Sweet Girl lets Jason Momoa be tender, for once

Gen Fricker on the Polynesian values underneath Sweet Girl’s full-throttle action

You’re reading Scene & Heard, a weekly newsletter where I chat to a guest writer about the one scene from a recent Netflix release that left them floored. It’s part of Netflix Pause, a publication that’s all about hitting pause to reflect on the latest film and TV. Subscribe now to get it in your inbox every week diving into screen culture.

Hi! I’m Jared Richards, critic and new editor of Netflix Pause. For my first Scene & Heard, I chat to Gen Fricker, Ngāpuhi woman, action buff, comedian, writer, and co-host of Netflix’s podcast The Big Film Buffet, about one of the few action-free scenes in Sweet Girl.

In the film, Ray Cooper (Jason Momoa) drops into a diner after spotting the van of the hitman who just tried to kill him parked outside. Naturally, Ray and the hitman end up chin-wagging about life, death, and murder - a scene Gen says stresses the “uniquely Polynesian” values underneath the action.

JR: Sweet Girl’s appeal is obvious: Jason Momoa (!) plays a widow who will stop at nothing (!!) to avenge his wife, who dies because Big Pharma (!!!) withheld life-saving medication. Beyond that, what first hooked you in this film?

GF: From the moment we got those big opening Michael Mann-esque night-time cityscape shots, I knew this was the movie for me. Throw in my Polynesian king Jason Momoa (and Isabela Mecred as his daughter, who happens to be a badass fighter herself), some of the best and grubbiest hand-to-hand fight scenes I've seen recently, and an unapologetically high body count, and I am guaranteed to be talking about this film to everyone I happen to interact with for at least the next two weeks.

But the scene I really want to dive into is one of the few in Sweet Girl where nobody dies – the diner scene. Why? Because: A) I love diners and American diner culture, I am a little trash bird who has spent too much time poisoning my body with American diner food in order to soak up The Diner Vibes; B) I love diner scenes in movies; and C) it is my duty as a Māori woman to consume any content by all Polynesians in pop culture.

In the scene, time slows as Ray meets with the hitman sent to kill him, giving Amos Santos (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo) a chance to sit down for a plate of scrambled eggs and some existential murder talk.

The two are alone even as they’re surrounded by people, and it's pure character building that gives us a chance to understand why this hitman is who he is. It also gives the audience a second to take a breath between all the smashing people through windows.

Nothing like a late-night D&M with someone who was just trying to kill you. The whole scene brims with the constant threat of violence. There are cops in the corner drinking coffee but, considering the film so far, there's no reason to assume Ray and Amos won’t fight. Instead, Amos extends his sympathy to Ray, and goes on a monologue about revenge, before letting him go on his way. Why does the hitman do that when he could just kill him then and there?

This film really wears its influences on its sleeve, and sorry to be number one Michael Mann stan over here, but this diner scene feels like quite a loving homage to one in Heat, where Al Pacino's grizzled Lieutenant Hanna sits across a table from the bank robber he’s put on earth to stop, Robert De Niro's Neil McCauley. The two have a little chat about the amoral nature of the universe and how one of them is gonna eventually cop some of that titular heat. Is it one of my favourite scenes ever from a movie? Yes! Do these scenes make any sense in the real world? Of course not, but that's cinema, baby! 

As for Sweet Girl, Amos' monologue about a massacre he witnessed as a child and then sought revenge on those responsible explains so much to us about the character. He sees killing as inevitable, and while he could kill Ray then and there, he'd rather finish his eggs and kill Ray whenever he next gets around to it.

It's chilling how casual he is about it, and I think it speaks to the strength of Garcia-Rulfo's performance that he gives such a cold character the sense of a developed backstory and life, much like the Creepy Thin Man from Charlie's Angels. The fact that he's saying this while there are cops sitting just out of earshot adds to the sense of claustrophobia in this film – nowhere is safe, no one is who you think they are, and death is everywhere.

All the while, Ray is so calm. The hitman essentially says ‘back off now, and I won't kill you’, but he doesn't even consider stopping: he has to find out who the hitman's boss really is. Usually, action films transform a regular Joe into a fighting expert overnight, but the level of chill is believable here given Ray already looks like a superhero (Aquaman, to be precise). Even this cold-blooded hitman would be intimidated, right?

Surely! The true magic of cinema is making Jason Momoa look like a regular-sized human, and not some kind of demigod towering over frightened mortals. It makes me think a lot about how audiences are used to seeing Polynesian men on-screen (Momoa is Native Hawaiian) as non-threatening goofballs or literal superheroes (or both!).

Our physicality as Polynesian people is informed by our ancestry. For thousands of years we've been navigating the Pacific Ocean by boat, and practicing our own modes of combat and martial arts, so it's not at all surprising that the few Polynesian people we see on screen are playing these physically dominant characters — think The Rock, Temuera Morrison, and Uli Latukefu.

It's interesting how this cultural aspect is often left out of the conversation in regards to their performances. These celebrated traits are uniquely Polynesian yet the characters being portrayed are usually just ‘vaguely ethnic’, which is unsurprising as brown bodies are often presented as a monolithic ‘other’ under the historically white gaze of Hollywood.

What excites me about Sweet Girl is that, not only are we getting the action we come to expect from a Jason Momoa film, we also have these slices of tenderness and softness through the relationships with the women around Ray Cooper. He's not a cold-blooded killing machine like the hitman. He's driven by love of family, a sense of justice and wanting to protect his daughter, and the way that's portrayed in Sweet Girl does feel uniquely Polynesian to me. 

American Imperialism created Big Pharma, so it’s interesting to me that Momoa as an actor and producer of Sweet Girl chose this project tackling these issues because culturally, family and responsibility to our community and environment is everything. 

The first 15 minutes are a full-on family drama before the action kicks in, underscoring the whole film. In that diner scene, Ray's daughter Rachel is watching from a nearby booth: she seems as concerned with protecting him as he does her. What did you make of their relationship?

Rachel is like a mirror for Ray – he's trying to protect her innocence through violence, but the violence she bears witness to will mean she can never truly be innocent. In the diner scene, she's almost like an avatar for the audience sitting inside the frame, aware of how things could escalate at any moment. 

She's not helpless, but she knows there's nothing she can do to control the situation, which also adds to the tension. When the hitman finally addresses her directly (“Rachel, I’ll see you soon”), it's a gut-heaving moment, because it really stresses how he will stop at nothing, including killing a child, to make sure the job is done.

Big Pharma will stop at nothing, they'd even target the titular Sweet Girl. And after blowing the lid right off, neither of us are safe.

In a way, this movie showed me that there really is a Sweet Girl inside us all.

Gen Fricker is a comedian, writer and co-host of Netflix's The Big Film Buffet podcast.

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