J.J. Goldberg

James Bond, the Red Sox and the Mysterious Rise of the Hebrew Action Hero

By J.J. Goldberg

This week marks an important milestone for Kevin Youkilis, a star hitter for the Boston Red Sox of baseball’s American League.

I bring this up not primarily because of its significance for baseball, about which I know little, but rather because it is the latest clue in an ever-widening mystery, namely the intense but seldom-discussed flourishing of cinematic Jewish action heroes. We’re living in some sort of golden age.

But first, Youkilis. If you’re not a baseball fan, bear with me.

This coming Saturday, August 15, will be the third anniversary of Youkilis’s first unintended entry into national media stardom. He celebrated this week by entering again into the media spotlight, again unintentionally. But we get ahead of ourselves.

Youkilis is one of the most underrated of all American Jewish sports heroes. In 2004, his first year in the majors, he refused to play on Yom Kippur but got almost no applause for it. Since then he’s played twice in the All Star game and won two Golden Gloves and the Hank Aaron award without ever approaching the adulation of a Shawn Green. Ironic, considering that Judaism means something to Youkilis (he grew up idolizing Sandy Koufax, for example) while Green basically stumbled into it because of the fans. In fact, Youkilis’s first serious Jewish cred came by accident on August 15, 2006, when actor Denis Leary, a guest commentator at Fenway Park that day, found out Youkilis was Jewish and launched into a hilarious, seven-minute riff about Youkilis and Mel Gibson. Here’s the video.

Youkilis holds records for the most consecutive games played by a first-baseman without an error, which is good, and for most often being hit by pitches, which is not so good. Yesterday, August 11, his susceptibility became national news when, after being hit by pitches two days in a row while facing the Detroit Tigers, he charged the mound and attacked Detroit pitcher Rick Porcello. Watch it here.

Both players were thrown out of the game. Commentators were buzzing furiously after the incident, including these mlb.com pundits, who offer some interesting observations about Youkilis’s personality and air clips of previous pitcher-batter contact, some involving Youkilis. Here’s what Youkilis had to say afterwards in a Boston Herald print interview.

The incident in itself wouldn’t merit much comment, except that it’s running and rerunning on television this week at the same time that Universal Pictures is flooding the airwaves with advertising for a big film opening next week, “Inglourious Basterds,” which also features tough, two-fisted Jews. The effect is a sort of televised mini-festival of Jewish brawlers.

“Inglourious Basterds” is a Quentin Tarantino-directed film, with Brad Pitt in the lead, about a squad of Jewish soldiers in World War II who are recruited to sneak behind enemy lines and kill as many Nazis as they can. Advance write-ups suggest it’s going to be an over-the-top Tarantino slash-and-gore fest, but with Jews as the slashers. Here’s a trailer. Interestingly, Tarantino’s inspiration for the film was a 1978 Italian-made war movie by Enzo Castellari, “The Inglorious Bastards,” or so he told Castellari in a recent on-air chat. But with a twist: Castellari’s film was about a mixed squad of misfit GI’s who are being shipped off to a U.S. military prison but escape and have to fight their way out of Germany. Tarantino decided to change it around and make it Jewish GI’s who are fighting their way into Germany with homicidal intent. Why did he want to do that? If you know, write in.

Even more interesting, “Inglourious Basterds” is at least the third Hollywood blockbuster released in the last four years that’s based on the exploits of armed Jewish avengers. The first was Steven Spielberg’s 2005 “Munich,” starring Eric Bana, about a squad of Israeli agents assigned to hunt down and kill the Palestinian terrorists responsible for the 1972 Munich Olympics massacre. Here’s a trailer. The second was Edward Zwick’s 2008 Holocaust drama, “Defiance,” starring Daniel Craig of “James Bond” fame. It’s about a trio of Belorussian Jewish brothers who take to the woods as partisans and end up creating a clandestine community of survivors. Here’s that clip.

This is where it gets really interesting. Two of those three films, “Munich” and “Defiance,” feature Daniel Craig — the Hollywood heart throb with the European bathing suit, son of an English mariner and pub-owner — playing the role of hunted, haunted Jewish avenger. Both were released after Craig signed his lucrative 2005 James Bond contract, with all the attendant requirements about protecting the franchise’s image. He must have wanted to make them, no?

Look at the two clips again. In “Munich,” Craig plays the impulsive, action-freak foil to Eric Bana’s anguished, conscience-ridden team leader. In “Defiance,” he plays the anguished, conscience-ridden team leader to Liev Schreiber’s impulsive, action-freak foil. He’s covering the waterfront. You might even say he’s having a philosophical argument with himself.

It was between those two roles that he shot his first two James Bond flicks, “Casino Royale” and “Quantum of Solace.”

So what’s the deal with Daniel Craig and tough Jews? If we’re to judge by his 2008 interview with Chuck the Movieguy, the question hasn’t much crossed his mind. Then again, maybe nobody asked him.

One thing is for certain: The rebirth of Jewish swagger is having a real impact on the psyche of the American Jewish male. Just watch Sy Becker of WWLP-TV in Springfield, Mass. (doesn’t he look a bit like Homer Simpson?) as he reviews “Defiance” and tries hard not to kvell. “Watching Jewish freedom-fighters killing Nazis!” “Nazi corpses piling up!” “Philosophical differences!”

This little essay wouldn’t be complete without noting the flourishing teenage gross-out variation on the tough-Jew genre, most notably the cartoonish 2003 “The Hebrew Hammer,” starring Adam Goldberg (no relation), and the big-budget 2006 “You Don’t Mess With the Zohan,” a star vehicle written, produced and starring Adam Sandler. Whatever else you might learn from all this, observe that some folks in Hollywood are willing to spend a lot of money to show the world a tough Jew. And, presumably, a lot of folks are spending money to see him.

And lest we forget: the grand-daddys of the genre, Otto Preminger’s 1960 “Exodus” with Paul Newman and Melville Shavelson’s 1966 “Cast a Giant Shadow” with Kirk Douglas.

May their tribe increase.

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