It’s also illegal, dangerous and morally unsound, but that doesn’t stop Hollywood from featuring vigilantes in their stories.
Comic books have supplied the movies with vigilantes for years. According to comicbookmovie.com, “It is important to state one truth,” they write, “[and] that is, all comic book heroes, unless sanctioned by the government, are vigilantes.” That’s a wide group that includes, among others, Batman, Spiderman and Iron Man.
Lesser known is Rorschach, the anti-hero of the graphic novel The Watchmen and played by Jackie Earle Haley in the movie of the same name. He’s a masked crime fighter who believes in only good and evil. This black-and-white morality drives his ruthless need to punish evil-doers at all costs.
“Were it not for costumed vigilantism,” says the actor, “he’d have nothing.”
Rorschach is effective and lethal, but Paul Kersey didn’t wear a costume to earn his star on the Vigilante Walk of Fame. As played by Charles Bronson in five Death Wish movies, he cleaned up the streets with an efficiency that would make the Watchmen envious.
In the original 1974 film Kersey is an architect driven to taking the law into his own hands following the brutal murder of his wife. “If the police don’t defense us,” he says, “maybe we ought to do it ourselves.”
Star Bronson was quick to say that he didn’t “advocate anyone taking the law into their own hands,” but knew that the Death Wish movies were popular because, “Audiences like to see the bad guys get their comeuppance.”
Harry Brown is a gritty Gran Torino with British accents and a dash of Death Wish. Michael Caine plays the title character as High Noon’s Gary Cooper, but instead of being set on the wide open plain, the action in this Teabag Western takes place in the urban terrain of the Elephant and Castle section of London.
“This movie changed me,” Caine said. “I started out thinking, ‘Let’s go out and make a movie about killing all these scumbags,’ and then I met these people and realized they were helpless, just as much as the victims, and they had been neglected and they need help.”
There has been much written about Clint Eastwood’s later career. Well into his 70s the man has become a seemingly unstoppable movie making machine, directing, producing and scoring eight movies in eight years. In this millennium he’s won two Oscars and starred in four films. To put his output in perspective with another actor of his age, Gene Hackman hasn’t made a movie in four years and recently announced his retirement. Clint’s latest, Gran Torino, his second film of the year, suggests that maybe he should take a break. All work and no play, it seems, has made Clint a dull boy.
The movie icon plays Walt Kowalski, a recently widowed Korean War vet who finds himself with little to do but sit on his front porch drinking beer and scowling at the neighbors. After forty years at Ford his job is gone, his friends are mostly dead and the ones who are still alive moved out away years ago, replaced by the Asian immigrants who now live on either side of him. He’s a piece of work. Racist, crotchety and blunt he’s unloved by all including his yuppie son. His life takes an unexpected left turn when he comes to the rescue of a young Asian boy (Bee Vang) who is being harassed by gang members.
After a slow start Gran Torino picks up some speed as Walter’s preconceptions of his neighbors begins to change, but unlike other grumpy old man movies Walter never entirely drops his racist bullying. It’s the opposite of politically correct and will likely offend many viewers, but as a director and actor Clint has the courage to stay true to his character. I just wish the character was a bit more interesting.
Eastwood brings touches of several past characters to Walter. He’s part Insp. ‘Dirty’ Harry Callahan, part Frankie Million Dollar Baby Dunn and part Philo Any Which Way You Can Beddoe. In other words he’s tough but tender with a goofy edge that seems at odds with Walter’s hard external shell. The camera loves Eastwood, and even though he’s hammier than a MacDonald’s Pork & Cheese Toastie, he brings some life to a character that we’ve all seen before.
Gran Torino is an uneven film that slowly builds toward a predictable and not very convincing climax. Eastwood anchors the movie with a greatest hits kind of performance that lacks the subtlety of his recent work but will likely please long time Clint fans who’ll be happy to see him back in full-on scowl mode.