Fighting the (good?) fight in recent movies

Since the early days of cinema, a climactic fistic battle between the hero and villain has been expected to affirm the ultimate victory of good over evil.  By the 1950s, with movies like Giant, the hero could be battered a bit, but there was never any doubt that the "fair fight" was still an indication that the good could and would win out. 

So what shall we make of the current cinema fare in which the violence is relished in and of itself and presented as more compelling than concerns about good and evil?

Consider Riley Stearns's The Art of Self-Defense, featuring Jessie Eisenberg as Casey Davies, a young white-collar worker who is brutally attacked by members of a motorcycle gang while buying pet food near his apartment.  Casey stumbles by chance into a martial arts dojo, where he falls under the influence of "Sensei" (Alessandro Nivola).  Determined to master the art of self-defense for self-confidence and in order to mete out justice, Casey becomes a respected member of the dojo community.  But he senses great injustices there, both to one of his male buddies and to a female member, on the part of his revered sensei.  The latter refuses to confer a black belt upon them and insists that the woman can best find her place teaching the kids' class because of "maternal instincts."

Both of these classmates, not to mention the others, prove to be flawed, each in his or her own way.  The implication is that violence comes from a place of vulnerability, which can afflict even the physically strong and confident, who can be capable of evil things even when involved in a sport that claims to teach the control of emotions. 

It becomes clear that unfairness is the least of the evils perpetrated by the sensei, who has created a climate of violence — and evil in order to attract customers.  ­­­­Ironically, while figuring all of this out, Casey himself becomes violent and a bully in a bid to move from victim to "alpha" in the eyes of his workmates.

But after being shattered by three particularly cruel acts ordered by the sensei, Casey is shaken from his self-absorption and resolves to confront him and to defeat him.  In this case, evil is overcome by changing the rules of the fair or good fight with a nod to a famous scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark.  The question that remains, however, is whether Casey has become, in the end, more of a Nazi than the sensei (who had an on-site crematorium) in his bid to lead the dojo into egalitarianism.

Another film, Once upon a Time in Hollywood, presents itself as a slugfest against looming evil.  But it is, after all, a Quentin Tarantino movie, so the violence is done tongue in cheek.  The film centers on the machismo of Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), stuntman and war hero, who lives in a trailer with his pit bull.  Booth is a real-life western legend, brave and two-fisted, though lacking in the dignity and humility often attributed to such heroes on the big and small screens.  He picks fights with stars like Bruce Lee (whom Booth can, of course, best), and does nothing to still the rumor that he murdered his own wife.  The very facts that Booth is not in prison and that his instinct is to protect others would indicate that the rumor is unfounded.

Booth works as a protector, driving and encouraging fading and DUI-ridden TV western star Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio).  With a successful series far behind him, Dalton is seeking a next chapter in a vanishing career.  His agent, Marvin Schwartz (Al Pacino), wants him to do spaghetti westerns in Italy, the very thought of which depresses Dalton, but his spirits are lifted somewhat by director Sam Wanamaker (Nicholas Hammond), who praises his acting skills.

Actress Sharon Tate and her husband, director Roman Polanksi, have moved next door to Dalton.  The pregnant Tate and her friends were murdered by the "Manson Family," a hippie cult, in 1969. But Tarantino "undoes" history for the sake of his own concept of re-imagination by film and sets his characters, Booth and Dalton, in a revisionist scenario.  He has Booth and Dalton fight it out with the Manson Family members.  Indeed, Booth gets two bouts with them, first when he happens to visit the ranch where the cult members live after he gave a ride to a seductive young runaway (and Booth does maintain propriety in his dealings with her), and then when the "Family" members mistakenly attack the Dalton’s home.

At the ranch, Booth looks in on an old friend who turns out to be a willing hostage of the hippie cult (particularly of its women) and then punishes one of the cult's aggressive males with what appears to be excessive force, even as his timing spares him a confrontation with a more formidable cult male, who, informed of the fight, rushes back to defend his turf.

The latter thug will attack Booth at Dalton's home in a bloody life-and-death battle, which Tarantino depicts with aplomb and even with joy, perhaps because the latter battle justifies what seems to be Booth's excessive violence in the first.  Both fights, along with the revisionism, are used by Tarantino to glorify graphic violence as catharsis from the effects and very presence of evil.

As regards the Dalton character, DiCaprio does some fine acting here.  (Brad Pitt is on hand in this one strictly for the bravado that he has always provided well, in addition to his considerable acting ability.)  The most memorable and the most moving scene in this film is a short exchange between Dalton and a superb child actress (Julia Butters) playing a superb child actress who prods Dalton to self-awareness and to self-esteem.  She asks Dalton what he is reading on the set, and for a moment, it appears that she might launch him into a career making movies about the novel genre that he enjoys.  But Tarantino would rather rewrite history than transform his own rather static characters.

The fight movie genre hit an all-time low with Ready or Not, which is not about fighting evil.  Rather, it declares that there is no point in fighting the evil that makes us fight.  Ready or Not is the story of a family that made a bargain with the devil in order to prosper for all generations in their gaming business — playing cards, board games, etc.  Their only obligation is to flip the cards on the wedding night of a family member in order to decide which game will be played by the entire extended family.  If the card indicates "Hide and Seek," as it does once in a blue moon, then everyone is obligated to kill the new family member before dawn, lest every family member die.  This time, the hunt is on, and new bride, Grace (Samara Weaving), must butcher the entire family.

The film's reliance on a particular four-letter word, treated as if it were a mantra, is the least of its vulgarities.  A thoroughly evil-enjoying blood orgy, it desecrates every sanctity moral and cultural — family, children, marriage, noblesse oblige, pride in one's business and in its products.  It also glorifies vandalization of art, architecture, and sacred objects. 

Sure, this film is a take on Gothic horror movies, set in a creepy old mansion.  Coming as it does after generations of slasher films, the format is familiar.  But, believe me, this one does not only depict evil, but is itself an exercise in evil, in format and in message.

For most of Ready or Not, we are given the impression that that the family is foolishly following an empty ritual out of fear and cumulative greed.  So it seems for a while that this film is mocking all religious rituals by making fun of a Satanic ritual.  That would be bad enough.  But writers Guy Busick and R. Christopher Murphy make sure that, in the end, just when the characters are becoming convinced that the hunt ritual was stupid, they do in fact die and in a way that gives a nod, if not credence, to the Satanic threat.  Doesn't that final flourish glorify evil or at least obsession with evil above free choice and repentance, which are the basis of morality?

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