If one were to chart the reasons for the arts’ gradual transformation (now almost complete) into a fully-paid up, fuzzy part of the leisure industry, their avoidance of — or indeed contempt for — the issues which concern most people now would be striking. Immigration, for example, in the form of Richard Bean’s play England People Very Nice, has reared its head only recently. And what about crime and social breakdown? A couple of shortish plays, but otherwise nothing. Perhaps the left-liberal sensibility dominating much of the cultural scene is, like the outside world, finding it increasingly difficult to cope. Its sworn belief that murder and mayhem are, naturally, the result of social deprivation is being put under a real strain, so best to leave it alone. Who knows, perhaps the hearts have even stopped bleeding just a little.
There is one exception to this creative refusal to engage: the vigilante film. These B-movies are mostly considered by the bien pensants to be beyond the pale, exploitative and even dangerous. We’re not supposed to like them. But their popularity, and the visceral response they evoke in audiences, is proof that they get to the parts other arts cannot or will not reach. Dirty Harry and Death Wish appeared in the first half of the 1970s at a time when crime was rising steeply and the public detected (rightly, as it turned out) a serious failure of will on the part of law-makers and enforcers. The first is a popular classic, the second a kind of cinematic guilty pleasure and both made millions.
Two vigilante films have appeared in the past month, just as, in the real world, each day seems to bring news of a fresh random atrocity, and the rising public despair at the supine, uncomprehending response from officialdom becomes almost palpable. Michael Caine’s latest release, Harry Brown, portrays an old ex-army man driven to take up arms against the human trash terrorising the council estate on which he lives a beleaguered existence. The affection with which Caine is held undoubtedly helps a film such as this, although some of the earlier reviews made the predictable references to anti-liberal stereotyping and “fascistic” politics.
And, doubtless, the same alarm bells will ring with the release of Law Abiding Citizen, a Hollywood thriller staring Gerard Butler and Jamie Foxx, in which one wronged man decides to take on not just a couple of thugs but his city’s entire corrupt, complacent legal establishment. Directed by F. Gary Gray, Law Abiding Citizen begins with what’s now known as a “home invasion” during which Clyde Shelton (Butler) is forced to watch helplessly as his wife and daughter are murdered. One of the killers then cheats the death penalty after Shelton’s ruthlessly self-serving lawyer (Foxx) cuts a deal. Disgusted to the point of psychosis, Shelton first hunts down the free man, then masterminds his grand assassination plan.
Along the way, having equipped himself with knowledge about every arcane detail of the legal process, he plays the system against itself. This is vigilantism deluxe. Shelton is not content simply to hunt his victims, Bronson-style, on their subway journey home: he uses mutilation, explosions and remote-controlled shoot-ups to bring the city to its knees.
This is all farfetched — in fact, it threatens to spiral out of control long before the end. It is sometimes nauseatingly bloody, at other times plain silly, and no doubt it’s all in the worst possible taste. What holds it together, however, and actually makes it compelling, are the scenes between Butler and Foxx, the former coming off occasionally like a blue-collar Hannibal Lecter, at other times like the Kevin Spacey character in David Fincher’s superb Seven. Foxx is finally made to realise the very, very hard way that, in the words of the film, we are all responsible for the consequences of our actions.
This sentiment, repeated a number of times, should certainly strike a chord with conservative viewers, if they can get over any distaste they might feel for the context. I imagine it will certainly rile liberal minds, not that they will need much prompting. Criticism of this particular genre brings out all their traditional prejudices. It is about the actions, albeit warped, of an individual against a system. It is about a crude, supposedly irrational emotion — revenge. The usual mantra is that such films are irresponsible and that they encourage lawlessness, views that not only show very little faith in the ability of the individual to make his/her own judgments but are disingenuous on another level. For the truth is that condemnation of these movies comes not from a sense of social responsibility but out of a simple liberal distaste for the whole idea of punishment.