Tuesday, June 10, 2008

The Rise of Vigilantism in Film

Originally posted September 19th, 2007. Reprinted with permission.

In the past three weeks, I’ve seen quite a few movies in which the heroes were vigilantes/outlaws. Of course, I am referring not only to Death Sentence and The Brave One, but also with a closer look at 3:10 to Yuma and Shoot ‘Em Up and I’ll go so far as even including Harry Potter and The Bourne Ultimatum (more on them later.)

Most critics would cite the 70’s as the last time such movies were popular like Taxi Driver, Dirty Harry and Death Wish and tell you that the country was in sociopolitical crisis, economics, energy, government and point out the similarities between their generation and OUR generation. I myself am a veteran, but I feel more like a Korean vet than Vietnam, since I was in Afghanistan, not Iraq (you know, the one we had a reason for going into.). I say, that the recent film trend reflects not only a distrust of government and the system, but an even greater sense of moral uncertainty about the best course of action. People of my generation find ourselves powerless again, but without a chance to take it back like the hippies before us, who sold out when the Eighties came along.

But I am getting away from my point. Our films today do not bother to tell us to trust the police or the authorities, only to trust ourselves. In Death Sentence, Kevin Bacon’s son is murdered and rather than have the killer do a short prison bid, Bacon lies under oath in order to put the kid back on the streets where he can administer justice. When the kid’s gang begins to pursue Bacon and end up invading his home, the police are powerless to stop them. Or Bacon. Rather, everyone ends up shooting everyone else, until only one man is left and then, with almost nothing. And that’s the reality of it. People found it hard to believe Bacon going from an insurance man to a killing machine, but I found it very believable to watch him go from a man with everything to one with absolutely nothing to lose. Check out this movie, please. It’s really good and drives home to old Pryor proverb, “When it happens to white people, it’s an epidemic!” Also, it is interesting to note that James Wan passed on doing another Saw movie to direct this instead. Is it because he realizes this is true horror?

Shoot ‘Em Up puts a very humorous twist on the same motif, making Clive Owen a lone hero against an army of assassins. He never gives an explanation for why he does it, killing bad guys to protect a defenseless newborn, but simply states, “What was I supposed to do?” It is mentioned that he was in the military service, making him more akin to Travis Bickle than Kevin Bacon. Also, the villains all end up being connected with politics, thus giving us further reason to distrust the system and the officials we have elected to lead and more importantly, serve us as citizens. Mr. Smith’s constant anger is a source for comedy, but also really says a lot about a man than has given up on life until it begins to have some purpose with the introduction of baby Oliver. So, the laughs in the movie serve to mellow the harsh reality of another disillusioned veteran who finds his purpose and center in violence, but tempers the madness with his own brand of justice.

But, like I said before, the films seem to portray a moral ambiguity deeper than Bacon’s character or the stoic Mr. Smith convey. In The Brave One, Jodie Foster and her boyfriend are brutally attacked with nary a racial epithet in the air. When she recovers, she carries a pistol to feel safe. And indeed she does, blasting anyone who looks at her wrong and in New York, that’s a lot of people. But she is more outright vigilante than Bacon, in that she kills to protect herself or others and not until the end of the film, does she pursue her own revenge. Also, in this film, like Death Sentence, there is a cop played by a black actor. (I guess this means cops can suck equally, regardless of race.) Foster sharply draws a divide between the ‘good’ cop and the rest of them. For during her interview, as she is asked to remember back to the attack, one cop tries to sympathize with “We know how hard it can be.” “Can you?” she asks and in his eyes, you know that he does not. As they try to reiterate that they are the good guys, she lets them know that it doesn’t feel that way. But, Detective Mercer, played damned well by Terrence Howard, is determined to catch the killer and indeed, Foster wants to be caught, she wants to be stopped. She gives herself every chance to be given up to justice and yet, it seems, she must be doing to right thing for people keep looking the other way to help her. Should we all take the law into our own hands? Her emotional distress would have us think otherwise. From being the young girl in need of saving in the 70’s to kicking ass and taking names thirty years later, Foster does seem to show us that neither is easy, for there is no simple solution in a dangerous world.

If revenge motivates Foster to justice, then in 3:10 to Yuma, it must be survival that keys Christian Bale. He takes the dangerous assignment of transporting Russell Crowe to a prison train in a desperate attempt to earn money for his family. He tries to rationalize his decision by telling himself that it is the right thing to do, bringing a criminal to justice. But, by the end of the film, Bale (another wounded veteran left behind by his government) is left to fend for himself after being abandoned by the marshals (government and law enforcement) and the railroad man (corporate America). As he comes to realize the truth of the other men’s lies, he finds it in himself and the job becomes his duty, justified by the large cash payout he insists for his family. In a western where the good guys are cowards and the bad guys are charming, we find ourselves asking, who do we root for? Maybe the answer is that we need only care about ourselves. Is a little selfishness so bad? Have ideas like isolation and ‘Contention’ become so negative that to simply take care of ourselves and our own family is not enough? Apparently we need to influence every member of society to conform to our way of thinking and acting; in order to homogenize this country and rob it’s of the truly American value of diversity.

If you think that this state of fear, heightened sense of (a lack of) security and general paranoia is not directly related to the breakdown of the government system, you need only look at a movie like The Bourne Ultimatum. In it, Jason Bourne wants nothing more than to live a quiet life abroad, far removed from the nightmare of his former government service. But, as he is dragged back in by a government agency that cannot even cooperate with itself, Bourne has no choice but to turn killer on his would-be killers. Forced into a corner and defending his life, he fights back, bringing the administration to its knees. But, let there be no doubt, throughout all three movies Bourne has had deep personal regret and conflict about his actions. Not even conscious of what or why he is behaving abnormally, he struggles to gain some balance in his life, but only finds if after killing for it. It’s the American way right?

Or can it be a global sensation? For in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, the Ministry of Magic has a complete collapse, physical and literal by the film’s end, in which nobody is safe and nobody is to be trusted. Harry is truly on his own in the film, heavily relying in his friends, (his family) when it comes to it. I have maintained that the movie accurately reflects a British society sadly evolving ever closer to resembling “the colonies”. But, I think that the answer does come in the film. When Harry has nobody to turn to, no higher authority to trust in, when he accepts that he is truly alone and willing to stand alone for what is right, he finds that he has more help than he could have ever thought.

And that dear reader is what I want you to take away from this piece and these films. You can look at the top headlines to find our country, our world in a shocking state. From the Jena 6 to Hollywood celebrities and UF students to OJ Simpson, one need not look far to find social injustices, judicial prejudices and economic inequality. And when you think there is nothing you can do about, no difference that one person can make, if you stand up for yourself like ol’ Harry, you might just find that there are people who are willing to stand next to you.

Thank you for taking the time to read this. It took me several days and very few minutes to actually write this, but I felt it was an important topic and had to get the message out there.

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