Life & Liberty: Shoot-'em-Ups Go Left
Used to be, you knew what to expect from your standard violence 'n' mayhem flick. Law and order served up by cannon-toting "loner" cops like Dirty Harry Callahan. Vigilante revenge fantasies à la Bronson. Foreign affairs? Handled by Mr. "Have crossbow, will travel" himself, John Rambo—the Last American Patriot. The classic western shed its chaps and saddles to keep up with modern times, but almost never its frontier politics: located somewhere to the right of the NRA. Those days are no more.
Clint Eastwood directs a movie—no, a film biography—about a jazz musician, Charlie Parker. Arnold Schwarzenegger flexes his pecs for glasnost. The Reagan decade is over; it's twilight in America and Hollywood has already changed the guard. Violent action-adventure at the movies is no longer the exclusive property of good ol' Republican values. The CIA, arms for the Contras, and capitalism are the new enemies to be pummeled and blasted. Peace, love, and understanding? Who needs 'em when you've got an AK- 47 assault weapon handy. Liberal Hollywood has gotten wise to the tactics of its foes. It has learned how to punch with a mean left hook.
This ultra-violent red dawn started sooner, but the conversion of Eddie Murphy's Beverly Hills cop was a watershed. The original Beverly Hills Cop, released during Reagan reelection year 1984, was standard renegade-lawman stuff. Streetwise copper from Motown meets stuffy, by-the-book B.H.P.D., encountering assorted California fruits and nuts along the way. Justice is meted out despite police protocol and judicial bureaucracy. Miranda? Never heard of him. Three years later Beverly Hills Cop II followed the formula but with certain alterations. The bad guys were running guns to Central America—and not to good Mr. Ortega. Meanwhile, Murphy's Axel Foley and the mayor practically trip over each other running to help their favorite charity, the homeless. Cop No. 1 got raves. Cop II was panned but made plenty of money.
It would be nice to think Murphy's "failure" the second time out had something to do with the inherent contradiction of a punishingly violent action movie espousing woolly "liberal" causes. It didn't. Cop II was simply a bad movie. Better entertainment has, however, been minted from the same political coin. Above the Law, martial arts "master" Steven Seagal's recent screen debut, gave as good as action-adventure gets. The target of Seagal's awesome rage: the CIA, drug trafficking for covert aid.
Now the CIA might seem an old punching bag. But political or espionage thrillers, depending on whose novels they come from, have traditionally tended to cancel each other out ideologically. In late 1987, the ubiquitous Michael Caine managed to star simultaneously in both a vociferously anti-American screed called The Whistle Blower and in The Fourth Protocol, a terse spy game by that reliable old cold warrior Frederick Forsythe.
The American-made movies set in Latin America in the wake of Costa-Gavras's Missing are sometimes called political thrillers, though they're closer to war-zone dramas—not quite Missing in Action, Chuck Norris's body-strewn rescue of POWs in 'Nam, but violent enough to be classified as "adventure" on video store shelves. And armed with an emphatic political warhead.
The heroes of two such films, Under Fire (1983) and Salvador (1986), aren't muscle-bound Action Men. The public still isn't quite ready for an International Brigade warrior fighting for world Communism. They are, instead, journalists: Nick Nolte a hotshot photographer in Under Fire, James Woods a sleazeball gonzo reporter in Salvador.
Set in Nicaragua on the brink of the 1979 Sandanista takeover, Under Fire sets up Nolte's conversion from neutral, "objective" observer of war and politics to active participant. By photographing a dead revolutionary leader to make him appear alive for propaganda purposes, Nolte tips the scales in the Sandanistas' favor. He is given to some cursory soul searching, until Somoza has fled and the red-and-black flags are waving, when he has the "strength" to conclude: "I'd do it all again."
Woods's Richard Boyle, the real-life journalist on whose story writer-director Oliver Stone based Salvador, does less soul searching than manic jabbering. At the U.S. Embassy in San Salvador, he rails a blue streak against American-exported "repression." For the most part, his opinions parrot Stone's own well-publicized views. Which is why on the Salvadoran government side, his movie casts the death squads (committing acts of unspeakable horror) and on the revolutionary side noble peasants (fighting on horseback, no less). In El Salvador, Woods is beaten and almost castrated at the hands of government fiends. When he returns to the States, his Salvadoran girlfriend runs into immigration trouble with the border patrol. Armed men handcuff him and take her away. The moral, as always with Stone, is writ large. America is just a jackboot away from fascist repression.
Stone's "oeuvre"—Platoon, Wall Street—has been as entertaining and popular as his politics are infantile. Which means they will be copied. The anticapitalist rhetoric of Wall Street was anticipated in an earlier 1987 movie with blunter, more primitive intentions: Robocop.
Science fiction movies used to stick to totalitarian dystopias on the Orwellian model—Darth Vader's evil empire, for instance. Robocop, Dutch director Paul Verhoeven's tongue-in-cheek stab at futurism, predicts a world of laissez-faire privatization run amok. The titular tin man—half human, half killing machine—is first invented then hunted by the profit-obsessed police company that built him.
Arnold Schwarzenegger (a Republican, incidentally) took on a similar role, the rebel-gladiator, in The Running Man. This time the captalist culprit is television. Unlike Max Headroom (the TV movie and series, not the Coke spokesman), in which the tube could still breathe good or evil, Running Man is pure prime-time nightmare. Ex-Family Feud host Richard Dawson emcees a savage game show, an obstacle course to hell, which Big Arnold must play to survive. So much for Schwarzenegger the All-American Commando of 1985, or the ex-Fed dealt a Raw Deal in '86. In the 1988 model, Red Heat, he and his deltoids defect to the other side of the Iron Curtain. His pumped-up Russian copski comes to America chasing drug scum, not looking for Moscow on the Hudson.
Has the brainwashing begun? Last summer Sylvester Stallone descended on Afghanistan for the usual Rambonic assault, and more people wanted to see a quietly macho Aussie named Dundee.
Suggest that Hollywood is soft on communism, and you'll be pilloried for neo-McCarthyism. Fine. Let them have their Cry Freedom, their Killing Fields, even their Salvador. Let Judd Nelson march off on "fact-finding" Brat Pack pilgrimages to Nicaragua. Indeed, let them pick coffee. Only leave cinematic violence 'n' mayhem to the good, Right-thinking folk whose natural ideological turf it is. Otherwise, what next? Martial arts enforcers skipping off to ACLU meetings? Our cannon-toting coppers reading criminals their rights? Yech.
Galling hypocrisy aside. By dispensing culture from the barrel of a gun, blow-'em-away liberalism loses the right to decry Dirty Harry next time he blasts a hole in the soft underbelly of criminal justice. Or John Rambo on his next Red-baiting death binge. As for America's "exportation of violence" to the Third World, which Hollywood's nouvelle left is forever fretting about, well, Above the Law should play well in Nicaragua.
Richard Marin is television critic for the Washington Times.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Life & Liberty: Shoot-'em-Ups Go Left".