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Vigilante films, an American tradition

The genre featuring wronged characters out to even a score or two has never really gone out of style with domestic audiences.

October 19, 2009|Dennis Lim

If the revenge thriller seems like an especially inflexible genre, it might be because its founding formula is basically a biblical credo: an eye for an eye. In film after film, a vigilante hero is wronged and because of the failures of the legal system must take matters into his -- or, in some cases, her -- own hands. There is no real suspense over the outcome -- payback is exacted, in due course -- but the nominal pleasures of most of these movies lie precisely in their familiarity, in their brazen appeal to our most basic instincts.

The new thriller "Law Abiding Citizen," which opened in theaters this weekend to roughly $21 million at the box office, comes on like a maniacally sped-up version of this template. The terrible violation happens in the first scene -- the family-man hero, Clyde Shelton (Gerard Butler), has barely been introduced before thugs burst through the front door of his Philadelphia home and inflict unthinkable horrors on his wife and daughter.

The next, equally familiar steps in the cycle are likewise accelerated. The justice system, as embodied by an ambitious, deal-making assistant district attorney (Jamie Foxx), is exposed right away as a sham. One of the men is sentenced to death; the other, in exchange for his testimony, gets off with a few years in jail and is soon a free man. The obligatory cat-and-mouse game that ensues is over in a flash, as the unrepentant villain walks right into the trap of the avenging hero.

"Vigilante movies are usually all about exacting revenge on the people who perpetrated the original crime," the film's director, F. Gary Gray, said in a recent telephone interview. "But that revenge happens very soon in our film, and so you're always wondering what's going to happen next."

"Law Abiding Citizen" is not so much a subversion of the vigilante genre as a logical extension of it. Vigilante heroes are forced to operate outside an unfair or impotent system. But Clyde isn't content to just circumvent the power structures of law and order; he sees the whole legal and judicial edifice as diseased and resolves to bring it to its knees.

The vigilante movie enjoyed its first heyday in the 1970s, with such touchstones as "Dirty Harry" (1971) and "Death Wish" (1974), which spawned sequels into the '80s and '90s, respectively. Don Siegel's "Dirty Harry," starring Clint Eastwood as a rogue San Francisco cop on the trail of a serial killer, was attacked by critics who saw it as a reactionary fantasy (Pauline Kael called it "fascist medievalism"), but the film, which often draws links between its nominal hero and villain, is more ambiguous than its reputation suggests.

Michael Winner's "Death Wish" is rather more clear-cut: Charles Bronson's hero, galvanized into action after his wife is killed and his daughter is raped by intruders, decides to wipe the scum off Manhattan's blighted streets.

Vigilante vengeance was the cinematic theme of the decade, flourishing in the more respectable precincts of the new American cinema (Martin Scorsese's "Taxi Driver") even as it fueled numerous exploitation flicks. The trend bottomed out with 1980's "The Exterminator," in which the title character disposes of criminal vermin by feeding them to rats or into a meat grinder.

The recent uptick in on-screen vigilantes has seemed at times like a '70s revival. "Walking Tall," the 1973 hit about a club-wielding sheriff cleaning up his crime-ridden town, was remade in 2004 with Dwayne Johnson (then known as "The Rock"). "Death Sentence" (2007), with Kevin Bacon as a suburban father avenging a dead son, is based on a novel by Brian Garfield, who also wrote the book that inspired the original "Death Wish." A "Death Wish" remake is planned for 2011 release. And in Neil Jordan's "The Brave One" (2007), "Taxi Driver" star Jodie Foster becomes a crime-fighting folk hero in a sordid New York City as apocalyptic as the Sodom and Gomorrah that tormented Travis Bickle.

Conventional wisdom links the original law-and-order movies to the popular malaise of the Vietnam and Nixon years, and it is all too tempting to attribute the current wave to our own unpopular wars, economic woes, post 9/11 jitters, etc. But the truth of the matter is that vigilantism never really went away -- some of the genre's crassest entries, "An Eye for an Eye" and "A Time to Kill," date from the comparatively prosperous and peaceable 1990s -- and the thirst for revenge has always been central to American movies.

Revenge is a force that crosses genres. There are affinities between vigilantes and superheroes, not least in Christopher Nolan's brooding Batman movies, in which vengeance is a powerful motivating force. In this year's Nazi-scalping "Inglourious Basterds," Quentin Tarantino, a filmmaker who has never resisted the pull of vengeance, orchestrates what you might think of as world-historical payback.

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