The new vigilante movies.

Arts, entertainment, and more.
Sept. 13 2007 1:34 PM

Killer Films

Why the new vigilante movies are a lot like the old vigilante movies.

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At the same time, Erica dedicates much of her vigilantism to shooting random predators, which puts the film somewhat out of step with the current cycle. Today, we are less afraid of the random punk than we are of the sleeper cell. Shadowy networks and evil syndicates are the new muggers and rapists, as seen in a number of films—Batman Begins, Munich, Man on Fire, The Punisher,and Death Sentence among them. In fact, Brian Garfield says that the most outdated aspect of his novel Death Sentence—and hence one of the first things to be jettisoned in adapting it—was the prevalence of muggers. This explains the film's violent methamphetamine outfit, a decidedly more "today" villain.

Warner Bros. has positioned The Brave One as a serious-minded drama. Death Sentence, a more straightforward genre piece, is also surprisingly sober. Still, neither film is as ambivalent as Steven Spielberg's Munich. Despite Munich's exhaustive running time (and the lead assassin being recruited because he is not "a sabra Charles Bronson"), the film reduces the vigilante ethos to its troubled core. While the film is ostensibly a period piece chronicling the revenge Israel exacted for the 1972 killings of its Olympic athletes, many saw Munich's use of Israel's 30-year-old vendetta as a stand-in for today's "war on terror." But Munich (nominated for five Academy Awards) can also be seen as continuing a dialogue begun in Death Wish (nominated for none). When Bronson asks, "What do you call people who, when they're faced with a condition of fear, do nothing about it?" his son-in-law replies, "Civilized." Thirty years later, the exchange continues, but it's not Bronson who answers, it's Golda Meir: "Some people say we can't afford to be civilized."

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It's easy to imagine that in a post-9/11 America, vengeance occupies more of our national imagination than before. Maybe it does. But today's vigilante movies channel many of the same frustrations that their predecessors did. Today, as in the '70s, America faces economic, environmental, and energy-related crises. In both generations, Americans wrestle with political powerlessness, on fronts ranging from their own health care to the country's role on the global stage. (America's invasion of Iraq, unsanctioned by the U.N. and launched by a president happy to be seen as a "cowboy"—or more accurately, a gunfighter—could be seen as a vigilante war.) And both generations of Americans watch as the executive branch flouts its accountability to the public and to the law, proves unable to "win" an increasingly unpopular war, and refuses to acknowledge the reality of the war's downward spiral.

Fundamentally, both eras also share an anxiety about the government's ability to keep them safe. As Barak notes, vigilante fantasies of the 1970s stemmed less from actual crime than from the feeling that the criminal justice system was ineffective. Although crime rates fell steadily between 1994 and 2005, we still face a similar unease about trusting our safety to "the system." New Orleans is a perfect example. When Hurricane Katrina struck, it was not the storm but the design of the levees and FEMA's response that caused so much destruction and misery. This is the one-two punch we now fear: the calamity, and then the realization that help from our institutions is not on the way.

Enter the vigilante. In a pop culture of tumultuous times, he is a steadying presence, a recognizable archetype. At such moments, vigilante movies offer gut-level reassurance, as if saying, "There's good news and bad news. The bad news is that we lost habeas corpus; the good news is that the Twinkie defense also just became moot." In the case of The Brave One, this is why the film's most important question is not the one it seems to pose most often: "What is Erica becoming?" Instead, the film's most important question is raised just once, and by a minor character. Against the jungle of a park in the middle of the night, a girl Erica has freed from a particularly scummy tormentor awakens from a daze to ask the question we all could ask:

"Is this still America?"

Is it ever.

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