So, believe it or not, last night was the first time I’d ever seen “Lethal Weapon”. Albeit, I’ve watched bits and pieces over its many years of TV syndication, but I’d never watched start to finish or followed the plot before last night. And watching it got me thinking. From the very first drug deal crackdown, when Mel Gibson whips out his gun and shoots like three guys in one second, I actually thought “this is fake, we’re gonna find out it’s a training practice for the academy or something”. The shootings were so casual and instantaneous that my 2007 perspective just assumed it was fake. No movie cop is allowed to kill that many people that quickly without some serious back-story to support it. And on top of that, the scene was clearly supposed to excite and entertain the audience. Look at how good he is with a gun! Nowadays, that’s the last thing we’re led to believe about our film protagonists.
What a difference 1987 makes. Despite his anti-hero qualities- tortured past, suicidal tendencies, Mel Gibson’s character holds much more in common with Rambo than with contemporary “action” protagonists. And why wouldn’t he? 1987: It’s pre-gulf war, and the Berlin wall is still up, so of course bad guys are bad guys, so why would an audience be interested in a character’s moral struggle over casual killing. Cops kill bad guys. And we as the audience rejoice with Arnold and Sly with every commie or drug lord that they shoot. And boy, they shoot a lot. The weapons are big and sexy, and our heroes run through the middle of traffic, shirtless, chasing after the villain’s limo, until finally, they get to face off in hand-to-hand combat for the last seven minutes of the film, and when the final bullet gets the bad guy through the cranium, we shout “Take That!” and rejoice as if we’d been the hot shot behind the trigger our self. As my roommate Carrie remarked, the film was made when we still rejoiced in the idea of revenge. No irony needed or subtext, just kill the faceless evildoers then fall asleep at night knowing you’ve done your American duty. (I won’t draw out the contemporary political allusions, but you can do it for yourself if you want to).
Now, move ahead to today’s revenge or war films, like “Munich” where it is actually about assassins taking out the evildoers, but there is no celebratory, glossy kills as the heroes run through warehouses killing indiscriminately. Instead, the film is about the very ethical struggles inherent in planned murder. We see Eric Bana fighting off demons, not being cheered on by a circle of fellow cops watching him strangle Gary Busey on Danny Glover’s front lawn. For the most part, audiences today won’t believe that the antagonist is pure evil and has no soul (unless you go to the realm of fantasy. We’re not worried about Sauron’s childhood trauma). Not only is the bad guy not pure evil, but also our protagonists are far from perfect. Is this postmodernism playing havoc on our sense of good and evil, or is it truth emerging from the reality of a world where violence, and not the perpetrators, is beginning to be seen as the evil.
Then there’s the sublime paradox presented in “Jarhead”; a clear anti-war film that succeeds in having the audience weep with a main character when he’s robbed of the chance to finally take a shot at his enemy. And it works because we’re not wanting to see an Iraqi get shot, we want to see Peter Saarsgard be validated for the sacrifice and suffering he’s endured as a soldier. It’s not about wanting to see death; it’s about wanting to see someone finally get their shot- to matter. And mattering seems to be what’s on all of our minds these days. Even if its cheesy action flicks like Michael Bay’s “The Island”, we want to celebrate the individual’s right to exist, even if it means we have to let the “evil” guy exist too. And I see this as progress from the revenge-orgy films of the 80’s. Who are we to corner the market on revenge? We’d be kidding ourselves to think we’re innocent. So, our celebrations may look more like mourning for the time being, but until we can truly celebrate “the other”, it is better to mourn our failure to understand “the other”, than to shout for joy and raise our beer bottles in the air every time a bad guy gets one in the skull.
It is better to go to the house of mourning than to go to the house of feasting; for this is the end of everyone, and the living will lay it to heart. Sorrow is better than laughter, for by sadness of countenance the heart is made glad. The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning; but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth.