Men on a Mission, a subgenre of pretty much every possible action film, has been around for a very long time and is undergoing a resurgence of sorts within the ranks of superhero films and the like. The undeniable king of the subgenre, however, has to be Lee Marvin. Whether the genre is a western, WWII, crime films or sometimes impossible to categorize, no actor did more of them or the best of them than Marvin.
According to a 2014 IndieWire article on WWII films, “The recipe is simple: take a bunch of men (the more ill-suited and quarrelsome the better), give them an objective—killing Hitler, looting Nazi gold, saving Private Ryan, protecting crucial work of arts from destruction by the Germans—and send those men on the mission.”
By that definition, no list of great WWII Men on a Mission films could be complete without The Dirty Dozen (1967). Of course, the definition left out the crucial aspect of training which often makes up the best part of the film, all elements of which are even the ad line for the film….
When it comes to westerns within the subgenre, it’s hard to beat The Professionals (1966) for plot, character, action and dialogue. Kind of forgotten nowadays but anyone familiar with it knows how great a film it truly is.
Some crime films don’t usually include the subgenre as they are often revenge or heist oriented in their plots and themes. One obvious exception would be Prime Cut (1972).
The very strange project had Marvin tasked with rounding up a crew to get rogue mobster Gene Hackman to fork over the money he’s been skimming from the Kansas City mob. Naturally, Hackman does not take kindly to their mission and the resulting violence makes up the bulk of the film. Marvin does rescue Sissy Spacek from Hackman along the way and dallies with ex-girlfriend Angel Tompkins but that aside, it’s pure male-dominated action. At one point, Marvin even has to introduce himself to the mother of one of his young recruits!
And then there are action films that simply defy categorization. The best example of this is Marvin’s 1973 opus, Emperor of the North. The mission, which is also clearly stated in the ad, was so unique audiences did not know what to make of it and ultimately simply avoided it altogether. A shame really as the finale and the cinematography throughout are excellent.
So there you have it. A small smattering of examples showing Lee Marvin’s work as the best of the subgenre. There are many more, of course, but for the uninitiated, the above examples are a good place to start. Naturally, all of his films, including the ones mentioned herein, are explored in detail, from inception to reception within the pages of Lee Marvin Point Blank. Feel free to check it out for yourself and you’ll discover the best of a rediscovered and still relevant subgenre.
- Dwayne Epstein