Friday, January 20, 2012

Pet Peeve of the day: Attention action filmmakers - security guards are people too!

As a whole, Contraband is a pretty unremarkable would-be thriller.  There is almost no real action, and much of the middle act is a series of monotonous scenes of Kate Beckinsale being threatened and/or beaten by Giovanni Ribisi.  While Ribisi's character felt the need to continually antagonize Mark Wahlberg's family after Wahlberg has already agreed to do the crime in question is to be debated, since you'd think you wouldn't want to antagonize the professional criminal who is being entrusted with your precious cargo.  Anyway, Wahlberg is the classic 'former criminal gone straight' archetype, complete with a loving wife and kids.  If I my spoil the not-so shocking ending of the picture (...SPOILER WARNING...), Contraband ends on a mostly happy note, with Wahlberg having gotten away with the crime, protected his family (including his imperiled brother-in-law), and scored a large amount of capital for himself and his crew.  And even though Wahlberg's character is actually an accessory to a mid-film heist that ends in the wanton murder of about half-a-dozen people, he's still an okay guy.  After all, they were just security guards.

The first girl I dated in college was a young woman whose father was a security driver for some financial institution or another.  I never met the man, but if I ever had I would have been tempted to ask him about how those in his profession are treated like absolutely expendable bugs on a windshield.  Starting with Die Hard (where Alexander Godunov popped two guards at the very start of the Nakatomi Plaza takeover) and continuing through any number of Die Hard rip-offs over the last 24 years, few action films about terrorists are complete without an opening siege that sees the point-blank execution of any number of security people as the villains make their way to their base of hostage-taking/weapons-hijacking.  And almost never are these hapless souls actually mourned by anyone else in the picture.  Half the time they are literally forgotten as the film gets into gear.  And what of their expendability in various hard-boiled crime pictures?  We hear over and over again how top-notch Robert De Niro's heist team is in Michael Mann's Heat.  Yet the first time we see them pull a job, they end up having to whack all three truck guards purely to show that Kevin Gage is kinda crazy (note - this also happens in Mann's 1987 film LA Takedown, which Heat is a remake of).  Last time I checked, unless you were a terrorist or a hit-man, I'm pretty sure your reputation as a professional criminal was judged by how few corpses you left behind and, as is the case here, how well you chose your associates.  But because the people whom De Niro's crew bumps off are security guards as opposed to cops and/or traditionally innocent bystanders, they retain their 'expert criminals' ranking until they start screw up their big downtown LA bank robbery at the end of act two.  Even more disconcerting is when the hero of a film slaughters such security personal as indiscriminately as the bad guys, but keeps their nobility because it's for a 'just cause' (think The Matrix or Prince of Persia).

 Not every dead body has to be accounted for in every action film or crime drama.  Not every slain member of the 'good guys' requires a funeral.  But the sheer brazenness in which the security guard above all other classifications of people in film, is randomly and brutally murdered without consequence is and always has been a bit disconcerting.  It's basically a cheap tactic to amp up the body count without killing any major characters or too many hostages over the course of the film.  When 'heroes' like Contraband's Mark Wahlberg escape legal culpability or even moral denouncement when they stand by without commentary while their buddies commit such murders, when films like Live Free Or Die Hard feature the point-blank execution of countless such security personal while keeping its PG-13 rating, when any number of films both good and bad (Speed, Hellboy, Demolition Man, etc) treat such murders as 'no big deal',  the message being sent is that bank guards, armored truck drivers and other such protectors don't really count as full-fledged human beings on the scale of movie morality.  Thus ends the pet peeve of the day... Feel free to share your thoughts below.  Do you know anyone who works in security and if so, have they ever complained about the large-scale body count that their profession has racked up onscreen?

Scott Mendelson                 


Scott said...

Actually, Scott, the crew in Heat executed the remaining guards after Waingrow killed the first for very sound legal/strategic reasons explained by Pacino's character immediately following the heist.

Guards also seem to be the only ones affected by gun shots these days...when main characters are shot they merely put some pressure on it and carry on about their day.

Nah said...

Cops should be shot more often to even it all out.

Scott Mendelson said...

I recall Pacino's speech too. Point being, they were expendable as a way to up the initial body count and show that one of the team members was a little kooky, yet we're still suppose to believe that De Niro's crew were super-duper pros. In fact, slight digression and minor nitpick, nearly every time they end up doing a job or even arranging a meeting with contacts, it ends up spinning out of control.

ACOD said...

Great piece. How many of his innocent coworker cops did Stallone kill in Judge Dread?

Lady Jane said...

Great post Scott. It's a pet peeve of mine too to see action movies favor big and explosive action and often high body counts at the expense of any moral sanity on the part of the characters we're supposed to be investing in.

I found this especially bothersome in FAST FIVE -- for the most part a fun popcorn movie, but then our heros turn a safe into a wrecking ball and take it to the sidewalks and storefronts of a bustling city -- obliterating bus stops and stores and parked cars. They took care not to SHOW anybody actually getting killed, but the safety of civilian onlookers was clearly outside of our heros' control (they did not have control over the careening safe and couldn't see into the stores they were obliterating and had no idea if the parked cars they were pulverizing were occupied) and it certainly never registered as concerning them in the least bit. Hmm, these are supposedly our heroes?

Scott Mendelson said...

I actually appreciated that they actually bothered to make it clear that no civilians were being killed during the climactic chase, and that the various cops chasing them were on the kingpin's payroll. I know others (such as yourself) took the 'it was only by accident that they didn't murder anyone' argument, and it's a valid one. But you can make the same claim about any number of big-scale car chases (Batman Begins, Goldeneye, etc), but my rule is if you take pains to show no collateral damage, you get a token moral brownie point.

Scott Mendelson said...

I've written about Judge Dredd before. The thing that stands out about that movie is that it is so insanely violent that the three lead heroes are pretty much the only speaking characters who don't get killed.

Lady Jane said...

Interesting, maybe it merits a closer look but I actually remember that they did NOT make it clear no civilians were being hut or killed (for instance the obliteration of the bus shelter and crowded bank lobby). I think they're just asking the audience to assume it. Not showing civilians being killed isn't quite the same as showing that civilians were NOT killed, and it's not the same as having the protagonist characters (holders of the the audience's rooting interest) demonstrating not one iota of concern either way.

Right, the car chase analogy has its merits, but FAST FIVE seems different because wreaking this city-wide destruction in a civilian arena was their entire plan all along, it wasn't a consequence of being chased.

Andrew O'Hehir over at Salon actually talked about this movie in particular and expressed it saliently: "Our heroes drive through the first floor of a crowded office building, dragging a 25-ton steel safe behind them; demolish any number of passing vehicles; demolish a bus shelter. Now, we don’t see a middle-aged drone splattered in that office building, or an old lady sent straight from that bus shelter to heaven, but that’s not exactly the point. People got killed or they didn’t, and either way it was just chance. The so-called heroes of this video-game universe evince absolutely no concern for human life, and treat the ordinary citizens of Rio as meaningless extras in the continuing drama of their profound coolness and hotness."

Matt from Phoenix said...

My problem with Fast Five was that they are towing this 20-ton safe down busy streets, and at no point does it get caught in a pothole or stuck on the curb? It just glides like its on ice. Riiiiiiiiight.


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