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Good Action Movies (2005–10): Urban Warfare & Vigilantes
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Good Action Movies (2005–10): Urban Warfare & Vigilantes

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Ren Zelen itcherLatter day Urban Noir meets the gunfighter of the Western in modern action movies, where one man can single-handedly bring law to the lawless, justice to the unjust and clear the streets of human detritus. I’m taking a look at the mythology of the vigilante and the rogue cop in the action genre. ~ Ren Zelen

New Neighbourhood, Old Formula

Combining the conventions of the Western with those of the film Noir, the action movie reconciles two genres which may initially seem to have clear differences. However, since the 1970s, revenge movies featuring lone-gunmen vigilantes seeking justice have been an action movie staple. For Denzel, Liam, Sylvester, Gerard and Bruce, these roles have almost become typecasting.

These retribution movies seem to become popular and prolific when people feel especially vulnerable.  As a social phenomenon their preponderance is an indication that we are feeling powerless and we begin to look to fictional rogue crime-fighters, with near superhuman powers, to single-handedly clear the Eastern Seaboard of America of the Russian Mafia, save the White House from terrorists or simply wreak bloody vengeance on gangsters and criminals, because unfortunately, real life isn’t fair or manageable enough.

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Crime Action Movie Recommendations

‘Four Brothers’ (John Singleton, 2005)

You keep knocking on the devil’s door long enough and sooner or later someone’s gonna answer you…

When a Detroit foster mother (Fionnula Flanagan) is murdered in a botched holdup, four of her grown up foster children suspect it was not a random killing. Up-and-coming musician Jack (Garrett Hedlund), former-U.S. Marine Angel (Tyrese Gibson), hot-headed hockey player Bobby (Mark Wahlberg) and husband and father Jeremiah (André Benjamin) go on the hunt for a neighbourhood criminal kingpin Victor Sweet (Chiwetel Ejiofor) while they themselves are being trailed by the local police.

This movie draws most clearly on old Westerns and the films of Charles Bronson and Clint Eastwood. ‘Four Brothers’ owes much to 1965 film ‘The Sons of Katie Elder’ which starred John Wayne, Dean Martin, Michael Anderson Jr. and Earl Holliman.

There are car chases and violent clashes — but director John Singleton’s strength is his focus on the dynamics between the unruly central quartet. Mark Wahlberg teasing Garrett Hedlund’s runt-of-the-litter, all four of them piling into the bathroom like kids – it is the small details of their relationships that are most convincing.

When ‘Four Brothers’ reverts to a revenge thriller, the bickering foursome makes a refreshing change from the dour lone vigilante that usually stalks this kind of films. But the villain Sweet is so cartoonishly diabolical that it adds a sour element of clumsiness to the movie. However, Singleton’s ambition within the revenge thriller genre is intriguing, and ‘Four Brothers’ comes across as a form of urban Western.

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‘Sin City’ (Frank Miller, Robert Rodriguez, Quentin Tarantino, 2005)

It’s time to prove to your friends that you’re worth a damn. Sometimes that means dying, sometimes it means killing a whole lot of people…

In this quartet of neo-noir tales, a mysterious salesman (Josh Hartnett) narrates a tragic story of co-dependency, while a musclebound vigilante (Mickey Rourke) tears his way through the criminal underworld in search of his lost love (Jaime King).

In another part of the city, a grizzled cop (Bruce Willis) foils the intentions of a child-killer (Nick Stahl), and an ex-prostitute (Brittany Murphy) evades her ex-pimp (Benicio Del Toro) with the help of her new boyfriend, Dwight (Clive Owen).

Not surprisingly when you look at the directors involved, this quartet of interweaving tales is ultra-violent and may be a bit too much for the squeamish, but for me, the movie is worth watching for the stunning visuals, which remain true to its ‘comic book’ origins. It is fabulous to look at, and the artificiality of the presentation does help to an extent in alleviating and distancing the most gruesome scenes.

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‘V for Vendetta’ (James McTeigue, 2005)

I, like God, do not play with dice and do not believe in coincidence…

When this movie came out in 2005, who knew that the mask worn by the main character ‘V’ would come to represent a whole movement. The source material is the 1989 graphic novel illustrated by David Lloyd and written by the renowned British graphic novelist, Alan Moore.

Moore’s novel skewered the 1980s England of Margaret Thatcher – the Wachowski movie adaptation takes place in London following a world war. England is a police state occupied by a fascist government ruled by Chancellor Sutler (John Hurt), a dictator who uses fear-mongering to strip citizens of their civil rights and religious freedoms in exchange for protection from ‘bio-weapons of mass destruction’.

A vigilante known only as V (Hugo Weaving) uses terrorist tactics to fight the oppressive regime. When V saves a young woman named Evey (Natalie Portman) from being raped by members of the secret police, he discovers a possible ally in his struggle.

This dystopian-future story about a masked avenger at war with a totalitarian regime is drawn along Orwellian lines but is clearly meant to resonate with contemporary politics. Initially scheduled to be released in November 2005 (to coincide with Guy Fawkes Night in the UK), the film was delayed in the wake of the London bombings in July of that year.

Since then, inevitable questions and objections have been raised about whether ‘V for Vendetta’ glorifies the role of the ‘terrorist’. The viewer must make up his/her own mind – as the saying goes, ‘one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter’. The Wachowskis don’t ignore the dark side of V’s character, although Alan Moore, true to his usual form, took his name off the film’s credits.

Hugo Weaving (Agent Smith in the ‘Matrix’ movies) as V gives a truly remarkable performance and manages to be more expressive and emotive behind a fiberglass mask than many an actor in a regular drama. Given his restrictions, it makes the wit of the dialogue and V’s personal eloquence all the more evident.

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‘Death Sentence’ (James Wan, 2007)

You are a good father, and nothing that’s happened changes that. And I love you. And I always will…

Nick Hume (Kevin Bacon) is on his way home from a hockey game with his son, Brendan, and stops for gasoline. The gas station is robbed as part of a gang initiation, and Hume witnesses a street thug kill his son. Believing the justice system will fail him, Nick goes after the killer himself, declaring war of mutual destruction between himself, the gang and the killer’s older brother (Garrett Hedlund).  

‘Death Sentence’ isn’t loaded down with CGI and special effects. Director James Wan sticks to good chases and practical stunts and does his best to deliver gritty, hard-edged action. John Goodman also delivers an amusing cameo as a fat, sweaty arms dealer.

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‘The Brave One’ (Neil Jordan, 2007)

There is no going back to that other person, that other place. This thing, this stranger, she is all you are now…

Radio host Erica Bain (Jodie Foster) broadcasts shows enthusing about New York City. One evening she takes a romantic walk through Central Park at dusk with her fiancé, where they are set upon by violent muggers.  She is beaten senseless and her beloved fiancé is brutally murdered.

When Erica awakes from her coma, she is traumatized, paranoid and agoraphobic. However, being American, she decides that what she needs to do is buy a handgun and learn how to use it. The tragedy torments her, but she finds a hard-won confidence as she sets out on a personal quest for revenge. Her exploits fascinate NY city residents but, as a determined detective (Terrence Howard) closes in on her, Erica wonders if she is becoming as corrupt as those she hunts.

Director Neil Jordan gives his city of night the veneer of the urban movies of the 1970s. Steering clear of tree-lined avenues and famous landmarks, the rainy neon streets feel like a dangerous, seedy place, with sleazy characters lurking in subway stations, diners and drugstores. As usual, Jodie Foster creates a fully dimensional character, but sometimes she is so powerful that she overshadows other actors and only Terrence Howard as the ‘good-cop’ manages to make an impression.

There is an interesting ambiguity to Erica’s actions. Is she on a righteous crusade? Is she becoming unhinged? Should the audience cheer for her success or want her to fail? An easy answer remains elusive, which perhaps, is the point of the movie.

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‘Righteous Kill’ (Jon Avnet, 2008)

Most people respect the badge. Everyone respects the gun…

Movie buffs may want to view ‘Righteous Kill’ rather as a curiosity because, having previously co-starred in ‘The Godfather Part II’ without sharing screen time, and been paired for only a few scenes in the epic ‘Heat’, this film finally allows two powerhouse actors, Robert De Niro and Al Pacino, to interact onscreen, albeit in a routine revenge thriller.

Both playing veteran New York City detectives on the verge of retirement – Pacino delivers concerned forbearance and De Niro parades his anger-management issues in a serial killer investigation where evidence suggests a police insider enacting a maverick brand of justice on various violent villains.

The movie was shot in 35 days, which didn’t give director Jon Avnet much time to rehearse with the actors or work out the kinks in Russell Gewirtz’s script. Avnet praised the way De Niro, Pacino, and the dependable Brian Dennehy turned shaky dialogue into reasonable characterizations, and as a cop thriller the movie isn’t all that bad.

Forget any pretensions to moral complexity; the procedural moves along entirely conventional lines, with a fairly predictable plot and the inevitable final ‘twist’. It offers the two stars plenty of screen time together, but unfortunately gives them rather unengaging dialogue to work with. Admittedly, they’ve both been worse; here Pacino tones down his flailing arms and volatile intonation, and De Niro produces some variations on his rictus smirk, but there’s little apart from a few sly asides to suggest their former thespian status.  

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‘Harry Brown’ (Daniel Barber, 2009)

Those people were fighting for something; for a cause. To them out there, this is just entertainment…

Michael Caine gets to revisit his ‘diamond-geezer cockney’ persona  as Harry Brown – living in a council flat and being driven to despair by the young thugs terrorising the rough estate he lives on in South London. Harry is in his 70s, mourning his recently deceased wife and on medication for his emphysema.

When his elderly friend, Len (David Bradley), is beaten to death by vicious unemployed teenagers high on drugs, Harry rediscovers a forgotten part of himself. He acquires an arsenal of weapons and embarks on a revenge campaign against the drug-dealing gang, whom he considers worse than the terrorists he confronted in the services.

This is a vigilante movie, impure and simple, with shootouts, bloodbaths  and contempt for regular law and order, but it is better than most, mainly because Caine is a good actor and manages to pull off some fine moments – his tired and aged face changing to one of slit-eyed malevolence. Michael Caine gets his nastiest role since ‘Get Carter’ in this above average revenge thriller set in the badlands of south-east London.

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‘Edge of Darkness’ (Martin Campbell, 2010)

I don’t know what it means to have lost a child, but I know what it means never to have had one…

Mel Gibson has managed to scupper a fairly successful career with some highly-publicised unsavoury personal behaviour, so he is not the box office attraction he once was. This movie may at least draw attention to the outstanding BBC TV series of the same name starring Bob Peck that this movie is based on – one of television’s drama milestones.

The six episodes of Troy Kennedy Martin’s classic TV thriller from 1985 have been scrunched together into a feature film which zips through the many twists and revelations. On the plus side it is directed by the movie veteran who directed the small-screen original – Martin Campbell.

‘Edge of Darkness’ offers vintage Mel Gibson, working within the familiar framework of a bloody revenge thriller. He plays homicide detective Thomas Craven who sees his activist daughter shot in front of him and as he begins to investigate her death, he uncovers not only her secret life, but a sinister corporate cover-up and government collusion.

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Actions Speak Louder…

Movie vigilantes often don’t seem as motivated to avenge a death and assuage their grief as they are to wreak havoc for the pure frisson of violence. Someone’s unjust murder is the perfect excuse to start beating up and shooting people.

These kinds of movies might leave us pondering this question: is trying to incite audiences to gleeful vicarious revenge a necessary catharsis, or is it actually just pandering to our basest instincts?

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