Director's Cut (Burn, Shock, Waterboard ...)

Fear not, this thread won't last forever. But lately I've been troubled by the ubiquity of graphic torture scenes in mainstream movies, not to mention TV series - and even more bothered by the seeming inability of critics to address the moral dimension of what has clearly become an audience-pleasing shtick.

HBO is currently showing Man on Fire (2004), an action flick by Tony Scott, brother of Ridley, starring Denzel Washington as Creasy, a burnt-out Special Forces vet hired by a wealthy family in Mexico City to protect their little daughter Pita (Dakota Fanning) against mercenary kidnappers. The role seems tailored for Washington, because it exploits both ends of his spectrum: cold and bitter before befriending Pita, warm and sweet during their friendship, then cold and bitter again after the kidnappers grab her.

The torture occurs throughout the film's second half, when, believing Pita to be dead, Creasy takes bloody revenge on a colorful cross section of Mexico City's residents. About the various agonies we're invited to enjoy, let me just say that it is impressive what a resourceful inquisitor can do in a parked car using only duct tape, a sharp knife, and a dashboard cigarette lighter.

To be fair, some reviews of Man on Fire made the quasi-moral point that these scenes would be more thrilling if Creasy were trying to save Pita, not just wreak vengeance. But this implies that torture is, or should be, a routine part of police investigation. Indeed, the only honest cop, a visiting Italian Interpol officer (Giancarlo Giannini), seems content to let Creasy do his thing, because after all, "He can go places we can't."

Beyond this, the critics directed some outrage at the film's violation of the P.C. Code of Ethnic Representation, Chapter 27, Subsection 12, which reads: ""Films set in Latin American cities shall not have a preponderance of positive Anglo and negative Latino characters." Point taken. But while we're being thin-skinned, perhaps we should be a bit touchier about Hollywood's easy acceptance of a world where the rule of law has lost all meaning.

In the end, Creasy finds a way to redeem himself that gives the closing scenes unusual moral as well as emotional depth. But here the reviews were especially dispiriting. For instance, David Ng of the Village Voice concluded that this portrait of a killer trying to save his soul made the film "a right-wing fever dream, or perhaps just another day at the office for our country's leaders." When baroque evil is accepted as art, and genuine goodness dismissed as propaganda, then criticism has come to a sorry pass, indeed.

January 14, 2006 10:53 AM |



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This page contains a single entry by Martha Bayles published on January 14, 2006 10:53 AM.

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