Just last month, Parts Unknown host and Kitchen Confidential author Anthony Bourdain tweeted out a three-word review of Edgar Wright’s hit film BABY DRIVER. It simply read: “Fuck BABY DRIVER.”
Bourdain caught hell from movie lovers, Edgar Wright fans, and just about everyone on social media who made the film a hit. Filmmaker Ava Duvernay offered up a response, stating, “You don’t have to like it, but have some respect for the artists who made it. You’re better than this. Critique doesn’t have to cruel.”
Be it cruel, be it profane, or be it right on the mark, in a world where everyone is a film critic, everyone has a blog, and everyone’s feelings matter, it’s amusing to think that such a brief review could cause such a stir. That said, Bourdain’s review summed up my feelings pretty succinctly. As a fan of the chef, author, and television personality, I wanted to talk to Bourdain himself about his love of movies, and in particular the heist film.
“Always happy to talk about movies,” Bourdain told me early on a Wednesday morning as he shook off a night of too many Negronis. Bourdain leveled with me about his BABY DRIVER experience. “To be fair, I had a violent reaction. I can’t even criticize the film because I didn’t see it,” Bourdain explained. “I walked out like a half an hour in. I’m the last person in the world anyone should listen to on the film. All I’m saying is that I was made very unhappy, very early.”
“I don’t care about these people,”he says of the film’s characters. “I don’t believe in them, and I don’t care about them. I didn’t want to continue, because I didn’t care about them.”
“I like Edgar Wright’s other films a lot. I also like the films he likes,” Bourdain continued. “I just felt like I had seen this, and all of these people are going to be dead by the end. I just saw the whole arc spill out before me. I was depressed. I went out and got drunk.”
As for films he does like, Bourdain grew up loving film thanks to his parents. “My father worked at Willoughby’s Camera Store [in New York] and would come home with the 16mm projector on weekends with classic films from their rental library,” Bourdain recalls. “I was introduced to good films very early. I pretty much saw the entire Janus Film collection by the time I was 12.” He’d spend his weekends in New Jersey attending revival screenings with his mom and dad, and Saturday matinees at the grindhouse with his friends.
The No Reservations and Parts Unknown host admits that his cinephilia may be an annoyance to his camera crew. “The crew and I used to sit down on No Reservations (and now Parts Unknown) and talk long before we got to the location, or even planned the shoot, about film references, cinematography, editing style, and music. I’m such a film nerd and I’m constantly saying, ‘I want this episode to look like…” and I’ll mention some obscure film and chances are they haven’t seen it. But it’s like, you went to film school for fuck’s sake.”
While Bourdain’s affection and knowledge of the movies runs deep, it was thanks to his dad’s love of Sterling Hayden that Bourdain saw THE ASPHALT JUNGLE at an early age, and his love of caper films began.
“I’m all for a thriller where it’s all about style over script. There are examples of films where the camerawork is so lush and it looks so good and sounds so good, that I don’t care what happens,” he says. “With gorgeous filmmaking, it doesn’t matter what’s happening with the plot. Look at the plot of JOHN WICK: they killed my dog, now I’m going to kill a lot of people. That was glorious filmmaking that actually had a great script. Even the bad guys were compelling. I have very specific things I like in heist films, and it’s very important that I care about the characters quickly.”
“It’s all about character, dialogue, and atmospherics. Notice I haven’t said plot. What’s the plot of FRIENDS OF EDDIE COYLE? Its just people talking. That’s why Elmore Leonard is so great, for instance. Who cares what happens in an Elmore Leonard novel? The dialogue and characters are so rich and lush, and it’s so much fun to spend time with them that you almost don’t care what’s going on.”
THE ASPHALT JUNGLE (1950)
Daily Grindhouse: Would you say this is ground zero for the heist movie?
Anthony Bourdain: Yes. It totally is. It’s the heist film that all other heist films have to at least recognize and work around. It’s the template. Many have tried, but few have ever gotten to that point of perfection. It’s got an ensemble cast that includes Sterling Fucking Hayden. As in so many classic heist films, it’s the characters themselves that are their own worst enemies. They doom themselves. It’s one of the finest noirs ever made, and the photography is spectacular.
You care about the characters. They’re all human in this terrible, painful way. You’re rooting for all of them. They’re all these failed vessels that want things and think that that’ll make everything better, but they all know that they’re carrying the seeds of their own destruction with them.
There’s no good guys in this film, but you care about all of them, even the creepy pedophiliac played by Sam Jaffe. It’s an incredible film, and it creates a whole other world and living in it is completely enjoyable and compelling for the entire 90 minutes.
BOB LE FLAMBEUR (1956)
Anthony Bourdain: It’s about failed characters, trust and betrayal. Nobody’s all good or all bad. It’s a struggle between those strengths and weaknesses. In a lot of ways Bob is this sort of noble—not a superhero—he’s a prince, and he’s respected as a stand-up guy. The relationship between him and the police detective is fascinating. Melville speaks with authority; this is a guy who was a seasoned member of the French resistance. He’s a guy who knew criminals.
It was an early example of the genre, and you have to reckon with that film in the history of films. I like this film because here’s a hero (or an antihero) who is kind and merciful. He’s good to people who he probably knows will betray him. There’s something about that I find very compelling. Most people see LE SAMOURAI as Melville’s masterpiece, but I much prefer BOB LE FLAMBEUR; it’s got a heart. This is something that’s very important to me—with some exceptions. The original GET CARTER is a film with no heart at all. It’s the coldest, ugliest, darkest, most uncompromising crime film ever made. Everybody in it is horrible and I fucking love it.
Daily Grindhouse: Yeah, you wouldn’t mind having a beer with Bob.
Anthony Bourdain: Absolutely! You care about Bob, and you even care about the characters in his world. That’s established early and soundly, and that’s an important element. If you’re asking somebody to hang out and go through the peaks, valleys, and exhaustion of a caper film, its helpful to really care about the characters, and BOB LE FLAMBEUR does that really well.
THE FRIENDS OF EDDIE COYLE (1973)
Daily Grindhouse: I was aware of EDDIE COYLE because in the last episode of Justified, Raylan Givens is reading a copy of the book. It’s funny you mention the bare-bones plot of EDDIE COYLE because after I was done watching it I said to myself, ‘What the hell just happened here?’ Yet I was so completely transfixed by the movie that the plot was secondary.
Anthony Bourdain: It’s a subtle film, there’s not a lot of action in it. It’s people talking. People talk the way people really talk: they repeat themselves, they speak ungrammatically, and it’s not mannered. It’s like a transcript from a wiretap. What’s great about George V. Higgins [the author of FRIENDS OF EDDIE COYLE] is that he was a state’s attorney in Boston and knew this world well. He had a lot of time talking to criminals. Nobody has ever hit the unreachable standard of criminal dialogue as well as Higgins. Everybody’s lying. Nobody’s telling the truth to anybody. They’re all betraying each other and trying to make their way in this terrible world they live in.
Daily Grindhouse: It’s kind of like the restaurant industry.
Anthony Bourdain: Yeah. It’s impeccable. I re-read FRIENDS OF EDDIE COYLE every couple of years, like it’s the Bible. I think it’s Robert Mitchum’s finest performance.
Daily Grindhouse: Mitchum has a great world-weariness to him in this role. There’s that first scene when we meet his character, and he’s explaining his knuckles to the youngblood criminal. He delivers it so laid back that you 100% believe him. You even develop sympathy for him, even though he’s a scumbag too.
Anthony Bourdain: Everybody’s doing the best they can. It’s great that it’s Peter Boyle’s bartender, who is the most fearsome, most evil guy, is the long-term informant. This is long before the Whitey Bulger thing came out, and we’re talking about a Whitey Bulger situation. You can smell the beer on Mitchum in that scene with his wife in his working-class home. You know what that kitchen smells like. It’s fucking impeccable, brilliantly cast, incredible dialogue. It’s a hugely underrated film, and should be celebrated more.
THE KILLING (1956)
Daily Grindhouse: This is a tight 85 minutes, particularly for a Stanley Kubrick film.
Anthony Bourdain: Young Kubrick doing a genre picture and doing it fucking well.
Daily Grindhouse: It’s interesting to see Kubrick in a more craftsman-like role.
Anthony Bourdain: The casting is unbelievable. It’s got a morbid sense of humor, like in that Elisha Cook Jr. scene with the birdcage. There were a number of film gods in my household: Mel Brooks, Robert Aldrich, David Lean, and Stanley Kubrick. I think I was 10 or younger when my dad showed me DR. STRANGELOVE, Imagine a father taking his son to see DR. STRANGELOVE: “The world’s going to end, son, but it’s going to be funny as hell.”
Daily Grindhouse: That final moment when you see the tension on the face, when he has to check his bag with all the stolen money in it. It’s like watching Norman Bates try to drown that car in PSYCHO: he’s the bad guy, but you want to see him get away with it. As a viewer, you’re upset when the cash ends up all over the tarmac because of a random dog running loose. I love the happenstance of that.
Anthony Bourdain: Hugely influential. It’s less enjoyable for me than many of the other films I listed here, [but] it’s a defining procedural; it wrote the rules. You can’t do a burglary scene without watching this and learning from it. It’s everything.
Daily Grindhouse: Truffaut called it one of the best crime films he’s ever seen. American director Jules Dassin directed it, but it was originally supposed to be directed by Melville.
Anthony Bourdain: I mostly remember the heist and not the characters. In fiction in general, it’s not, ‘will the hero get killed?’ or ‘will the hero get caught?,’ it’s ‘will the hero manage to avoid his own worst impulses… and not fuck up?’ That’s the internal struggle.
THE GETAWAY (1972)
Daily Grindhouse: Written by Walter Hill, who was known for his crime films throughout the ’80s.
Anthony Bourdain: I do like Walter Hill, some films more than others. He was the god of the grindhouse. If you went to 42nd street to see any Walter Hill film, everybody had already seen it eight times and knew all the dialogue. THE WARRIORS is incredible stuff.
Daily Grindhouse: It’s impressive that Hill was working with Peckinpah at a young age. I imagine you’re a tremendous Peckinpah fan.
Anthony Bourdain: Yeah. I think THE WILD BUNCH is one of the greatest films of the 20th century. THE GETAWAY is far from Peckinpah’s best film, and far from the best caper film. But: Peckinpah, Walter Hill’s script, and Steve fucking McQueen.
Daily Grindhouse: It’s like a greatest hits of tough-guy cinema.
Anthony Bourdain: Yes! I loved this film before I even saw it. It’s just so good. I saw it the first second it came out in theaters. Anything Peckinpah, I would be there day one.
These are hard criminals. These are motherfucking criminals, both Ali McGraw and Steve McQueen. There’s something very compelling about the fact that they’re both merciless, cold blooded, calculating, and willing to do anything, but they’re also devoted to each other. It’s a great love story. It’s sort of a fantasy relationship for a 13-year-old. You wanna talk about a bad girl? McGraw is a bad girl, and McQueen is a bad man. They’re both so bad but you want them to get away.
Daily Grindhouse: To go back to BABY DRIVER for a minute, they paint Baby as a criminal but hammer home the point that he’s really just a nice guy, which I think cuts the legs off of the story.
Anthony Bourdain: And this is a rare caper film where they get away with it. And it’s a successful relationship, which almost never happens. It breaks a lot of rules, and is very amoral in a very refreshing and satisfying way. It’s fucking awesome, particularly for the time, when a moral message had to be delivered. I’m sure somebody asked during production, “do you think they should get away with it?”
Daily Grindhouse: THIEF is one of my absolute favorites, as a film lover and a Chicagoan.
Anthony Bourdain: First of all, it’s a gorgeous fucking film. It’s so beautiful. It’s heist porn—watching them crack safes—it’s almost sexual. It looked unlike anything that had been shot before. It’s James Caan’s juiciest role ever. Tuesday Weld is kind of uneven in it, but the scene in the diner is great. This is another relationship you really want to happen, even though it’s completely fucking twisted. These are two seriously dysfunctional people groping towards some kind of happiness or companionship. That’s what’s so heartbreaking about the Jimmy Caan character is that he’s basically a sociopath—like the DeNiro character in HEAT. He really wants to be with this woman and wants this life.
It looks good, it sounds good. It’s so good that [I don’t mind] even the little bits that don’t really work. And, again, with great characters like that, who cares about the plot? You just want to spend more time in that world.
Daily Grindhouse: This film has so much Chicago in its blood. This is more Chicago than FERRIS BUELLER’S DAY OFF. Have you been to the Green Mill, where they shot part of THIEF?
Anthony Bourdain: Yeah, I went there because of the film.
Daily Grindhouse: It’s amazing how they blew up the front of the Green Mill. It has to be a miniature because the storefront is still there. Mann wanted the score to be all blues, which is very Chicago…
Anthony Bourdain: Which would have been too on-the-nose.
THE THOMAS CROWN AFFAIR (1968)
Daily Grindhouse: You called this one a game changer.
Anthony Bourdain: It’s a caper film, but it’s really about a hot couple. Never has the amoral couple looked hotter. I think they did a decent job on the remake, honestly. Generally speaking, remakes of films I love are problematic for me. The GET CARTER remake made me want to visit every single person involved and beat them to death with my bare hands. The THOMAS CROWN AFFAIR looked good with the split screens and all, McQueen and Dunaway looked good, and they were super fucking hot. It’s a battle of wills and brains. It was just fun, and it had real style.
RESERVOIR DOGS (1992)
Daily Grindhouse: RESERVOIR DOGS informed my love of film, maybe the same way these older films did for you.
Anthony Bourdain: You’d never seen this movie before; you’d never met these characters before. It was a hand grenade thrown into the film business. It was made by a guy who loved, loved, loved movies. It was like MEAN STREETS in the sense that you watch it, and you’re like, “Holy fuck, thank you Jesus somebody has made a movie that is completely different than anything else.” There’s a sense that whoever is behind the camera is having the time of their life. It was characters talking in a voice that you hadn’t heard before.
Daily Grindhouse: In a lot of these movies, the heist is the centerpiece of the film, and RESERVOIR DOGS doesn’t even show it.
Anthony Bourdain: Which is brilliant. It’s a perfect example of “Who cares about the plot?” It’s a bunch of guys standing around talking. It was a revolutionary film.
Daily Grindhouse: Have you kept up with Tarantino?
Anthony Bourdain: I think JACKIE BROWN is his masterpiece. As a film nut, I like seeing what he’s doing, but I haven’t loved all the recent Tarantino films.
Anthony Bourdain: It’s so good looking, and you can feel that the filmmaker was really enjoying himself. It’s pure filmmaking: camera movement, editing, and lighting. There’s not a lot of driving in DRIVE.
Anthony Bourdain: I think HEAT is the modern day ASPHALT JUNGLE. It’s ambitious, it’s got Pacino and De Niro, it’s a project that Mann had worked on for a long time and even did a rougher version for television. Expectations were high for HEAT. It’s an ensemble like ASPHALT JUNGLE, and it’s got some pretty heavy hitters. Everyone’s pretty great in it. It looks stunning. In many ways, it’s a perfect heist film that lives up to ASPHALT JUNGLE, and that’s hard to do.
Daily Grindhouse: Have you ever seen L.A. TAKEDOWN?
Anthony Bourdain: No.
Daily Grindhouse: In music, sometimes bands get to record a demo or put a single out and then get to re-record it a few years later. As a writer, you get to do a rough draft. How many filmmakers got to do a rough draft of a movie—which is basically what Michael Mann did with L.A. TAKEDOWN—and then get to do it again six years later, on a grander scale? And then to have it become arguably your highest regarded film out of your catalog? It shows how much this film meant to Mann personally.
Anthony Bourdain: I think what kept Michael Mann dedicated to this project was him having met the real-life versions of these characters. He spent a lot of time with high-line burglary and robbery crews, as well as Chicago police, while researching THIEF… and even hired a lot of them. He’s such a great director. HEAT is an emotional favorite. It’s satisfying.
Tags: Anthony Bourdain, Ava DuVernay, Baby Driver, Bob Le Flambeur, Chicago, Edgar Wright, Elisha Cook Jr., Heat, Interviews, James Caan, Jules Dassin, Marilyn Monroe, Michael Mann, Nicolas Winding Refn, No Reservations, Parts Unknown, Reservoir Dogs, Rififi, Robert De Niro, Robert Mitchum, Sam Peckinpah, Stanley Kubrick, Sterling Hayden, Steve McQueen, The Asphalt Jungle, The Friends of Eddie Coyle, The Killing, The Thomas Crown Affair, Thief, tuesday weld, Val Kilmer, walter hill