The boys are back in town.
Clint Eastwood and Charlie Sheen, cops, men with guns, men on the edge . . . buddies.
The arrival of "The Rookie," with the two actors in the familiar gruff mentor-mentee relationship, signals merely the arrival of another buddy movie. And buddyhood -- male bonding under the stress of violent action, with its strains of jocular hostility disguising affection -- has become one of the most persistent and resonant themes in American movies, a line of material that completely transcends genre. Buddies have buddied up to each other in mean urban streets, in the dusty arroyos of the Wild West, in outer space, in operating rooms, subs and at King Arthur's round table.
Classic buddy movies take one of two forms. The Eastwood-Sheen variation might be called "Me and Dad": It's always a rite of passage drama, about an unofficial father and his disreputable son, in which the bad boy disbelieves the wise dad's counsel, but over the course of the adventure sees the wisdom, and ultimately uses it to prove himself a man in his own right.
The other variation might be called "Uneasy Equals": In it ("Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid"), two characters of considerable power and personality but separated by external mandates (race, class and so forth) are thrust together by freakish circumstances and must develop a working relationship in spite of conflicting agendas. In this case, the movie usually ends reaffirming the commonness of the human condition, as each realizes that the other is basically a decent guy.
Thus it is that mentor-mentee buddy films are usually conservative, as they tend to validate the wisdom of the father figure; and uneasy equals films are generally liberal, emphasizing equality and cooperation.
In literary tradition, buddying up may be traced back at least as far as the last century, to the one work of art from which Hemingway declared "all American literature sprang." That was Mark Twain's "Huckleberry Finn," in which Huck and the runaway slave Jim fled a hostile society for the solitude of the river and the wilderness, and there had a number of adventures that intensified their bond and advanced their maturity.
In the mid-'50s, literary critic Leslie Fiedler even advanced the thesis in an essay called "Come Back to the Raft Again, Huck Honey" that the core of Huck Finn was the core of all great American novels -- two men with mutual interests but vivid differences (usually racial; sometimes generational or experiential) flee civilization for an epic journey, bond, and are the better for it.
There may be something to this as it extends into the popular film: We can certainly see echoes of it in the key buddy movies of our own time, from Stanley Kramer's "The Defiant Ones" of the '50s on through the "48 HRS" and the "Lethal Weapons" and "Rookies" of more recent vintage. The wilderness has usually become underworld society and the enemies not bandits but firepower-crazed drug dealers.
Still, it hasn't been a straight shot. In the '30s and '40s, for example, the boy-buddy picture was an anomaly. Rare exceptions to the rule include the great pairings of Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy, most famously in "Boom Town," one of those they-don't-make-'em-like-that-anymore classics. In this one, the two guys are oil field roustabouts and wildcatters, who manage, over the movie's adventurous course, to find and lose several fortunes in the Oklahoma oil fields.
But far more typically during the high-water mark of the studio system, the buddies were guys and gals. In the "Thin Man" pictures with William Powell and Myrna Loy and the Spencer Tracy-Katharine Hepburn films, buddyhood became one of the highest achievements of American films. These films, though they are coed, embody almost exactly the virtues that were later to become the hallmark of the high buddy movie: that is, a non-sexual friendship based on mutual trust but also comprised of a lot of hostility disguising the rich fund of touchy-feely passions underneath it all.
The charm of these movies -- and subsequent distillations -- was the effortless way in which the participants could keep up a high level of banter while progressing through the coils of the plot and solving the immediate action. This is a tradition carried through to our times where, in an excellent buddy picture such as the original "48 HRS," the relationship between Eddie Murphy and Nick Nolte is at least as interesting as the nominal "story," which concerns the pursuit of two escaped killers.
But another tradition also has filtered into today's buddy films. In a straight line from the high days of vaudeville, there's been a long history of two-man comedy teams -- from the famed Smith and Dale to Olson and Johnson and Abbott and Costello. In the early films, it was Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy who most brilliantly brought the highest level of physical comedy. They were an interesting pair, most brilliantly subverting the stereotypes before they had been established.