"Everyone has a limit," warns the tag line for "Enough," the new thriller that stars Jennifer Lopez as a battered woman who decides to get back at her abusive husband. In recent months, movies and television are offering us visions of what happens when everyday people reach that limit. A clear trend in post-Sept. 11 entertainment is that protagonists, mistrustful of incompetent bureaucracy and law enforcement agencies, opt to take justice into their own hands.
From the spectacular HMO rebellion of "John Q" to the crowd-pleasing vengeance of "Enough" to the gritty amorality of the new FX drama "The Shield," vigilante justice is becoming an entertainment staple with implications beyond those of the prototypical Stallone and Schwarzenegger hero-outside-the-system cliche. As the award-winning drama "In the Bedroom" illustrated so poignantly last year, the 21st century vigilante is more an Everyman than a Superman.
These are not steroid-pumped testosterone fantasies, but real people dealing with real problems by taking measures to redress wrongs that have been done to them and their loved ones. And it is no accident that this year's vigilante films all deal with issues that have received a great deal of recent media exposure.
As though timed in anticipation of Lopez's "Enough," Gov. Gray Davis recently allowed the parole of Cheryl Sellers, a woman convicted of murdering her abusive husband. This was only the second time in 85 parole reviews that Davis had allowed a convicted murderer to be released. But, as Sellers' lawyer noted, "We're in an electoral season," and this is a very popular issue. The issue is popular because, from women like Sellers who take justice into their own hands to women like Nicole Brown Simpson who are failed in life and in death by the legal system, it has become increasingly clear that battered women are not adequately protected by the rules that be.
The system's failure to provide protection is ostensibly what propels Lopez's Slim first to run and hide from her abusive husband Mitch (Billy Campbell) and later to use his own tactics against him. Molding herself into a cold and calculating fighting machine trained in the Israeli martial art Krav Maga, Lopez acts out the ultimate vigilante fantasy. Nowhere is that fantasy more evident than in the audience's cheers as Slim finally gives Mitch the beating to end all beatings.
Of course, the notion of an abused wife bent on vengeance is nothing new. Once the province of TV movies like "The Burning Bed," it has been dramatized to varying degrees of success in films like "Sleeping With the Enemy" and "Double Jeopardy." But seldom has such a film tapped a cultural nerve as effectively and unapologetically as does "Enough." Never in the movie does Lopez so much as report her husband to the police: It is as if her mistrust of authority and vigilante revenge are already pre-justified in the minds of the public by cultural touchstone stories like those of Nicole Simpson.
And speaking of the infamous O.J. trial, it is impossible when watching "In the Bedroom" not to recollect the death of Ron Goldman and the very public mourning by his father, Fred Goldman. Millions of Americans were witness to not only Goldman's rage but also his outrage, his sense that the system does not work. As we watch "Bedroom's" shattered Tom Wilkinson metamorphose into a man capable of avenging his murdered son (and violate his own code of ethics in the process), there is a sense of both catharsis and loss.
Like "Bedroom's" Wilkinson, Denzel Washington's title character in "John Q" is not imbued with special powers or abilities. John is simply a loving father who will do whatever it takes to give his son the life-saving heart transplant that the hospital, citing inadequate insurance coverage, has refused.
In so doing, Washington also taps into current cultural anguish and accomplishes at least on an individual basis something that President Clinton publicly failed to accomplish in his eight years in office--health-care reform.
And just as J. Lo's newfound strength galvanizes the audience watching "Enough," a cheer inevitably erupts in theaters with John's announcement, "The hospital's under new management now. Free health care for everyone!"
These are not movies of prefabricated Rambo-esque revenge, but rather ones that tap into the public's outrage about real social problems that our civic leaders have been unwilling or unable to solve. In Los Angeles, perhaps the most pertinent civic issue of recent years has concerned the integrity and reliability of our police force. From Rodney King to the Rampart scandal, there is a growing sense that law enforcement is at best corrupt and at worst incompetent.