Monday, October 19, 2009

The revenge of vigilante films

Everyone, at some point, has felt the impulse to exact revenge. Let me share my own revenge fantasy with you. As a teen, I went to a very prim and proper private school where I did not fit in. Unlike the other kids, I didn't come from a super wealthy family (a generous benefactor paid for my education) and I didn't fit into any of the established cliques. I also resented the formal pretentiousness of the institution itself. How pretentious? Here's an example: At year-end assembly, the students had to sing the official school song in Latin even though none of us had the slightest idea what the words meant, or what it signified.

And so I used to daydream of my revenge on the entire school. It went like this: During the year-end assembly in which parents assembled to watch their kids receive awards as well as talent showcases, I imagined myself taking to the stage with an electric guitar. I'd start off playing a very tasteful ballad that would lull the onlookers into a fall sense of security and then, suddenly, tear into a face-melting, speed-shredding solo at maximum volume that would have parents and teachers alike gawking in shock. A little like the high school prom scene in "Back to the Future" when Michael J. Fox breaks into a Van Halen-esque guitar solo. (Click the video of Steve Vai's "Tender Surrender," above, for my perfect guitar solo for the occasion.)

(My grandfather, who died before I was born, had an even better idea. As a school boy at Sedbergh -- the ultra-prestigious private school in England -- he filled the pipes of the school's organ with confetti so that it snowed during the final assembly.)

I can laugh at my little revenge fantasy, because it's quite benign. But lately I've been noticing about how prevalent revenge is in popular culture. Take "Law Abiding Citizen," the new movie starring Jamie Foxx and Gerard Butler (the most over-exposed movie star of 2009), for example. Butler plays a man who goes on a rampage after his family is killed. According to EW's Owen Gleiberman, Butler's character "kidnaps one of the perpetrators, straps him down to a torture table, and saws off his limbs (and other things)."

It's one of several recent revenge flicks, including "Wolverine," "Inglorious Basterds," "Taken," and Mel Gibson's imminent "Edge of Darkness." Vigilante movies have long been popular, from "Death Wish" to "Payback" to "Rambo" to "Man on Fire" to "Oldboy" to "Kill Bill." But I find vigilante movies fundamentally boring. The formula goes like this: Happy family is disrupted by senseless crime. Survivor arms himself with multiple guns, knives, hand grenades -- like Arnold in "Commando"-- and then spends the rest of the movie working his way up a foodchain of lowly henchmen until a final face-off with the mastermind/perpetrator, who meets a gruesome fate. Cue sunrise. Roll credits. Yawn.

Such movies are a cathartic outlet for viewers' revenge fantasies. But revenge is a deadly impulse, one that clouds rational thought. (A broad desire for revenge after Sept. 11 bolstered the Bush administration's attack on Iraq, for instance.) I wish more films explored the corruption and consequences of revenge, like Todd Fields' "In the Bedroom" and Clint Eastwood's "Unforgiven" and "Gran Torino."

Still, my high school self can applaud at least one Hollywood revenge flick: "Revenge of the Nerds."

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