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.

The Brave One. Click image to expand.
Jodie Foster in The Brave One

Revenge: Where would the movies be without it? The hero's quest for personal justice has fueled plenty of high drama and even more lowbrow cinema. This is especially true of 1970s vigilante films. In these movies, an individual at odds with "the system" does what that system cannot: take revenge on specific criminals or crime in general for the wrongs done to him (occasionally her), his family, his community. This means mustering rage and weaponry, from socks stuffed with quarters to .32 revolvers to grenade launchers (and that's just in the Death Wish series). In recent years, a similar body of films has emerged. This trend includes modern day B-movies ( A Man Apart, Four Brothers), comic-book adaptations ( The Punisher, Batman Begins), remakes ( Man on Fire, Walking Tall), and even Oscar-bait ( Munich). Reaching a brutal climax in the last few weeks with the releases of Death Sentence and The Brave One, this cycle proves that vengeance is back with, well, a vengeance, and that the two eras parallel each other like twin dark alleys in the American imagination.

The "classic" vigilante films—a roster that includes Billy Jack, Dirty Harry, Walking Tall, Death Wish, and Taxi Driver—were made possible when Hollywood's self-censorship became less stringent. Following Bonnie and Clyde's release in 1967, violence became more graphic, more extreme, and, in a word, more. (Martin Scorsese was forced to desaturate the colors of Taxi Driver's rampage to avoid an X rating, but the title character of The Exterminator, a 1980 film that Roger Ebert calls "a small, unclean exercise in shame," did get to feed a villain to an industrial meat grinder.)

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These films bubbled up from the country's toxic domestic scene: inflation, an energy crisis, the implosion of a presidency, and rising crime rates. "There was a sense that things were falling apart," says criminologist Gregg Barak. Before Richard Nixon's presidency, Barak argues, "There was always the notion that you could reform someone …" but with the upheavals of the 1960s and the unease of the 1970s, many felt "we had gone too far in liberalizing things." Hence the public's enthusiasm for Nixon's "law and order" campaign platform, and later, for Hollywood's vigilante daydreams.

The seminal vigilante film of the era—or any era—is Michael Winner's Death Wish (1974), based on Brian Garfield's novel. The movie immortalized Charles Bronson as Paul Kersey, an everyman who responds to the brutalization of his wife and daughter by obsessively smiting muggers and other "freaks" (as the credits bill his family's attackers). This is far from where Kersey began: a progressive raised to hate guns, and a wartime conscientious objector. Of course, Kersey's liberalism exists only so it can be corrected later. Liberals are similarly "reformed" in the new Jodie Foster movie, The Brave One, as well as in Vigilante, Death Wish 3, and The Enforcer, in which a cop's widow makes the point, "It's a war, isn't it? I guess I never really understood that."

This war is between the civilized and the savage—a conflict drawn from the Western. The period's vigilante films actually uphold the Western mythos more reliably than its Westerns do. The Wild Bunch, Ulzana's Raid, and others depict the Western as morally confused, even bankrupt. Meanwhile, Dirty Harry, Death Wish, and similar action yarns ultimately embrace the gunfighter's moral clarity.

This is why Garfield denounced the film version of Death Wish. The novel's point, he insists, is that vigilantism is an attractive fantasy, but if it were ever acted upon, the real violence would be to society and to the soul. (Garfield even petitioned the FCC to force CBS to either cancel a broadcast of Death Wish or to strongly warn viewers about the film's violence.) In 1975, he published a sequel, Death Sentence, as "penance" for the film, giving his characters pointed—and lengthy—anti-vigilante speeches. Although the current film version of Death Sentence shares nothing with the book but the title, Garfield seems satisfied: "After thirty-five years, they finally got it right."

In fairness, Death Wish is somewhat more ambiguous than many recognized in 1974. Kersey's obsessions shuttle him toward self-destruction—which, of course, they must. To dramatize obsession is to implicitly or explicitly critique it (although this was probably lost on the moviegoers who Garfield recalls shouting, "Kill that mother!"). The Brave One and Death Sentence have inherited this ambivalence, albeit unequally. There is no surprise here. After all, one is directed by the filmmaker of The Crying Game, while the other is by the guy who did Saw.

In Death Sentence, Kevin Bacon plays Nick Hume, a business executive and suburbanite. After the chance killing of Nick's son, the bereaved father and the gang avenge themselves on each other with escalating stakes. For his final act of retribution, Nick goes on a Taxi Driver-inspired rampage in the gang's lair (an abandoned mental hospital where literally, and now figuratively, the hope of regaining sanity is gone). Also bearing Taxi Driver's influence is Nick's battle preparation: a ritualistic montage in which he masters his arsenal, shaves his head, and purifies himself with pain.

This season's other vigilante film, The Brave One, has a more literal connection to Taxi Driver: Jodie Foster, for whom Travis Bickle was not only a savior, but also, it turns out, a mentor. But an even better referent is Death Wish. Like the attack on Paul Kersey's family (and later Nick Hume's), the attack on Foster's Erica Bain is a chance one that hardens a bleeding heart. The liberal-turned-gunslinger arc further cements The Brave One as another throwback to 1970s vigilante lore.