Wednesday, April 21, 2004

The United States of Vengeance

Q: Determine what the following films have in common: WALKING TALL, KILL BILL VOL. 2, THE PUNISHER, MAN ON FIRE.

A: Two things. All will have opened theatrically in April, and all are concerned with taking revenge with one's own hands.

Taken collectively, this streak of anger doesn't exactly restore one's faith in humankind, especially when a preview audience is laughing and applauding Denzel Washington's merciless avenger in MAN ON FIRE.

The premise of Tony Scott's film puts Washington's Creasy, an alcoholic former Special Ops soldier, in protection of a Mexican businessman's daughter Pita (Dakota Fanning, not as cloying here as usual, although she still comes off as some kind of alien or futuristic Hollywood genetic experiment rather than a child). Initially he rejects her desire to be friends, but eventually he warms up to her and finds a reason to keep living. Inevitably she gets abducted. Creasy vows to kill everyone involved in the plot to take her from her family.

And strike down upon thee with great vengeance and furious anger he does. Creasy may read the Bible, but he is also one pissed off mofo. Christopher Walken plays a colleague who relates that Creasy possesses an artistry for death and that his rampage in Mexico City will be his masterpiece. Creasy certainly holds no qualms about being as brutal as possible in extracting the information he wants from the bad guys and then disposing of them. As he prepares to kill the leader of corrupt cops, Creasy remarks, "Forgiveness is between them and God. It's my job to arrange the meeting." As played by the likeable and charismatic Washington, Creasy wields a dark sense of humor about exacting revenge. The audience is supposed to share Creasy's pleasure in doling out his brand of justice.

There's something very troublesome about this trend of stirring the audience's taste for vigilanteism. It's not so much the acts of gaining revenge but the pernicious satisfaction in reveling in it. Instead of understanding Creasy's actions from a distance, we're supposed to applaud him for them and callously engage in them.

Considering that I'm a big supporter of Quentin Tarantino's revenge fantasies KILL BILL VOL. 1 and VOL. 2, it might seem odd that I'd object so strongly to MAN ON FIRE. Yet Tarantino's films couldn't be more different from MAN ON FIRE and these other new vigilante pictures, not the least of which being that they occur within a movie universe as opposed to the others' real world settings. KILL BILL also has a moral code--call it the way of the samurai--whereas these other films are merely about satisfying bloodlust that the system can't. KILL BILL thrills the viewer with dazzling fight sequences. That the Bride kills her adversaries is almost secondary. (Obviously it's important to the character, but whether her opponents die is of less significance to the viewer.) In MAN ON FIRE and THE PUNISHER, the complete obliteration of the villains is to be enjoyed with the sadistic glee the heroes display. The murders--and these killings are most certainly that--are the only payoffs.

As for an overall take on MAN ON FIRE, it's thoroughly watchable even though Scott's hyper editing and deployment of subtitles like advertising text come across like desperate tactics to energize the film. In the nitpicking department, why is Creasy's name said about a million times in this movie, especially in the first hour? It's almost comical to the point of distraction. (Plus, it's pronounced in various ways: creasy, creazy, gracie. And what's up with the accent of indeterminate origin used by Radha Mitchell as the willowy American mother of Pita?) Washington is a commanding presence, and it's hard not to like him even if you object to his character and the film as a whole. I have strong reservations about the film's philosophy. Coupled with the overblown style, this isn't a film I can get behind artistically or politically.

Assuming I read one of the opening notes correctly, the film claims that in Latin America an abduction takes place every hour. It seems hard to believe, but okay, I'll go along with that. What I can't believe, though, is "a very special thanks to Mexico City, a very special place", a bone preceding the end credits that is thrown to the city. Did the filmmakers feel the need to apologize considering that the picture they paint is of a dangerous place riddled with corruption in all levels of Mexican society and government? Films don't need to be visitor's bureau pieces for their settings, but MAN ON FIRE strikes me as an unfair portrayal of the city and its people. That note tacked onto the end of the film appears that perhaps the filmmakers realized the same after the fact.

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