Ready for Action

Despite seeing on television news what used to be confined to action movies, audiences have been flocking to them, perhaps eager for the illusion of control they offer

Film Culture was the name of an arcane critical journal, but those two words always make me think of the goo from candy and spilled soda that accumulates on the floors of movie theaters, and then of the habits of those of us who spend so much of our lives in theaters that others must think us indigenous to them—candidates for ethnological study. One of our most cherished customs is seeing movies in the early afternoon or very late at night, when the rest of the world is working or getting ready for bed.

The first time I saw Quentin Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs (1992), on a weekday afternoon soon after it opened, about a third of the audience seemed to be young black males—an unfamiliar presence in art houses like the one closest to me in Philadelphia. If these kids had been lured by the promise of reckless bloodshed, they weren't disappointed. "Damn," one of them cried out in seeming approval on several occasions when a round of bullets hit a human target. (Sometimes it was a drawn-out "Dey-em," other times a quick "Dang!") Although I was used to this sort of thing, from having seen so many action movies with integrated audiences in multiplexes, where expressions of astonishment by teenagers are pretty routine (and often prompted by lavish on-screen displays of money, drugs, or stolen goods, rather than by carnage), others in the audience apparently were not. Several people turned to see where the noise was coming from—at first alarmed, then amused, and finally just annoyed. The only ones who paid no mind were the young men who made up about another third of the audience, whose intense concentration suggested that they might be film students weighing the logic of Tarantino's edits or keeping a running count of his allusions to Hong Kong action movies. They looked as if nothing short of gunplay in the aisles would break their trance.

I remember wondering if these two groups of young men were seeing two different movies—and which of those movies I was seeing. Possibly a third. A scene from Reservoir Dogs that many people recall with a shudder (actually, a scene they only think they remember, because the camera moves away a horrible second after the squeamish in the audience have closed their eyes) is one in which a hoodlum slices a cop's ear off with a razor and then douses him with gasoline. The dialogue that people tend to remember from the movie involves the crayon aliases—"Mr. Brown," "Mr. Orange," and so on—that the leader of a gang of criminals assigns to the total strangers he has brought together for a heist. These aliases are a way of keeping anybody from ratting on anybody else. The wonderful Steve Buscemi—a bug-eyed, motor-mouthed actor who slightly resembles Don Knotts and plays many of his parts like Deputy Sheriff Barney Fife with a coke habit and a rap sheet—objects to being called "Mr. Pink," because he thinks it makes him sound gay.

The bit of dialogue from Reservoir Dogs that made a lasting impression on me is from a scene that finds Harvey Keitel dragging Tim Roth, who is noisily bleeding to death, into the gang's warehouse hideout. "Come on," Keitel says. "Who's a tough guy?" Unaware that Roth is an undercover cop, Keitel is making one last attempt to bond with him, man to man. But his tone is that of a father giving a pep talk to a little boy who has fallen off a bike and skinned his knee. It's as if what he most wants is to get Roth to stop his caterwauling. Roth gives the right answer. "I'm a tough guy," he yowls through his pain, and there you have it—the real subject matter of Reservoir Dogs and practically every other movie ever made about lowlife bruisers. They're okay with breaking any law except the unwritten one about keeping your mouth shut, which includes not letting on when you're hurt.

Self-consciousness of this kind can be detrimental to a movie. Yet Roman Polanski's Chinatown (1974) was a masterpiece largely because of its self-consciousness. It was the definitive 1940s film noir, even though it was made three decades later and depended on a final twist that would have been taboo in the days of Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe. And sometimes, as with Tarantino's articulation of the most basic and knuckleheaded of male codes, a line or two of movie dialogue will be so knowing and full of sass—so clearly meant as a comment on the movie and others in the genre—that I find myself glancing around the theater to see if anybody else caught it.

We expect witty flourishes from Tarantino, who is extremely literary, even if his idea of literature is some people's idea of trash, and whose characters talk and talk and talk—whether it's John Travolta, in Pulp Fiction (1994), going on about what the French call a Quarter Pounder with cheese, or Samuel L. Jackson, in Jackie Brown (1997), delivering an impromptu lecture on the relative merits of various automatic weapons. What's surprising is to find ourselves laughing along with the script in an action blockbuster of the kind made for an international market, where the assumption is that any dialogue not essential to the plot will be lost in translation—and is probably over the heads of most audiences anyway.

The veteran action director James Cameron, despite the step up in class that Titanic (1997) was supposed to represent for him, might be the last man in Hollywood from whom one would expect much in the way of wordplay. But there's plenty of it in Cameron's True Lies (1994), with Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jamie Lee Curtis, which is as enjoyable for its banter as for its special effects.

True Lies, for which Cameron also wrote the story (based on the screenplay of an obscure French movie called La Totale!), stars Schwarzenegger as a harried secret agent simultaneously trying to spice up his marriage and crush the Crimson Jihad, a foreign terrorist group in possession of weapons of mass destruction. What struck some as shameful about the movie eight years ago, and might seem especially irresponsible now, if it weren't so cheeky, is that the threat of a nuclear holocaust is a McGuffin—a device to keep the characters running from place to place in what is really a bedroom farce. Toward the end, as Schwarzenegger kisses Curtis and slips her wedding ring back on, as if to renew their vows, the sky lights up with a nuclear explosion over the Florida Keys, in a wicked parody of those Freudian fireworks displays that used to stand in for sex in the movies.

True Lies is like American Beauty played for broader laughs and interrupted every so often by a shootout or a helicopter chase. The underlying comic premise is that the brute strength and animal cunning we've seen Schwarzenegger rely on to thwart evildoers in movie after movie are of no practical value to his character in everyday life. His wife and teenage daughter, who believe he's a computer sales rep, think him an awful drudge, a buff Willy Loman. "Whenever I can't sleep, I just ask him to tell me about his day," the wife complains to a friend. When the terrorists kidnap Schwarzenegger, they also bag Curtis. The terrorists inject Schwarzenegger with a truth serum, and, taking advantage of the situation despite her fear, Curtis asks him a few questions of her own. After establishing that he is a spy, she asks if he has ever killed anyone. "Yah," he says, "but they were all bad."

Schwarzenegger isn't telling Curtis anything we don't already know from having watched him mow down terrorists for close to two hours without hitting a single innocent bystander. Not until later does it sink in that this wry rationale for his bloodletting, and for the bloodletting in action movies in general, has been used throughout history to justify capital punishment, vigilantism, and even genocide. And it brings a shudder to realize that the terrorists who carried out the attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center probably felt justified in doing so because they believed their victims to be infidels.

Even before September 11 those of us who enjoy action and disaster movies that are done with flair were sometimes hard put to defend them. Many people find such movies objectionable not because they portray violence but because they glorify it, cheapening regard for human life—particularly among adolescents, who may not recognize that some forms of behavior are acceptable only in the movies. (This is a genuine concern. Two years ago I went to see Denzel Washington in The Hurricane at a theater where there had recently been gang violence; it was a school holiday, and everyone in line was frisked for weapons and made to pass through a metal detector.) My feelings about even the best of these movies—another exceptional one is John Woo's Face/Off (1997)—tend to be so conflicted that I'm usually forced to begin my defense of them by conceding that I have what I suppose is a gift for intellectualizing movie violence along with the fine points of a director's mise en scène. Now I would argue that our response as a nation to the events of September 11 suggests that even the youngest and most impressionable of moviegoers can tell the difference between depictions of slaughter and the real thing.

In the weeks following the attacks and preceding the first air strikes on Afghanistan, the Hollywood studios treated action films like something shameful and best kept out of sight. The opening dates for several fall movies were pushed back, some for a few weeks and others indefinitely—decisions I suspect had more to do with fear that these movies would suffer at the box office than with genuine sensitivity to what audiences might be feeling. The producers of Collateral Damage, starring Schwarzenegger as a firefighter whose wife and child are murdered by Colombian terrorists, closed down their Web site and ordered the return of posters for the movie, which had been on display in theater lobbies all summer.

Topical humor was also put on hold. Yet people hungry for political humor continued to log on to The Onion, and video-store chains reported no decrease in sales or rentals of movies like Armageddon and Independence Day. One Blockbuster manager told the Los Angeles Times last September that people wanted "anything where terrorists got the stuffing kicked out of them." Our popular culture is our collective dream life, and it has never been easy to predict what direction it might take, especially in times of national crisis. Along with escapist fare like Going My Way and battlefront epics that might as well have been written by the Office of War Information, the movies made during World War II included many in which Humphrey Bogart and John Garfield gained stardom as existential anti-heroes—wisecracking loners not about to sit still for sanctimonious speeches or to put their shoulders to the wheel without asking questions first. It's possible that bitter memories of the attacks and the anxiety that followed will cause audiences to avoid the likes of Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone. But it's just as possible that audiences will be ready for action—that in the face of uncertainty they'll flock to movies that offer them the illusion of control.

Last year I saw John Singleton's remake of Shaft with a mostly middle-aged, working-class black audience that seemed to love the idea that the hero was willing to turn in his badge and play dirty if that was what it took to remove a vicious drug dealer and murderer from the streets. Despite their cheers when Shaft finally took out his nemesis, these people didn't strike me as likely to resort to similar measures to make their own neighborhoods safe. The movie was their way of letting off steam—escapist fantasy with an element of social consciousness. I have a feeling that action movies are going to fill the same need.

What's missing from even the best of the action movies becomes obvious when they are compared with an Alfred Hitchcock masterpiece that I and many others consider to be the greatest of American movies: Vertigo (1958), a story of unconsummated love that ends with one lover dead and the other broken, in which Hitchcock gave suspense a moral dimension. More forcefully than in his earlier and much lighter Rear Window (1954), in Vertigo we encounter the themes of helplessness, guilt, obsession, and absence that have dominated so many of the finest movies of the past ten or fifteen years, including Brian De Palma's Casualties of War (1989), Michael Tolkin's The Rapture (1991), Neil Jordan's The Crying Game (1992), Atom Egoyan's Exotica (1994), Paul Thomas Anderson's Boogie Nights (1997), Billy Bob Thornton's All the Pretty Horses (2000), and Christopher Nolan's Memento (2001). As different as they are from one another, these movies have in common a character who is either powerless to stop tragedy from befalling another person or powerless to halt his own slide. The murder of someone innocent—the young Vietnamese woman raped by American soldiers in Casualties of War, for example, or the kidnapped British soldier played by Forest Whitaker in The Crying Game—can be disturbing evidence of a movie's integrity. The problem with most action movies is that nobody worth caring about is ever truly put at risk in them; when the villains kidnap the hero's wife or child or partner, we know he'll come storming to the rescue. And even if he doesn't (as in Face/Off, which begins with John Travolta's young son taking a bullet meant for him), his manly tears and the revenge he vows give us an even greater interest in rooting for him.

I enjoy many of these movies for the acting as much as anything else. Schwarzenegger, for example, has a fine comic touch, especially now that he has as many crow's feet as muscles and doesn't make a secret of it. Yet the people who are most appreciative of good acting—people who read reviews and pride themselves on confining their moviegoing to the art house—tend to shun figures like Schwarzenegger. He doesn't need those people, but the directors of daring little independent films do, and the violence in their films, or something that might be troubling or unsavory about the characters, frequently keeps the art-house audience away. More than an understandable aversion to violence seems to be involved—namely, snobbery. Even though cineplexes keep getting bigger and bigger, their screening rooms keep getting smaller and smaller, reflecting not just profit motives but a growing distrust among different kinds of moviegoers that has as much to do with race and class and age as with taste.

Ten years ago Reservoir Dogs became a surprise hit by appealing simultaneously to two very different cults: sensation-seekers and budding cinéastes. Last year the reviews for Mike Hodges's Croupier were so consistently favorable that people who claim to be forever on the lookout for good movies could hardly ignore it. This year Memento attracted a large number of young people, even though (to judge from the audience I saw it with, and from what I heard being said about it for months afterward) they seemed more impressed by the protagonist's tattoos and the movie's gimmick of a narrative in reverse than by the mood of sorrow and the drumming panic that I thought were the best things about it. It almost seems like a miracle these days when a good little movie finds the large audience it deserves, because so many of these movies feature shady or unpleasant characters, and so many of those who might enjoy them seem reluctant to see a movie about people they wouldn't vote into their co-ops.

Though one rarely hears "Damn" shouted in pleasure in art houses, the audiences in them have their own methods of acting out. At a comedy there are always a few who clap their hands loudly several times as they laugh and then sigh, letting the rest of us know that not only did they get the joke but they also recognize the Importance of Laughter. When this audience does embrace a crime movie, it's usually the wrong one—Jonathan Glazer's Sexy Beast, for example, with a cardboard performance by Ben Kingsley as a thug feared by other thugs, rather than Andrew Dominik's horrifyingly funny Chopper, with a lively and complex performance by Eric Bana as Mark "Chopper" Read, Australia's most famous career criminal and one of its best-selling authors, a good-natured jailbird whose violent eruptions frequently surprise even him.

If not values, maybe what we get from movies is something equally essential to determining who we are, though more ambiguous and harder to pin down—something often referred to as sensibility. As a child, I went to the movies so regularly that my bewildered mother would say that I'd do so even if she were dying. She didn't know how prophetic she was. Despite the stroke she had suffered three months earlier, my mother's death seemed terrifyingly sudden. I saw 15 Minutes, a dreadful movie starring Robert De Niro (who now seems to make no other kind), after visiting my mother in the hospital one night last spring and trusting that she was in no immediate danger. Approximately forty-eight hours later she underwent emergency brain surgery as the result of a fall she had taken before she went into the hospital. She never regained consciousness.

A hospital nurse had told me that it was good in neurosurgical intensive-care units to leave the television turned on in an unconscious patient's room, preferably to a channel on which the patient might recognize some of the voices. I suggested American Movie Classics for my mother, hoping that the voices of actors familiar from her youth would be reassuring to her. She lay there unconscious with the television on for three days, her head bandaged and her face gruesomely bruised from the fall and the blood thinner she'd been taking, her neck and shoulders tensed like those of someone stunned by a blow to the head and instinctively bracing for another. She looked like the victim of an unspeakable act of violence—but who was there to blame? My mother's hands were like ice, but for two days I had been able to warm them by squeezing them in mine. On the last morning my hands were as cold as hers when I reluctantly unclasped them.

Though raised Catholic, I have never been religious; I often joke that as a child I preferred the movies to church because the movies were air-conditioned and started in the afternoon. But I knew that my mother would have wanted a Catholic funeral. After the priest read the verses from John in which Jesus raises Lazarus, I delivered the eulogy. Trying to reconcile my mother's beliefs with my own, I spoke of memory as a form of afterlife. I also talked about how she and I had often watched old movies on television together when I was a kid. Her favorites were Bette Davis and Joan Crawford; I was drawn to Bogart and Garfield, in their roles as tough guys with big hearts who were so used to keeping their lips sealed that their way of saying good-bye, perhaps forever, to someone they loved might be to say "I'll be thinking of you."

At that point there was a collective sob from the other mourners. My wife, who had lost her mother just six weeks earlier, was still weeping when it was time for us to follow the casket up the aisle. "Come on," I whispered, holding her tight, though maybe I was the one more in need of hearing it. "Who's a tough guy?"