- The Gospel According to Roddy Piper
From Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer’s coke and ego fuelled string of glossy ’80s money-makers to Michael Bay’s Mephistophelean relationship with the box office over the last decade or so, Hollywood has never been anything but priapic for a bit of high concept.
Well, stuff your big budgets and power ballads and dare-devil flyboys and mismatched cops and oil-pissing robots, because I’m here to tell you that the highest of high concepts is a pair of sunglasses donned by a professional wrestler who promptly gets a mite pissed off at the ensuing revelation that society is being manipulated by skull-faced aliens with a penchant for subliminal messaging; that money, promotions and status symbols are nothing but placebos; and that when a fella whose twin motivations are bubblegum chewing and ass kicking finds himself bereft of bubblegum, well his options are kind of narrowed down.
It’s a killer hook: put on a pair of shades and your perception shifts; you see things as they truly are. The world is black and white. Behind every billboard, every road sign, every poster, every page of every newspaper and magazine is an exhortation to OBEY. That wad of bank notes in your hand: just bits of paper emblazoned with THIS IS YOUR GOD. That guy next to you who got the promotion you were passed over for: don’t look now, but he’s not human. The woman in the beauty parlour with the bouffant hairdo and jewellery dripping from her: she’s not either. And, brother, you don’t want to know what they’re dripping into your subconscious while you’re watching TV.
John Carpenter’s masterstroke with ‘They Live’ is to take his time – and in a film that runs just an hour and a half, I do mean take his sweet time – establishing character, milieu and socio-economic context. Our hero, he of the bubblegum preference, is George Nada* (Piper), a blue-collar drifter looking for work and reduced to sleeping rough. Dossing down at a ramshackle encampment with fellow labourer Frank Armitage (Keith David), Nada becomes intrigued by the comings and goings at a nearby chapel. Finally venturing inside, he discovers not a congregation of worshippers but an underground political movement. A police raid dispels them from the chapel (as well as trashing the encampment) before Nada can do anything.
Then he discovers the sunglasses. And by extension the truth. His immediate priority is convincing Armitage to view the world through said eyewear. Armitage proves a tad reluctant. Nada insists. Cue one of the longest – and funniest – punch-ups in cinema.
Ah, yes. The fight scene. Just one of many great, great moments in this still strangely underrated film. The Nada-first-dons-the-glasses scene is also pitch perfect in its execution. Likewise an almost immediately subsequent moment where Nada, fighting off two cops (one an alien), arms himself with their weapons, strolls nonchalantly down a busy sidewalk and into a bank and delivers The Gospel as quoted above.
There are those who hone in on Roddy Piper’s limited acting range – and, let’s face it, the man’s no Olivier – as the film’s great flaw, but personally I find Piper’s rugged, slightly self-deprecating persona ideally suited to the story Carpenter is telling. With a more “actorly” actor in the lead, ‘They Live’ might easily have come across as over-egged, its slightly schizophrenic tone – social realism to high concept to broad comedy to sci-fi actioner – more nigglingly apparent than with “Rowdy” Roddy Piper striding John Wayne stylee through the midst of the mayhem, a lumberjack-shirt-wearing everyman out to chew bubblegum and kick ass on behalf of every poor sumbitch wage-slave in the audience. “Rowdy” Roddy Piper, taking the fight to the extraterrestrial ad-men, kicking their corporate crap back into the cosmos. “Rowdy” Roddy Piper, a man of the people and a hero of our time.
*The character is never name-checked during the film and only referred to as Nada (Spanish for “nothing”) in the end credits. I’ve taken the name George Nada from the Ray Nelson short story ‘Eight O’Clock in the Morning’ which the film is based on.