The State of Movie Violence

As Universal Soldier 4 attests, death and gore on screen have never been better -- or more reckless

For a long time, I have been haunted by a scene from Mann's 1958 Man of the West, a Gary Cooper vehicle and the last in a series of "psychological" westerns Mann made in the 1950s. Man of the West's action centerpiece has retired bad hombre Cooper meeting a trio of desperados for a shoot-out in what is — nearly — a ghost town. I say "nearly" because, just before the shooting starts, one of the gunmen, Royal Dano, is surprised by a middle-ag Mexican woman, and he fires on and kills her in a panic. In most other movies — certainly the spaghetti westerns that Tarantino's Django knocks off — this would only be an expedient to set the bullets flying, which they do, but what comes afterward is what makes Mann the American cinema's nonpareil tragedian. Just as Cooper is walking out of town alone, a man who is presumably the dead woman's husband discovers her body, and the fade-out from the scene is accompanied by his plaintive: "¡Mi Juanita! ¡Mi Juanita!" A dark pall lowers over Cooper's already bitter victory — a reminder that the dead woman meant the world to someone.

This awareness of cause and effect, of collateral damage and irreparable loss, is what separates drama from spectacle, Sophocles from the Colosseum. The classic action movie was an arena in which characters projected their moral force into the world through their actions and faced the often messy consequences. Now it's nearer to a literal arena, where the wreckage is quietly swept away between acts.

The cinema is, as the saying goes, a big church, with capacity for a number of vying denominations. It is not the proliferation of the bloody fools that we should regret — for allowing us to laugh at death is a vital function. The problem lies in the by-and-large failure of serious action filmmakers to act as counterbalancing tragedians, the absence of artists who, like Mann, consider the weight of each bullet. Our movies prove over and over that they can be "cool" — but can they can be something more? O, death, where is thy sting?

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