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Photograph by Stephen Vaughan/SMPSP

Jacobean Cinema: Denzel Washington's 'Man on Fire' resembles the avengers of Elizabethan drama.

Payback Time

A new cycle of revenge fantasies fuels American audiences' desires to lash out at somebody

By Richard von Busack

THEY LIKE to call critics cranky, but it was the nation that was in a mood for vindictive entertainment--at least according to the box office for the week of April 23. Four of the Top 10 movies concerned vigilante justice: Man on Fire, The Punisher, Kill Bill: Vol. 2 and Walking Tall. Last year, moviegoers were bonding with their kids at Finding Nemo. This year, we have the biggest wave of payback pictures in three decades, since the original Walking Tall, Dirty Harry, Death Wish and Billy Jack were hits.

As in 1974, a paramilitary tinge marks the vengeance movie: these aren't ordinary citizens on the warpath. Chris Vaughn, the Rock's character in Walking Tall, is ex-Special Forces. (By contrast, the real-life Buford Pusser, model for the original series, had been as a professional wrestler before he became a sheriff.) Creasy, Denzel Washington's character in Man on Fire, is a retired government assassin. The Punisher's Frank Castle is an undercover agent, probably a T-Man.

And Beatrice "The Bride" Kiddo--well, Quentin Tarantino seems to not really care whom the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad worked for. The point is that the Bride is a professional hit woman. Her slapstick rampage is as much about her affronted sense of professionalism as anything else. Her honor can only be washed in blood. And as is hinted in the "beyond good and evil" speech Bill gives in Vol. 2, killers like Bill and the Bride are a different breed. This being Tarantino, Bill bolsters the lesson not with Nietzsche but with Superman comics.

Today's revenge-movie writers make sums Shakespeare never dreamed of; yet the true golden age of the revenge drama took place around the turn of the 1600s, when the best living writers in the English language racked their brains figuring out unique ways to kill. "When the bad bleeds, then is the tragedy good," says the anonymous playwright of The Revenger's Tragedy (1607).

The Renaissance Faire tends to make us forget that the Elizabethan era was an early model of the police state. England was a country rocked by real and imagined international plots, torn with religious strife and ruled by an absolute yet capricious monarch. Not to stretch a point, but there were some similarities to 2004.

The writers of the era suffered through political terror firsthand. Thomas Kyd, author of The Spanish Tragedy (1592), which started the cycle of bloody plays, was interrogated under torture by the government. Playwright Christopher Marlowe was likely murdered because of his involvement with the secret police. The prying Polonius from Hamlet, whose spies are everywhere, is modeled on Elizabeth's spymaster Sir Francis Walsingham.

The revenge plays ran their course during the closing years of Queen Elizabeth's reign, and the first few years of King James, who followed her. James is rendered as "Jacob" in Latin, thus "Jacobean Tragedy." The public's fascination with decadent revenge plays grew as the death dealing became more florid.

In John Webster's The White Devil (circa 1612), the weapons include lethal incense, deadly essential oils and a poisoned helmet. One of the characters, Ludovico, an old hand at poisoning, mentions other methods: one could apply deadly potions to a Bible, a string of beads, the pommel of a saddle or the handle of a tennis racket. Marlowe merely boiled his Barabas, the Jew of Malta; it's almost homey simplicity by comparison.

So there might be comfort in deciding that today's vigilante films are part of a classical tradition when we see the Rock breaking a gambler's arm, or the Punisher dragging an enemy through a fiery parking lot or Uma Thurman's Bride squashing a foe's eyeball under her shoe.

On the surface, these vengeance movies have similarities to the old English vengeance plays. In the most Jacobean moment of the year, Washington stuffs a bomb up the ass of a trussed, prone crime lord. Note the box of baby wipes nearby and the latex gloves on Washington's hands. What does it profit a man to win the Best Actor Oscar?

Even the ghostly qualities of Jacobean tragedy pop up in the new movies, which toy with the supernatural. The Punisher is brought back from certain death, perhaps by voodoo--a mysterious local shaman is lurking about shortly before he gets shot in the chest.

There is also apparently magic in the skull T-shirt Castle's son gave his father as a present. "The man who sold it to me said it gives protection," says Castle's soon-to-be-roadkill kid.

The amount of Bible-fondling in Man on Fire counts as a supernatural element. Probably, Creasy misunderstands "Vengeance is mine, sayeth the Lord" in the same way Tarantino misunderstands Superman comics.

For the record, the quote used to describe Old Testament violence actually appears in the New Testament (Romans 12:19). New York Times critic A. O. Scott notes that John Creasy's initials are "J.C." Tony Scott's wackiest imagery has Creasy holding his hand still for the red laser pointer of a villain's pistol's sites--neon stigmata.

Hamlet, the jewel of the revenge tragedies, tells the story of a polished, educated man who is dragged into a revenge plot by his father's ghost. Hamlet is nuts about plays in the same way that a man of today might be nuts about the movies. The theater has taught him what to do. But Hamlet can't bring himself to act as the hero in a revenge play ought to act. Thus the sometimes maddening delays in Shakespeare's play, when Hamlet hesitates--those instances when he's sometimes disgusted, sometimes afraid. It takes him a while to strip off his own civilization.

Today's revenge films don't display that dramatic tension, the sense of what a repellant task it is to have to be forced to kill an enemy. The characters are at a boiling point already. Cinematic attempts to simmer them down are usually hopeless: as in the similarly risible scenes of the Punisher and Creasy sucking up Jack Daniels in the solitude of their rooms. (It's product placement: a subliminal ad for the Tennessee sippin' whiskey of homicidal avengers.)

The movies are only mirroring our own desire for retribution against the terrorists. Walking Tall's starting point concerns small-town jobs vanishing, only to be replaced by badly paid, exploitative service-industry gaming work; audiences are mad as hell about that, too.

If history repeats itself, we can count on the payback films getting more vicious, rather than less. By the time of Death Wish IV: The Crackdown (1987), an aged Charles Bronson, who was then a ringer for Captain Kangaroo, is smiling as he listens to the sound of revenge: one of his victims is being raped in his jail cell by a fellow prisoner.

This forgotten movie came to mind when rather more hard-to-forget images surfaced. The hooded man, standing in his rags, wires running up his arms like Frankenstein. The stacks of nude Iraqi prisoners in their dog pile. The round-faced soldier who gives the thumb's-up to a stripped, hooded prisoner, whose groin is hidden with a discreet little computer-blur.

It's payback time.

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From the May 12-18, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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