Charles Hambrick-Stowe: The washed-up geezer redemption film

As the boomers age, expect more stories, and listen for how they (faintly) echo the gospel.

If the “Grilled Cheesus” episode on “Glee” helps us reflect on the spiritual lives of youth, do recent films that have to do with aging say something about ministry with Baby Boomers?

There is a genre that I call “The Washed-up Geezer Redemption Film.” Clint Eastwood’s “Gran Torino” (2008), Mickey Rourke’s “The Wrestler” (2008), and Jeff Bridges’ “Crazy Heart” (2009) exhibit predictable similarities and interesting variations on the theme. Now there’s “Red,” a 2010 action-comedy version of the genre, showcasing a wrinkled-but-buff Bruce Willis along with Morgan Freeman, John Malkovich, and Helen Mirren, looking hot at 63 as she hefts outsize automatic weapons. “The Expendables,” with Sylvester Stallone and other old-timers also came out last year, but I didn’t bother seeing that one.

More of these are surely on the way as Boomers advance into retirement. Hey, it provides employment for older actors and gets a neglected demographic into theater seats, benefiting a sluggish economy. Since this generation has not filled church pews like their parents did, do these films teach us anything about what they might be looking for from the gospel?

What kind of “redemption” do we find in these movies?

Eastwood’s Walt Kowalski, a grizzled retired auto worker, copes with life in the old neighborhood surrounded with ethnic minorities. While his kids have created lives in the suburbs, Walt eventually becomes a grandfather-figure for the Hmong teenagers next door and intercessor between them and a gang of toughs. At one point, sick and spitting blood in the bathroom during a party at the Hmong home, he looks in the mirror and mutters, “Christ, I’ve got more in common with these gooks than I do my own family.” In the show-down scene, Walt fakes pulling a gun in order to draw gunfire from the gang. He actually falls to the ground in a cruciform pose, giving his life for the sake of his neighbors. Bad guys are brought to justice; the neighborhood is saved from evil.

Mickey Rourke’s professional wrestler character, Randy “The Ram,” dies in the end, too, but for no one except himself. “Redemption” means finding a way to leave this life doing what he has always done. There’s a small element of self-sacrifice, being battered in the ring, suffering for the sake of the fans. As the Springsteen title track song puts it, “I can make you smile when the blood it hits the floor.”

In “Crazy Heart” Jeff Bridges is Bad Blake, the faded country singer version of the wrestler and the auto worker. If the first two stories are about giving up one’s life, this is a resurrection story. “Redemption” comes in the form of recovery from alcoholism and the revival of a song-writing career, with Robert Duvall in the role of AA sponsor. The death of hitting bottom is followed by the Easter dawn of arriving once more at a major concert venue in a fancy tour bus. Bad doesn’t get the girl, but he gets a new chapter in his life.

In “Red,” out-to-pasture CIA and MI-5 agents prove that they can still blow up cars and kick ass. The title stands for “Retired: Extremely Dangerous.” In the end, after near-death experiences, they’re not only still alive but on a new assignment. All except Morgan Freeman. On his shoulders rests the job of Christ figure. But for him sacrificial death and resurrection happen in reverse order. After supposedly getting killed in an early scene, he reappears ready for action (in a quick flash-back, we see him waste his attacker). But later, our heroes surrounded and hopelessly outnumbered, he dons Willis’s clothing and goes out to be killed, creating a diversion so others can escape.

These films offer Baby Boomers faint echoes of the gospel of Jesus Christ. My life matters. I still have something to say. I need another shot at what I know I can do. My days are numbered but I’m not giving up. Even in death my life has meaning.

As I say, I’m sure that more of these movies are coming our way.

Charles Hambrick-Stowe is pastor of the First Congregational Church, Ridgefield, Conn. He was formerly an academic dean at Northern Seminary in Lombard, Illinois.