Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The Last Resort of the Downtrodden & Desperate

There's a reason why so many Hollywood films are fascinated with the topic of vigilante justice -- because public sympathy exists for it.

From films like Harry Brown to films like Death Wish, audiences seem to find a great deal of sympathy with the visions contained in those films: worlds where crime has grown so out-of-control that ordinary citizens have become powerless to stop it, even with the meagre help offered by the law.

Two of the most recent films to address this topic, Defendor and Kick-Ass -- each of them brilliant in their own way -- have approached this topic with a tongue-squarely-in-cheek attitude, and yet haven't shied away from the central tenet that makes these films so appealing: that there very much does seem to be a problem.

In Defendor, Arthur Poppington (Woody Harrelson) is, by day, an extremely unassuming construction worker. He stands by the roadside all day, and holds a sign directing traffic.

By night, however, Poppington is Defendor, a vigilante who fights crime in his own way. His arsenal of weapons ranges from marbles (with or without a slingshot) to jars of wasps. Then there's his standby, a WWII-era trench club.

Poppington does, however, have one other problem: he's either mentally ill, or developmentally challenged. (The film doesn't explain which.)

His chief (imagined) adversary is Captain Industry, the man he holds responsible for his mother's death. (The film's twist on this particular delusion is so predictable as to actually be an afterthought.)

Hunting for Captain Industry eventually leads Poppington to cross paths with Chuck Dooney (Elias Koteas), a legitimately corrupt undercover cop working for Kristic (Alan C Peterson), a Serbian national (former war criminal) who trafficks in humans and drugs.

Dooney is legitimately a dangerous individual. Even after taking a beating at his hands, Poppington is permanently set across his path when Kat Debrofkowitz (Kat Dennings), identifies Kristic as Captain Industry. Her true intention is to take advantage of Poppington (he pays for $40 a week for information about Kristic, but she steals much more than that), but in time he comes to view her as a friend.

Following an arrest for assaulting Kat's father -- who he believes has abused her -- Poppington and Defendor become front page news. An enterprising graffiti artist even paints a gorgeous mural of him, emblazoned with the words "Fight Back".

In Kick-Ass, Dave Lizewski (Aaron Johnson), a naive high-schooler hopped up on too many comic cooks, decides to don the guise of Kick-Ass (no shit, that's his real name) and fight crime.

After being stabbed by a pair of assailants and run over by a car (the driver leaves the scene immediately after), Lizewski is essentially rebuilt like the $6 million man.

As a result of the metal plates used to rebuild him, Lizewski is now more resilient to pain than he was before. He can now absorb some fairly epic beatings in the course of his activities as Kick_Ass -- a prerequisite for any superhero.

Lizewski's exploits as Kick-Ass win him many fans and admirers. It also attracts the attention of Big Daddy (Nicholas Cage, channeling Adam West) and Hitgirl (Chloe Moretz).

Unlike Lizewski, who's basically just a dumb thrill-seeking teenager, Big Daddy and Hitgirl are the real deal. They dispatch members of the criminal underworld with extreme prejudice and zeal. Where Kick-Ass uses a pair of twin billy clubs, Big Daddy and Hitgirl prefer shotguns and katanas.

Big Daddy and Hitgirl, however, share something in common with Defendor's Poppington that Lizewski doesn't -- a grudge against a local crime boss.

As a police officer, Big Daddy was known as Damon Macready. In order to get him off the case, a crimeboss by the name of Frank D'Amico (Mark Strong) sets Macready up. While Macready is in prison, his wife turns to drugs, and eventually dies of an overdose -- but not before giving birth to Mindy.

After being released from prison, Damon resolves that he will raise Mindy to be the absurdly lethal Hitgirl -- a character so casual and efficient in her extermination of criminal scum that she managed to offend many commentators.

What Poppington and Damon Macready ultimately share in common is a pure social desperation that sets them on the path of costumed vigilantism. Poppington because he has no other way of dealing with the world he is confronted with; Macready because he has been stripped of the most lawful means of going after his adversaries.

There are few things more desperation-inducing than watching the community in which one lives degenerate into a criminal cesspool. Not only do some people really live in neighbourhoods as beleaguered by crime as those in Kick-Ass and Defendor.

Like Arthur Poppington and Damon Macready, many of them long for the means to fight back.

And citizens can fight back -- but not by dressing up as a costumed vigilante. That's just stupid.

Rather, citizens can fight back by refusing to allow a single crime to go unreported in their communities. They can fight back by refusing to vote for a single political candidate who refuses to adopt a realistic attitude toward crime.

That means voting for no candidate who doesn't accept that punishment of offenders and protection of society from them is every bit as important as rehabilitation and crime prevention. They can even join a political party and demand that none of the candidates shall be soft on crime.

They can keep pressure on politicians in their communities, and demand that before they attempt to fund their personal pet projects, they fund the hiring of more police officers to protect their communities.

Even left to their own devices, the desperate and downtrodden can fight back.

But they need to refuse to take no for an answer.

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