•March 28, 2007 • 9 Comments

Working through a few coffee breaks I have managed at last to finish this parody properly, I hope. In case anyone finds their name appearing, the whole thing is meant as nothing more than some nonsense and comic relief. Nor is it meant as “antistring”. Recasting, additional casting, new major scenes and plot elements, more P. Woit scenes, and even clips courtesy of This is the director’s definitive vision and the final edit. Depending on what the LHC finds there could even be a sequel…

(The events portrayed in this motion picture are (almost) ficticious and any similarlity to any persons is purely intentional. All scenes involving postgraduates and postdocs were filmed under the supervision of the American Humane Society and none were actually harmed.)

The “String Kings”, Martin Scorsese’s latest mobster epic running to over three hours, is a highly violent but satisfying gangster movie, certainly on a par with past classics such as Goodfellas or the Godfather trilogy, and succeeds in giving viewers insights into the raw and violent world of fundamental string theory and hep research. The film also boasts a big budget and a first-rate Hollywood cast: Joe Pesci as Michael “Mo “Green, Burt Young as John “Johnny the Brane” Schwarz, Antonio Banderas as Princeton underboss Juan “Don Juan” Maldacena, Jude Law as Lubos “Enforcer” Motl, John Turturro as Peter Woit, a bearded Robert de Niro as Leonard “Anthropic Lenny” Susskind, Viggo Mortenson as Joseph “ Crazy Joe” Polchinski, Harvey Keitel as Tom “The (Quantum) Mechanic” Banks, Michael Douglas as Michael Douglas, James Gandolfini as John Baez, Jackie Chan as Michio Kaku, Samuel L. Jackson as Clifford V. Johnson, Richard Dreyfuss as Jacques “The Ripper” Distler, Terrance Stamp as Warren “Bugsy” Siegal, and finally Eugene Levy as Capo di Tutti Capi (the “Boss of Bosses” ) Ed Witten. There are also some notable cameo appearances from Sharon Stone as Lisa Randall and veteran actors Ron Rifkin and George Kennedy as particle theory veterans Sheldon Glashow and Steven Weinberg. Standouts include two comparatively unknown actors who play perhaps the most scary heavies appearing in the film: the meticulously precise and cold calculating pro contract hitman duo of D’Hoker and Phong from the notorious “Killer Math Elite”. Soundtrack is by Lalo Schifrin. The film is generally characterized by some rather extreme and gratuitous violence and is not for the mathematically squeamish, but this is to be expected considering the subject matter.

The slick opening credits of the film set the tone right from the start, and are very much a throwback and homage by the director to late 60s crime thrillers, with a suspenseful jazzy score and an opening shot of the Harvard-MIT area of Boston at night. There is then a panning shot of some physics heavies and some labs and offices. While the credits still roll we see some more physics heavies breaking through glass windows to stop a late-night campus break in and theft of their research. (There is also a cameo by Larry Summers at 1.14 )

Bullitt (1968) – Opening credits

In the film, Lubos Motl (Law) becomes involved with the string mafia at a young age. As he says in the film, “I always wanted to become a string theorist”. As an undergraduate he idolises the string theory mobsters in the US and eagerly studies every page of GSW, Vols. I and II. Upon graduating, the local Rutgers mob captain Tom Banks (Keitel) sees his potential and helps cultivate the boy’s growing criminal string career, offering him a postgraduate position. In graduate school Lubos starts a citation racket on campus and intimidates researchers in the arts, humanities and other areas of science into quoting string preprints in their work. Upon being arrested by campus police he admits nothing and is lauded by his superiors for being a “stand-up guy”. However, the cops then have it in for Motl: as he says in the narration, “it got so bad that if anyone in New Jersey even slipped on a friggin bananna peel, they dragged me in”. Upon getting his Phd he moves to Harvard and gets to rub shoulders with some of the “made guys” within the east-coast string underworld. Ruthless and violent and described as “perturbatively unstable” he quickly establishes his reputation. From his Harvard base he helps the mob take over local bars, clubs, businesses, casinos, hotels, libraries, graduate schools and journal editorial boards. They run a sleazy escort agency called “Matrix Models”. Their operations also extend to gambling (rigged slot machines with only a 1 in 10^500 chance of paying out), narcotics, intellectual prostitution and grant loansharking. They conspire to channel, syphon and launder millions of dollars worth of research and grant money from the government. Motl quickly finds his niche on the east coast as a universally feared string mob enforcer and hitman. However, at this time the FBI also begin to keep a very close watch with wire-tapped Fed agents now infiltrating the weekly seminar series…

Meanwhile in New York City, Peter Woit (Turturro) is seen in his apartment practising with a gun in front of a mirror in a scene Scorsese has very obviously recycled from his previous urban alienation classic “Taxi Driver”. Like de Niro before him, Turturro gives a compelling and subtle performance here, depicting a man on the edge and giving us hints at the festering rage bubbling underneath as he talks to himself repeatedly: “Listen you stringheads…you anthropicists…this is one man one who is’nt going to take it anymore….One man who stood up against the…the orbifolds, the fluxes…the stabilized moduli, the branewords, the landscape, the swampland…Someday new real data is gonna come and rain down…rain down…rain down and wash the Arxiv clean…Now I see it clearly…my whole life is pointed in this one direction…I see that now…there was never any choice for me”.

That same evening extended limos draw up to a huge luxury mansion in Princeton New Jersey where a meeting takes place, presided over by Boss of Bosses Ed Witten (Levy). Among those in attendance are members of New Jersey physics crime family the “Superanos” and some of the most sinister names in the string underworld: Michael “Mo” Green (Pesci) wanted by the FBI for racketeering, extortion, assault and Yang-Mills/gravitational anomaly cancellations; “Johnny the Brane” Schwarz, wanted all over the country for bank robbery, assault, preprint laundering, and demonstrating existance of spin-2 and fermionic supersymmetric modes in a spectrum of states; and Joseph” Crazy Joe” Polchinski, chief architect of the D-Brane revolution, wanted by the FBI for rackateering, extortion, gun running, narcotics, bank robbery and for formulating a set of textbook problems only he could solve.

Despite the rather stereotypical heavy Italian-American accents, some outstanding acting and dialogue highlights these scenes and the dim lighting accentuates the unsettling atmosphere. (In the film, which frequently has narrations by Pesci and de Niro, it is clearly explained how Green and Schwarz moved to the top of the FBI’s most wanted list in the mid 80s, when in a series of classic papers, “The Velachi Papers”, they demonstrated the consistency of the 10-dimensional spacetime superstring, which then started a near uncontrollable explosion of organised string crime throughout the US and elsewhere.) .

Perhaps the most violent scenes in the film follow when Ed Witten, speaking softly at the meeting, gives the order for a long list of people to be “taken out” (spoiler alert). In a chilling sequence, the film then repeatedly cuts between the increasingly violent mob hits and Ed giving a seminar on the twistor space structure of 1-loop amplitudes in gauge theory, as well as details of his forthcoming ‘Geometric Ganglands’ operation. Lee Smolin is seen in a barber shop, under a smock with his face covered in shaving foam as he awaits a beard trim. He swivels round in the chair just as two men burst in and let rip with machine gun fire–a classic rubout. There is a scene showing work on an extension of the New Jersey turnpike, involving string henchmen (disguised with hard hats and overalls) a large cement truck and Peter Woit; a loop quantum gravity theorist gets his dimensions compactified in a car crusher; in Italy, Carlo Rovelli is fished out of Naples harbour by the local police divers, having “glub glub glubbed to the bottom of the sea”, weighed down with 500 copies of his quantum gravity monologue in hardback. These violent and disturbing scenes stay with you long after the film has ended and have a very unsettling effect. However, unknown to the stringsters Woit has escaped, having been rescued from the rubout by some heavy ion researchers from the Brookhaven National Lab… Clip 2, As part of their takeover, string theorists remove the entire current journal editorial board of Physical Review. (Note the effective demonstration of the equivalence principle featuring both the use of an elevator and a freely falling body in a gravitational field.)

The second half of the film cuts to the west-coast string operation in California where Stanford mobsters led by Susskind (de Niro) have been pushing flux compactifictions along with hard narcotics. There is a lot of on-location filming at Stanford and the Kavli Insititute and the sunny locations now contrast sharply with the overcast locations of the east coast. The pace of the film picks up drastically now and in these scenes fans of fast-paced action will have plenty to savour. To celebrate his release from San Quintin, and as a reprisal for the recent spate of hits, crime math kingpin John Baez–played by James Gandolfini with perm wig and glasses–orders the blowing up of a workshop taking place on non-perturbative aspects of M(afia)-Theory. During a lunch break in the seminars, a wire is noticed protruding from one of the boxes of ordered pizzas and Italian food, about a second before the ensuing explosion takes out the conference. Very good effects and stunt work as some postdoc string theorists are blown back and sommersault about 270 degrees before being blown through windows, but basic laws of conservation of momentum and angular momentum do not seem to be being properly obeyed–something one really should expect in a film that deals with theoretical physics at this high level.

Following the rubout of the conference, Motl (Law) now arrives in San Francisco for negotiations with the Stanford mob, having driven cross country in a Ford Mustang Fastback. There is then a 10-minute long and very thrilling car chase following the arrival in San Francisco also of two unidentified old-school particle physicist hitmen who have been tracking Motl–one with glasses driving and one riding shotgun–who then engage in a relentless high-speed persuit. But frame for frame, again like the opening credits, it could virtually have been lifted from the Steve M’Queen classic “Bullitt”, right down to the demise of the hitmen in a massive explosion and inferno at a gas station, and Schifrin’s suspenseful and jazzy reprised music.

Steve McQueen’s Bullitt car chase sequence

(Watch carefully also for a cameo by blog commenter “Hmmm/Michael” on a motorcycle.)

As the rubouts, body count and carnage escalates on both sides, bosses in both research mobs worry it could start to have a negative effect on grant proposals. A peace meeting is therefore organised to stop the war and restore order. String bosses finally make the alternative research bosses a classic “offer they cant refuse” with more equal splitting of racketeering, narcotics and research grant money; although things don’t get off to a good start when Jacques Distler (Dreyfuss) first makes them an offer they can’t understand. However, this scene marks the (temporary) end of good acting and script writing as the film degenerates very badly for a while into 70s and 80s actioner kitch in a subplot that involves east-coast string bosses moving in to takeover and shut down Kaku’s pop science, popular book, radio and tv racket and operation; thus stopping him making string theory understandable to the “stupid people”. It turns out though that Kaku, who has multiple black belts, can shatter a stack of D-branes with a single blow and takes on the string mobsters. He is joined by fellow popularizer Briane Greene, played by Steven Segal replete with black leather coat and sawn-off shotgun. However, some west-coast mobsters are not happy including boss John Schwarz who states (in a heavy Italian-American ‘Brandoesque’ fashion):”Kaku is a trooper: he was writing string theory papers when you guys were struggling with high-school algebra”. What then follows is an all-out turf war in NY’s China town with a badly dubbed Kaku: a sinewy, oiled, tense, lean, mean fighting machine, with every muscle tensed and ready to explode with lighting reflexes, taking out the string mobsters one by one in a scene blatantly reprised from the end of “Enter the Dragon”. This is one place where Scorsese really should have edited the movie more heavily, but one does get the impression again in this movie that he is very much paying direct homage to these 70s cult classics.

The film does recover for the final scenes, with the film returning to top form and giving us an intense shoot-out scene. Clip 4: As the FBI and cops close in on Strings 2008, Motl, Susskind, Polchinski, Douglas and Johnson attempt to shoot their way out of the conference:

the gun battles continue to the final scence, again though more or less recycled from the end of Taxi Driver. A dried cement-encrusted Woit–now bullet proof as a result– initiates a gun battle with east-coast string mobsters as he seeks revenge and attempts to rescue a young and very impressionable postgraduate student being forced to pursue a string Phd. The climax of the film, as expected, is then the final standoff and shootout with Motl…

Overall, String Kings is a very fine and compelling piece of work by Scorsese and will most definitely satisfy the expectations of his fans, and fans of the gangster and action genres in general. Despite the derivative and recycled nature of many scenes of the film (most Hollywood directors seem to be running out of new ideas these days anyway) it is probably still destined to become a classic mobster epic, and could certainly put the director in contention again for an Oscar nomination.