In the film Total Recall, Arnold Schwarzenegger puts a bullet between the eyes of the woman who has posed as his wife and deadpans, "Consider zat a divorce." Such a mixture of violence and humor is a staple of contemporary action films, as are large body counts. Some critics argue that this onslaught of casual violence is a new phenomenon invading our movie theaters.
New York Times critic Vincent Canby writes, "If you have the impression that movies today are bloodier and more brutal than ever in the past, and that body counts are skyrocketing, you are absolutely right. Inflation has hit the action-adventure movie with a big slimy splat." Critics worry that all this cinematic bloodletting is creating a nation of time-bombs who will explode at the slightest provocation.
But violence in popular culture is an ancient tradition. America was a violent society before Hollywood brought that fact into our living rooms. The shootouts of the Wild West predated our mass-media culture. And while gangsters littered the streets with their rivals during the mob wars of the 1920s and 1930s, Hollywood films of that era generally did not show on-screen deaths. The mob could not have gotten its inspiration from the movies, since even gangster films such as James Cagney's Public Enemy had little in the way of explicit violence.
If violent movies don't produce violent people, what do they do? The answer to this question lies with the people who watch the films.
Sixteen-to-twenty-five-year-old males are the target audience for most films, especially for action and horror films, the most violent genres. Imputations that all kill-movie fans are, at best, Neanderthals or, at worst, latent sociopaths completely miss the mark. Movie goers can enjoy fictional bloodshed without being tempted to engage in the real thing.
Indeed, young men may find violent films—specifically the action genre—cathartic precisely because real violence is off-limits. Jeremy Fand, a young investment analyst and kill-movie aficionado, claims that these "films represent a way of getting violence without doing it yourself. They represent a fantasy of what we would like to do but can't."
The cathartic nature of such films stems from three sources. First, since the American legal system is often frustratingly slow, viewers enjoy the immediacy of on-screen retribution. When the villain dies, justice prevails without any plea bargains, technicalities, or bureaucratic rigmarole.
Second, the moral viewer cheers (internally or externally) the triumph of good over evil. Third, although most viewers know that the hero will eventually kill the villain, a good film builds suspense, and the hero's ultimate victory relieves that tension.
The cathartic film is often highly moral, setting forth clear-cut conceptions of right and wrong. This formula appears across many different genres: cop films (from The French Connection to Steven Seagal's Out for Justice), Schwarzenegger and Stallone muscle-fests (Red Heat, Raw Deal, Cobra), spy thrillers (the James Bond films), comedies (The Hard Way), and science fiction (Robocop). These movies frequently center on a lone individual who dispenses justice to the villains around him.
This cathartic formula has been especially popular since Clint Eastwood became the world's biggest film draw' in the late 1960s. Although moralistic westerns with stars as diverse as John Wayne, Henry Fonda, and Gene Autry had been a theater staple for decades, Eastwood's iconoclastic loner dispensing his own brand of justice in spaghetti westerns such as The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly and A Fistful of Dollars touched a nerve. He became even more popular when, as Dirty Harry, he updated his winning combination to contemporary America's crime-ridden streets.
The public perceived that the American justice system had gone soft on criminals and that real cops could no longer adequately deal with crime. But during the course of five films spanning 18 years, Dirty Harry rid San Francisco's streets of psychos, terrorists, overzealous vigilante cops, rapists, and other riffraff.
The concern with crime also gave rise to an increased focus on weaponry. In Lethal Weapon, automatic-bearing Mel Gibson chides Danny Glover about his choice of pistol. Sylvester Stallone in Cobra, Richard Gere in No Mercy, and Chuck Norris in Code of Silence all prepare for their bloody showdowns as the camera pans their arsenals. These images counter the impression that cops are out-gunned in today's urban battlegrounds.
The policeman or vigilante as hero predominated as crime films took the place of the western. Once audiences saw a tearful Native American mourning the pollution of the land, as in the famous commercial of the 1970s, they could never again cheer for John Wayne to wipe out "injuns."
Mick Martin and Marsha Potter's Video Movie Guide 1990 reveals only 31 westerns released in the 1980s. The average cinema goer would probably recognize only five: Heaven's Gate, Long Riders, Pale Rider, Silverado, and Young Guns. Of these, Heaven's Gate was noteworthy only because it died at the box office and bankrupted United Artists. None of the five have any conflicts with Indians. The trend is toward the "politically correct" villain, usually a greedy white landowner or developer.
With the demise of the western, the action genre came to rest mostly in the hands of 20th-century crime fighters. Joel Silver is probably the most successful producer of this type of film. His movies follow an unerring formula: The line between right and wrong is clearly drawn, the good guy must buck the system to do his job, and, in the end, the good guy gets the villain.
Like Eastwood, Silver's characters disdain bureaucracy and technicalities that free criminals. In Silver-produced films such as Die Hard, the Lethal Weapon series, and The Last Boy Scout, underdog individuals or motley misfits triumph over evil. His films are violent, but the death of innocents makes the audience wince, while the deaths of villains elicit cheers. When shot, good guys feel pain, bad guys disappear. In a world of grays, these black-and-white morality plays have tremendous appeal.
Contrary to its critics' assertions, movie violence has a long history and potentially beneficial effects. And, like it or not, violence is entertaining; Americans enjoy it. In this respect, violence is even simpler than its enemies claim, and a damned good show, too.
Tevi Troy is a researcher for the American Culture Project at the American Enterprise Institute. He wrote this piece as a Claremont Institute Publius Fellow.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Movies: Faster, Hollywood! Kill! Kill!".