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From Achilles to Shia LaBeouf, the kickass version of John Cusack

Socrates wrote, “Fame is the perfume of heroic deeds.” If this is the case then we should want to know who is wearing the perfume and what deeds have they performed heroically. Not really a difficult task, you may think.

But in the West, where we now celebrate pampered z-list stars as “heroic” for surviving a couple of days on some inane reality show. We are living through what Hesiod called, the “Iron Age” of mankind, where the world is near total financial disaster, where brother fights brother and all codes of decency are flouted. We are so far from the true meaning of “heroic” that the most mundane of acts can cause almost anyone to find fame.

A hero was the offspring of a god and a mortal: a demigod, often self-serving, often selfish, but an inspiration for the generations to come. Achilles led to Alexander who in turn led to Caesar who himself led to Napoleon and so it goes. Heroes live in our consciousness, they live in our dreams, sometimes they are fact, sometimes they are fiction, sometimes they are myth, but very often they are a chimerical balance of all three.

So if Western civilization is in such terminal decline where are we to find figures that have even the faintest whiff of Homeric eau de toilette? Who do we look to?

Are there any Iron Dukes, Pattons, or Zhukovs to set the pulses of armchair generals racing? What recent names spring to mind? Powell and Schwarzkopf? Powell sullied his reputation with Dubya in Iraq. Schwarzkopf has the catchy moniker: ”Stormin’ Norman” but who could follow a man who shares his last name with hair products? Besides both look like oversized Care Bears.

Petraeus? Time magazine had him as one of its four runners up for Person of the Year and the surge may be successful but ultimately he will be a footnote in history-not the main event. And like the other two, Petraeus is American.

How about our Politicians? Where are the Churchills, J.F.K.s, and Mandelas? Who bestrides the world stage like a colossus? Bush Jr.? Forget about it.

Blair blew it and Brown was never elected. Putin comes close with his bare-chested opposition to the West but his human rights record leaves little to be desired. Palin is downright dangerous and Obama needs time to see if he has anything different to offer other than being not George Bush.

What about sport? Are there any Alis, Jordans, or Maradonas in the works? Phelps and Bolt are both phenomenal athletes but there was such an air of inevitability about their Olympic triumphs that it renders them almost normal. Baseball is a joke rife with drug abuse and football (or soccer depending what side of the pond you belong to) is full of lurid sex scandals and violent conduct. The one truly great sportsman Tiger Woods plays golf – a fantastic but tame game.

This leaves cinema and cinema means Hollywood. And whom do they have to offer in a time where the last of the legends are dying out quicker than the dinosaurs did after the comet? Paul Newman, over 80 when he wrapped his final scene, still commanded front pages of newspapers all over the world in a time dominated by the meltdown of the global economic crisis. Can Hollywood still make heroes, and if so, who?

The answer is yes and his name is Shia LaBeouf.

Just a couple of years ago, you would have said, “Shia LaWhat?” But now this skinny 22-year-old Jewish kid has the future of Tinseltown firmly in his hands. He is the most unlikely of action stars but just the one millions of adoring fans around the world need at the moment. His latest film, “Eagle Eye,” is his second box office number one of the year and “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen” is a nailed on certainty to be the biggest grossing movie of 2009.

So how on earth has this happened?

LaBeouf has screen presence in spades. He occupies the space like a young John Cusack transported from “The Sure Thing” or “Better Off Dead” straight to the blockbuster- all nervous energy and youthful charm. But LaBeouf does more than spit out the wise cracks (after all, he was a stand up comic from an early age), he can also crack heads.

Cusack had to wait until he was 31 in “Grosse Point Blank” to show off his martial prowess, whereas LaBeouf rocked a flick knife and a rapier when he was 21 for Spielberg and Lucas in “Indy 4.”

Spielberg and Lucas have both been looking for a protégé for a number of years. To have these two kingmakers in your court is no small thing, but their success rate for young male stars is questionable.

Harrison Ford was 35 when he was cast as Han Solo so he doesn’t count. Mark Hamill fell short of his potential and never recovered. Hayden Christian was so badly miscast as the budding Vader that he will do well to leave his whinging performance behind him and forget what should have been the role of a lifetime. But in Shia, it seems, Spielberg and Lucas have found a sure thing.

To them, Shia LaBeouf is the new River Phoenix. He has the quirky name and the unconventional upbringing they both craved as kids. He is just the right side of geek (in “Transformers” and “Disturbia” he is pared up with even nerdier buddies) and appeals to Hollywood’s key demographic of young men aged 13-25, just at the time when they are turning to video games and the net in ever greater numbers. He embodies the Myspace/Facebook Generation Y just as River Phoenix became an icon of Generation X.

LaBeouf has a clear run at box office domination. He has no contemporaries to speak of and doesn’t have to face down the old action establishment of Stallone and Schwarzenegger. Bruce Willis is in the process of handing over the reigns to a younger man in Jason Long, and The Rock has gone soft. Will Smith is facing a derail after mixed reviews for “I Am Legend” and “Hancock.”

Shia is unaffected by the recent female domination of the action genre by the likes of Angelina Jolie, Milla Jovovich, and Uma Thurman, and so the path to glory is as open as it has ever been to one so young. Cruise, who emerged as the eventual heavyweight champ of the “Brat Pack” in the 80’s still looms large, but how long can it be until Spielberg teams them both together to send LaBeouf into the stratosphere and cement Cruise as the generous benefactor of new Hollywood?

If he plays his cards right, LaBeouf will also become the first true IMAX star. How can politicians, generals, and sport stars compete with a man who looms over 50 feet tall on the screen when they are restricted to a few inches? “Transformers” and “Eagle Eye” are flagship movies for the IMAX format and Shia never seems lost amongst their special effects.

In “Transformers” especially he simply owns the movie. It is the “T2” of his generation and the C.G.I. effects are as groundbreaking as that previous landmark in cinema. We must credit his wit and personality for being the key reason he is still talked about, and not lost like Edward Furlong was after his role as John Connor.

Spielberg set LaBeouf up with that gig as well, but just try to imagine “Transformers” without Shia. Hard to do, isn’t it?

Even if Spielberg and Lucas are having the last laugh on the cooler members of their contemporaries by unleashing the vision of the kind of young man they wished they’d been, we should be thankful for Shia LaBeouf. In a dark time, he promises youth and vitality, wit and determination.

We buy the fact he can hold his own against gigantic robots and we buy the fact a gangly kid can get a girl in the league of Megan Fox. Unlike everyone else who demands our respect for the trivial we give it freely to him, because he seems honest.

As Will Rogers said, “We can’t all be heroes, because somebody has to sit on the curb and applaud when they go by.” LaBeouf is off the curb. The perfume of fame is like his second skin.

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Mark Farnsworth

Senior Film Writer Mark Farnsworth teaches Film in East London and is currently working on two screenplays, The Mysteries and Fair Access. He also writes the Oh/Cult section for Brokenshark.co.uk.

2 thoughts on “From Achilles to Shia LaBeouf, the kickass version of John Cusack

  1. Thanks for your comment. No sarcasm intended Chris-I was just trying to explain his position in the grand scheme of all things Hollywood. He is also one of the few actors I would see in a movie regardless of who was directing it.
    Cinema by its very nature is grand in scale; salaries, budgets, themes, and how we consume it. Why not be grand when writing about it? After all it is THE dominate art form for the best part of a century and god I love it.

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