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A return to manly mayhem

Guys will be guys, fighting and killing with glee, in the current crop of morally gray movies.

January 19, 2007|John Anderson | Special to Newsday

It was only about a year ago that "Brokeback Mountain" was making grown men weep. Eric Bana's hero in "Munich" was conflicted and tormented about killing Arab terrorists. Johnny Cash battled only his inner demons in "Walk the Line." And "Good Night, and Good Luck" had men grappling with ideas instead of each other.

Oh, yes, and Truman Capote was the hero of a movie.

Capote made a return last year (in yet another biopic, "Infamous"), but more characteristic of 2006's cinematic maleness is "Children of Men's" Clive Owen bashing a pursuer's head in with a car battery. In current movies, the male of the species has become increasingly ... male.

In "The Departed," men can't slaughter each other fast enough. "Casino Royale" renews 007's license to kill. Forest Whitaker makes the bloodthirsty Idi Amin almost lovable in "The Last King of Scotland." And in "Blood Diamond," the mercenary Danny Archer, arguably the first fully adult male of Leonardo DiCaprio's career, is as compromised a character as has ever been called a hero -- not counting, of course, Matt Damon's Edward Bell Wilson in "The Good Shepherd," the most difficult protagonist to admire since Richard III.

Of course, there are the other usual tough-guy characters: Nicholson, De Niro, Baldwin.

Paul Dergarabedian of the box-office monitor Media by Numbers, LLC, speculated that the recent appetite for old-school machismo has "a lot ... to do with the way movies present these characters, who have very dubious moral and ethical compasses. The cinema can manipulate audiences to where they're cheering for people they wouldn't want in their homes."

Why are moviegoers responding? The obvious and common answer is that we live in fractious and troubled times that somehow inure audiences to harsh behavior. Or that perhaps young people, made cynical by the behavior of public figures they've observed, are less willing than previous generations to accept black-and-white morality, preferring the more realistic gray.

"I think it may just be serendipitous," said "Good Shepherd" screenwriter Eric Roth of the reception given the movie, in which Damon plays a seemingly empty vessel involved in the birth of the CIA. "I think people were a little more willing to accept it because of the current political situation and perhaps the film resonates more now than it would have earlier. But I wasn't being prescient."

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