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The art of justification: the vigilante film genre

“In every man’s life, there are moments that live forever, and lines that should never be crossed.”

-Trailer for A Man Apart

“This is not revenge, it’s punishment.”

-Trailer for Punisher

“I’m gonna go get her, anyone who gets in my way, anyone who profited from anyone who opens their eyes at me, I’m gonna kill them.”

-Trailer for Man on Fire

The arts reflect, exaggerate, and expose humanity, and just like with narcissus, these reflections can entrance the eyes of the beholder. What these arts constitute informs and influences their audiences, being both the product and producer of the society they dwell within. None has been a better example than the vigilante revenge film genre in Hollywood.

Meryl Streep put this concept on center stage in her Golden Globe speech against Trump. She stated that if America “kicks [foreigners] out, you’ll have nothing to watch but football and mixed martial arts”, implying that without Hollywood, America wouldn’t really be anything, and that all that America would have left to watch would be bloodsport from their couches.

This speech neglects that violence is not only a consumable good in America, but also a chief export that never seems to be in demand. This lack of demand doesn’t matter because violence is a product with the intention to bomb at the box office. In 2016, America accounted for half of the global arms trade, selling approximately $10 billion worth of military equipment annually to nations such as Israel, Egypt, and Iraq, to name a few. This number has doubled since 2002.

This upward trend has been in lockstep with the war on terror ongoing since 9/11. No art form has truly captured the American spirit in the post 9/11 world like the revenge film genre. This genre always involves a man who has been wronged, who then must go on a killing spree that leaves a dramatic trail of dead bodies until he is satisfied. Most importantly, this revenge requires direct dispensing of vigilante justice against perceived culprits.

To be fair, these movies and themes of revenge via outside of the box thinking that puts people into the coffin have always existed in American cinema. Be it through movies like Taxi Driver, or any Batman movie ever made, the concept of balancing the scales of justice outside of the realms of the law is rife within the American subconscious.

After September 11th, this subconsciousness was given a shot of adrenaline, and Hollywood was quick to react. Movies like Man on Fire, A Man Apart, or simply Punisher all rolled out in quick succession.

These movies were all products of the post 9/11 world, where American foreign policy was both dictated and justified by revenge. Innocent lives were lost, lines were crossed, and it was time to go and get the bad guys regardless of what the UN may have said. Wars were declared and arms were tossed to those who would stand by America’s side the way a shotgun is haphazardly thrown in the scene prior to the final showdown between protagonist and his cop buddy who finally came around to have his bro’s back.

Unfortunately, invasions never end like movies, despite media and the government attempts to emulate movie endings with banners spouting declarations of victory atop aircraft carriers. Fifteen years later, America is growing tired, and the media reflects this too. America avoids direct conflict and confrontation, electing to send drones, but is extremely reticent to put “boots on the ground” and unilaterally invade other countries after the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

For America to unilaterally invade again there would have to be a definitive crossed line with the same message and magnitude of 9/11. Liam Neeson knows what this is like. As the narrative of American Foreign Policy has aged and exhausted itself, so has its stars. Liam Neeson is by no means an action star, but he is someone who will exact disproportionate revenge and if pushed across the edge.

“What I do have are a very particular set of skills; skills I have acquired over a very long career. Skills that make me a nightmare for people like you. If you let my daughter go now, that’ll be the end of it, but if you don’t, I will find you, and I will kill you.” Liam Neeson in Taken.

The Taken series offers direct insight into how old this narrative has gotten. Liam Neeson knows how bad it’s going to get, and is more than willing to offer an out. The parallels between American hesitation to unleash the beast and Liam Neeson’s similar predicament are rampant.

After Taken was released there was a litany of Liam Neeson movies released where his experience and hesitance to enter combat are his greatest strengths. This is a mirror being held up to Obama’s military legacy, justifying his perceived pacifism by framing it in terms of “the world isn’t ready for America to go full rogue”. Neeson is 64 years old.

Even Denzel Washington, the star of Man on Fire, shows his grey hairs in The Equalizer. The film features an iron fisted allegory featuring The Old Man and the Sea in which Washington responds to the Deus Machina that forces him into a revenge spree, “the old man has to be the old man and the fish has to be the fish”.

This cautionary announcement to the American people lets them know that America will respond because that is its instinct, but that it will now be reluctant to do so. Instead of going on a killing spree at the drop of a hat, America will try diplomacy as Liam Neeson does, or go the initial Equalizer route where Washington attempts to buy the object of his affections out of sex slavery and use economic incentive to impose his will on the world.

The overlying message of these movies is that America will throw down and emerge victorious from any conflict it enters. America endorses the narrative these movies are selling. Tak3n, the third installment of the Taken franchise earned $326 million at the box office, The Equalizer earned $192 million.

In the coming years, Donald Trump will be at the helm of American foreign policy, and the topic of how Hollywood both reacts to and justifies his foreign policy is not one of hot debate. As it stands the current narrative is that Hollywood will stand steadfast in the face of bigotry and racism. This has not been the case in the past when America was enacting its revenge across continents.

Hollywood both creates and reflects the state of the American spirit, and Meryl Streep is right to highlight the role that arts and culture have played in America. In the coming years Hollywood will recreate itself in America’s image;, time will tell how American foreign policy will be justified and what form that takes.

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