Friday, February 4, 2011

Some Excuses and Justifications

CBS Films' poker-faced rudimentary action: first Faster, an extended tribute to Walter Hill re-framed through Evangelical Protestant morality, then The Mechanic, wherein the angry bald head of Jason Statham and the guilty face of Ben Foster unleash grisly violence on a variety of people-we-know-are-bad (drug dealers, false prophets, traitors, assassins) and then each other. While the former is comparatively sleek and the latter is scuzzy, both indulge in the classic mechanics of the genre without making a big, disingenuous show of it—though, more importantly, what links the two is a certain ethical tidiness.

Dwayne Johnson hunts men in Faster for righteous revenge (whose reasons are explained in much greater detail than exactly how Johnson was able to plan this plot from prison), and in the end he offers one of his targets a chance at revelation on a beach behind a revival tent. Statham and Foster, we are told again and again, are troubled, friendless men, and it's for that reason that they've got into the assassination game; it is not, however, for that reason that they assassinate--it's because their targets are bad people, and Statham's central crisis of conscience revolves the realization that one of his targets was not as bad as he thought.

This isn't something specific to these two films; it's partly built into the genre: the plots of most American-style action movies are concerned with making excuses for the action. It's a genre obsessed with self-justification.

The Mechanic
is itself a remake of a Charles Bronson vehicle, and while the early Bronson movies flirted with moral ambiguity (usually in the most tone-deaf ways possible; see Death Wish), by the 1980s, when the genre solidified, they had become overtaken with increasingly baroque justifications. If those Bronson movies aren't art, writing them sure must've been, because a man can only avenge a murder so many times.

The later Bronsons set up Rube Goldberg chains of motivation, something which reaches its pinnacle (or is that "low point?") with Kinjite: Forbidden Subjects. J. Lee Thompson's dreamily lurid last film finds Bronson hunting for a gang because they sold the daughter of the man who groped his daughter into prostitution (all of this filtered through a very '80s brand of Nipponophobia).


Jeremy Nyhuis said...

Off topic, but I just wanted to let you know that I've enjoyed reading your blog for over a year now and was thrilled to see that you are co-hosting Ebert's new show. I've watched the first two episodes and think you've done an excellent job at bringing intelligent, personal commentary to the discussions, despite how brief the limited timeframe allows these discussions to be. I hope the public appreciates what a treat it is to have a true cinephile (as opposed to someone who just "loves films," as Girish Shambu has noted) in that kind of venue. I know I am. :)

Cheers and best wishes on this new venture.

Ignatiy Vishnevetsky said...

Thanks for your very kind words, Jeremy.

Jon Hastings said...

Some play with this convention in Collateral: Max doesn't accept Vincent's justification, showing it up as the sophistic, sociopathic rationalization it is.

Ignatiy Vishnevetsky said...


That's why Mann is tops.