Friday, 5 August 2011

Urban Justice 2000

These are dark and uncertain times we live in, an of course it also reflects to the entertainment we consume. One clear sign is the revival of vigilantist action thrillers. These extend to the popular Superhero films, but real vigilantist films tend to be a lot darker. While Scum roams the streets, the innocent get killed in the process. But every once in a while one of these crimes crosses a man who has the will and the power to fight back. Because the police is powerless to help those in need, the main character has the right to take law into his own hands and brutally go after Crime itself. He's just delivering Justice where Law can't reach. Batman is a tame character compared to the protagonists in a vigilantist film. These films also tend to be pretty right-wing, as criminals are seen as truly evil vermin, who are a cancer to a functioning society and thus better off dead.

I'd like to mention one film in addition to these three I will be reviewing: Law Abiding Citizen (2009, dir. F. Gary Gray) starts off as a traditional vigilantist flick: Gerard Butler's family gets murdered and the killers walk away scot free. Butler does eventually take brutal revenge on the culprits, but he's so cruel in doing so that it's not really delivering actual poetic justice. After the criminals are dead, he also starts to take out also judges, lawyers and jury members who let the criminals escape. Thus, he's really not an identifiable protagonist and really more of an antagonist. The film's real hero, played by Jamie Foxx, then has to try to stop him before he himself gets murdered. Because Gerard Butler's character has planned all his kills to automatically happen while he's sitting in prison, the film's actually playing on the collective American fear of terrorists who are one step ahead of the government. That's why it can't be seen as a right-wing power fantasy as such.

Law Abiding Citizen is not a good film by any means, but at least one that treats a vigilantist as a villain just as bad as the criminals, not as a hero. These three following films are sickeningly right-wing in giving their protagonists the right to go above the law.

Harry Brown (2009)
Director: Daniel Barber

Vigilantism isn't a subject that appeals to only American gun nuts and Teapartiers. The conservative Brits like it as well, which is also why they decided to use Lottery Funds to create an embryonic vengeance fantasy for the elderly. Bloody kids these days... If only there was someone to blow them all away.

As seems to be often the case in the genre, the protagonist here is by his occupation an ex-marine (ex-agent is also common). Here he comes in the elderly form of Michael Caine. After Caine's Brown becomes a widow, he starts to notice the horrid environment around him. It is plagued by the lowest of the low scum. His friend tries to get some sense into them, but is beaten to death. And the police can't find evidence to capture the murderers, as usual. Brown then decdes to bring his vengeance down on all of the young gang members in East London. As is often the case in these films, the criminals themselves have no redeeming characteristics. They are evil just to get a kick out of it, like straight out from A Clockwork Orange but with a drastically more straightforward message. the only way to redeem the streets is to kill them all to the last man.

Harry Brown is a humourless, dark and as serious as an open grave. The violence is harsh and the actions to be taken even harsher. I totally understand why many critics would find these sorts of films to be disgusting. I usually enjoy this kind of cinema (or used to when the films are made in the 70's or 80's), but this went over the edge even for me.


Taken (2008)
Director: Pierre Morel

Taken takes a little different angle on the traditional vigilante thriller. Liam Neeson's character, ex-agent Bryan Mills, isn't out avenging something horrible that has happened. He's out there to prevent anything terrible to happen to his daughter Kim (Maggie Grace). Wouldn't you know, that girl has lived with her mother and new father without enough discipline. That's why she's been allowed to tour Europe following a shitty stadion rock band. Of course she never gets any further than Paris when she's already in trouble. Human trafficers kidnap her and her friend as soon as she arrives to her guesthouse.

American action films often seem to take place in some western-styled place where there is no law or consequences. This becomes overemphasized when the action takes place somewhere out of America. Thus, Bryan Mills can shoot and murder dozens of people and not get even a trace of police after his trail. Yeah, but they were all bad guys... The film also apparently sells the idea that all foreigners are untrustworthy and going somewhere else rather than home is just tempting the fate. The only thing that allows Kim to survive is the fact that she has kept her virginity, which keeps her alive until auctioned to wealthy Eurotrash. Her harlot friend isn't as lucky. It's really strange that this film has been both directed and written (by Luc Besson, no less) by Frenchmen, when they picture their beautiful capital city so filled with unspeakable evils and corruption. Maybe they'd wish to be Americans, too? Although the action is more kick-ass than usually in these sort of films, the extreme right-wing subtext just makes the thing seem disgusting.


Death Sentence (2007)
Director: James Wan

The most enjoyable of these three is based on an original novel by Brian Garfield, who also wrote Death Wish. Now, Death Sentence certainly isn't entertaining because it is a good film, quite the opposite. Whereas Harry Brown feels too much like you're watching real live violence, Death Sentence is made by the well-worn Hollywood blueprint of a vigilantist movie and that's why it's easier to take some distance to it.

Happy family man Nick Hume's (Kevin Bacon) oldest son gets murdered merely because of a gang ritual. As is always the case, the police can't do a thing to catch the culprits. Thus, Hume goes out to kill a few gang members. Of course, this is a moronic move as they retaliate by killing off the rest of his family. But Hume retaliates again to take the rest of the gang out. John Goodman appears to shout at everyone he meets, to do stuff that his character would have no reason to do, and to underline how bastardly evil these kids are.

If one would want to make a film that criticises vigilantism in any way (or in other words, is any good), the fact that vengeance is so useless in the long run and harms more than it is worth. It would be a good place to build the story over. But Death Sentence has no intention of doing anything like that. It is necessary to kill those gang members from scratch. The fact that one's family gets killed in the process is just a sacrifice en route to bring justice to where there previously was none. This makes the vigilantist a martyr, and not even death can really stop him. You see, he's on a mission from God.


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