be a genius.

Sure. I hated Piper when he attacked Snuka, but by 1988, I had grown to appreciate him and was excited to see him as the star of a real movie (not that “Body Slam” wasn’t real–although you might think a movie with Piper, Charles Nelson Reilly, and Billy Barty is something I made up in a sugar-induced brainstorm). But I do not think I was able to channel this excitement well enough to compel someone to take me to see the film in the theaters. My first glimpse of the movie was most likely sometime in 1989 on HBO, where I could watch all the R-rated movies I wanted. I don’t recall my parents objecting to me watching R-rated movies at home, probably because my tastes were less toward “Porky’s” and more toward movies with professional wrestlers in them (see also “The Running Man,” with Jesse Ventura and Professor Toru Tanaka). I’m not sure what that says about me, but let’s pretend it’s something good.

Anyway, though I can’t say for sure if I first saw the movie on HBO, I do know for sure that I taped it off HBO, because that’s what I watched this weekend (the tape also had the original 1966 “Batman” movie–recorded off of WWOR–and the end of an episode of HBO’s “1st and Ten”…I saved those for another day). And though I remember not really understanding “They Live” when I first saw it, I think I get it now. So let’s hear it for my increased cinematic comprehension.

In the early part of the movie, Piper, as the unemployed drifter Nada (who doesn’t love subtlety?), does a lot of toothpick acting, which is to say there’s a lot of him staring at his surroundings and ruminating on who are the bad guys and who are the good guys as he chews on a toothpick. He is, it should be noted, pretty good at this. But considering Piper’s best asset is what comes out of his mouth and not what he chews on in it, it’s an auspicious beginning for the 11-year-old wrestling fan in 1988. But soon he starts talking and things pick up.

His first quotable gem comes in conversation with his fellow construction worker and shantytown dweller Frank (Keith David), who urges Nada to stop snooping around at the church across the street and do as he does, walk the white line. For this advice, Frank gets the following from Nada: “White line’s in the middle of the road; it’s the worst place to drive.” Burn! Suck it, Frank!

Soon, of course, the movie kicks into high gear, as Nada discovers a box of sunglasses and, well, now we’ve got a movie (and a fun drinking game, in which you take a drink whenever someone rubs their forehead in headache-induced agony…give someone your car keys).

And, of course, the revelation leads up to one of cinema’s finest quotes (already given away in the above trailer, but worth seeing in full), right up there with “Frankly, Scarlett, I don’t give a damn” and “I love the smell of napalm in the morning” (from two movies I’ve never seen and I assume are no better than “They Live”).

A lesser movie would just stop there. I mean, how could you possibly top that? Why even try¿ But if Mr. Carpenter had stopped there, (a) people would’ve been pretty annoyed because the movie wasn’t even an hour long at that point and (b) we would’ve been deprived of one of the greatest fight scenes in film history, a seemingly never-ending brawl between Nada and Frank that I defy you to watch all the way through without laughing at least once. And, really, isn’t a good laugh what we’re all looking for in a movie fight scene?

I should point out that in between these two gems, Nada meets Holly, played by Meg Foster, or, more accurately, played by Meg Foster’s eerily hypnotizing blue eyes, because that’s really all you can focus on when she’s on screen (although I was briefly transfixed by the door to her house, which has a doorknob in the middle). She doesn’t get all that much to do, but she does get to give Nada a real solid bottle shot to the head, which apparently took some time to get right.

Once Frank puts on the glasses and sees the truth, the movie starts to lose steam. Gilbert (played by Peter Jason), the head of the now-demolished shantytown (and who bears a striking resemblance to Dan Aykroyd’s Roman Craig from the same year’s “The Great Outdoors”), finds Nada and Frank and invites them to a meeting of the underground human movement. Then that gets busted by The Man (or The Alien Man, I suppose), Nada and Frank cheat death and then enter the secret passageway that takes them to a banquet for the Human Power Elite. And yada yada yada Roddy Piper saves the world. I guess. It’s not entirely clear what will happen to the world at movie’s end, but we do get to see naked boobs. So the viewer leaves happy.

Though a little disjointed in spots, “They Live” holds up pretty well for me. I still thoroughly enjoy the big fight scene and the various Nada-spoken pearls of wisdom (here’s another: “Life’s a bitch, and she’s back in heat”). And the movie’s basic theme of the masses being willingly brainwashed and lulled to sleep by the media and the power elite is certainly not out of place in the present day (not surprisingly many of the Comments sections on the “They Live” YouTube clips reference the Illuminati and the like). It seems inevitable that this will be remade at some point, but good luck to the guy stepping into Hot Rod’s work boots.

Now, this is the very definition of damning with faint praise, but I’m declaring Roddy Piper’s work here to be the best film performance ever by a wrestler-turned-actor. He certainly outshone his in-ring nemesis Hulk Hogan. Granted, I am not fully qualified to dispense that opinion, considering I have seen neither “Suburban Commando” nor “Mr. Nanny,” but based on what he put out in “No Holds Barred,” I’m feeling pretty good about my assessment. And I suppose something the Rock has done might be better than Piper, but I feel like I would’ve been alerted to something being as good as the bubblegum scene. So, for now, let’s leave it as Roddy Piper at the top for “They Live” and Captain Lou Albano at number two for his brief but memorable turn as Frank the Fixer in “Wise Guys.”

“They Live” has certainly attracted a healthy cult following in the 25 years since its release (I came very close to buying a “They Live” knit hat the other week, and I’m a little sad that I didn’t), and I’m willing to say it deserves it. Is it a little overwrought? Sure. Is the acting a bit rough in spots? Maybe. Will I ever tire of using this question construct? Probably not. But I salute you, “They Live,” for daring to attack the Human Power Elite by way of a professional wrestler.

I tip my sunglasses in your general direction.


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