Homefront: Exploiting the Classic, American Rationale for Violence

The new Jason Statham film isn't about war, but it uses wartime insecurities as an excuse to break bones and blow stuff up.
Open Road Films

Given current geopolitics, a movie called Homefront seems like it has to be about terrorism. But no; the Jason Statham vehicle pits him not against stereotypical evil Muslims or North Koreans (a la Olympus Has Fallen), but rather against stereotypical evil meth-selling "rednecks" (as the film calls them.) Rather than the War on Terror we get the War on Drugs, set in a backwoods Louisiana setting that nods to the rural grotesque of Deliverance, with banjo music updated to terrible pseudo-metal.

And yet, even though it doesn't address post-9/11 anxieties in quite the way you'd expect, the film does key into them. The reason "homefront" resonates with the War on Terror is because the War on Terror, wherever it takes place in the world, is driven (again, especially post-9/11) by the determination to protect U.S. civilians. Homefront may be talking about meth rather than Osama, but on a deeper level it appreciates, and uses, the connection between home, family, and violence.  

The conflict of the film kicks off when undercover DEA agent Phil Broker (Statham) is inadvertently involved in the death of meth dealer Danny T's (Chuck Zito) no-good biker son. Statham leaves the force and the area in order to protect his daughter Maddy (Izabela Vidovic), but after she has an altercation at school with a bully he ends up in a family feud with the aforementioned stereotypical rednecks, and in particular with meth dealer Gator Bodine (James Franco.) The film then proceeds to run threat variations: The house is invaded and a toy bunny mutilated; Maddy is endangered; etc. etc. Each attack on home and hearth leads inevitably to a joyful outflow of violence, with Statham swinging naturally back and forth between buttoned-up, masculine, non-emoting emoting and vicious, masculine, non-emoting action heroics.

None of this works. Statham, again, has little more emotional range than his prominently featured truck. He never sells, or even really tries to sell, a connection with his on-screen daughter, or (heaven-forfend) a sense of vulnerability. Similarly, the off-screen death of Broker's wife is way too by-the-numbers to have much resonance (though Vidovic—a much more accomplished actor as a child than Statham will ever be—tries gamely). A romance plot between Broker and one of Maddy's teachers (which Maddy eagerly supports) seems like it should be thematically important if the film is supposed to be about establishing a home and family. But it's simply shrugged off and forgotten as the plot hurtles to its conclusion of gunfire and explosions and car chases. The last intimate scene (spoiler, I guess) is not Broker and the teacher, but Broker and behind-bars Danny T engaged in the ritual display of testosterone, with Broker triumphantly crowing before the credits roll. That ritual display makes impossible any sympathy or engagement with Danny T's grief for his own son, and damns the parallels with Broker's own parenthood.

You could argue that the thematic incoherence and half-assed storytelling is simply because this is a crappy big dumb action movie. But in fact, as a big dumb action movie, it works pretty well. The fight scenes are fun and inventive; a battle in the space between that truck and the gas pump is a highlight, as is the fairly inevitable but still thoroughly entertaining tussle with Statham's hands tied behind his back. The car chases aren't done especially well, but overall, Homefront delivers the enjoyment you'd expect from a shoot-‘em-up.

The homefront setting and themes, then, aren't really the point of the picture; they're simply an excuse for Statham's virtuous violence—or, at the very end, his virtuous restraint when he decides to pull back just short of beating a guy to death because his daughter is watching. The violence is the fun part and the purpose. "Home" is like that gas station; just a setting for stunts.

Of course, this is not how home functions in war, whether it’s the War on Drugs or the War on Terror. Nobody actually wants to send out drones to drop bombs on wedding parties in Afghanistan; nobody wants to water-board anybody; nobody wants us to have the world's highest incarceration rates. We just have to do it to protect the homeland. It is a tragic but necessary inevitability.

Watching Homefront makes you wonder, though. After all, the "reasons" in the film don't have any thematic coherence—they just sit there alongside the main thing, which is to watch Stathem head butt people and hear bones breaking. Violence here doesn't need a reason or a logic, but is instead its own pleasurable rush, and "home" in Homefront isn't so much what we love, as what we love to have threatened in order to have the chance to watch things blowing up. The film’s catchy, currents-events-evoking title may be trying to tell us that if an action movie is a genre with its own self-justifying pleasures, then so, perhaps, and chillingly, is war.

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Noah Berlatsky is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He edits the online comics-and-culture website The Hooded Utilitarian and is the author of the forthcoming book Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics, 1941-1948.

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