Friday, December 30, 2005

Revenge! Man on Fire and Munich

Over the past couple of days, I've seen two rather different revenge films. Some of my favorite films from recent years have been revenge movies, each dealing with the genre in extremely different ways. Oldboy and Kill Bill use a revenge plot as an excuse for an absurd amount of near cartoonish violence, though each ultimately fall to Earth in their own way. Irreversible is a deconstruction of the genre, altering the narrative structure to alter the audience's emotional experience of events. Man on Fire and Munich are more conventional revenge films, Man on Fire is basically a 70s exploitation movie made today, while Munich engages with the traditional contradiction of the genre, simultaneously exulting in the violence and condemning it.

Man on Fire was the film where Tony Scott reinvented his style and became basically the ultimate MTV-style filmmaker, with a style that uses constant cutting and image manipulation. The culmination of this style was Domino, which I loved. Man on Fire falls between that style and a more conventional style, and you can see Tony pushing at the boundaries of what he can do with the medium.

The really interesting thing about this movie is the fact that Scott does not condemn the revenge. Most revenge movies end with the ultimate realization that seeking vengeance wasn't such a good idea, often creating a cycle of violence that wrecks the lives of all involved, as seen in Irreversible, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance and Munich. Man on Fire either takes place in an alternate film world, where such violence is okay, or it's making a really odd comment on reality. This is a film that's so gleeful in the violence the characters enact, it would be easy to imagine the filmmakers condoning the act. However, I think it's more that the filmmakers are taking the joy in the filmic depiction of the violence.

Tracking back a bit, after a hyper opening sequence, the film slows down to a pretty normal speed and for about 45 minutes is the story of Creasy bonding with Pita. This stuff is all pretty effective, and you really feel that the bond is earned, largely because so much screentime is invested in it. When he's riding in the car with her and won't answer her questions, it's tough to watch because you want him to embrace her. After the really cool attempted suicide scene, things pick up and we get some nice scenes of the two of them bonding.

The fact that we believe in the bond that they form is essential because it provides the emotional justification for Creasy's revenge quest. I read a couple of reviews that criticize the screentime spent on their relationship, however to cut down on that time would remove the primary emotional component of the film. When Pita is kidnapped, you really do want Creasy to go out and get her.

Once she's taken, the film takes a dramatic shift in tone and style, becoming a series of increasingly violent and sadistic scenes as Creasy goes around taking vengeance on the people who kidnapped Pita. The film has a very 70s exploitation feel, there's no attempt to provide a moral counterpoint, when Pita's mother condones the revenge quest we're basically at a point where anything's acceptable, and this excuses the film from dealing with any of the moral questions that arise from what Creasy is doing. As the viewer, you're aware that he's going way too far right around the time he implants a bomb in someone's ass. Seriously.

But Scott is making a film that's purely devoted to showing this violence in the coolest way possible. It's basically updating the archetypal Death Wish or Dirty Harry story, girl kidnapped and wronged, police won't deal with it, so our hero takes it into his own hands. So, unlike Tarantino who created the ultimate 70s exploitation film with Kill Bill, Scott is just updating the setting and style, but keeping the narrative on roughly the same level.

The thing that really makes this film interesting to watch is the filmmaking. A lot of people will call the style gimmicky or "distracting," but the style is the film. Considering that he chose to follow up this film with a practically non-narrative movie, it's clear that Scott was really interested in how he was showing what he was showing. I think this film's style is more open to criticism because it's so jarringly removed from what had come before, whereas Domino was united in terms of tone and style.

The film reaches its peak with the incredible rave scene. When I heard that Creasy had to get someone who runs a rave, the film instantly took up a notch. The thought of Tony Scott visual style in a rave was almost too much to contemplate and the scene certainly delivered. Rave scenes are one of my personal favorite filmmaking things, and this one was full of energy, hyped up with effects and cutting. This was the best example in this film of what Scott did a lot in Domino, and that's build the film to suit the music, really integrating the cutting into what was going on with the track. The sequence is sensual saturation and is certainly the highlight of the film, particularly the ending where the whole club blows up and everyone just keeps raving outside.

The thing about Scott that a lot of people criticize is how hyperactive the films are, the fact that dialogue will just appear on screen, but I think it's great. I don't think every movie should be made like Tony Scott, but watching this thing or Domino, it's a really unique film experience. The story of this movie is decent, but in the second half, it's really the style that keeps things going. At his best, the editing and images create a rhythm to the point that it becomes more like visual music than a narrative. It's interesting that some of the most avant garde, unique stuff in the medium is being done within the context of these really average narrative, Hollywood studio films.

The film is basically about going more and more over the top. At the point where Creasy fires a rocket at a car out in the street, you basically choose either to reject this as absolutely ridiculous or just go along with it and accept whatever happens. The afforementioned anal-bomb scene is another example of this. After the father killed himself, the film started to drift for me. Two and a half hours for this type of movie is a bit much, and I felt like that moment was the big reveal, when you saw that her father betrayed her, there was really nowhere left to go from there.

However, they did go further and it turns out that Pita is in fact alive. From a narrative point of view, this certainly makes sense, but thematically, it seemed like it was there to justify Creasy's actions throughout the film. If he's with Pita for 45 minutes and kills people for an hour and a half, we might get a bit morally skewed at the end. However, by having Pita actually be alive, and having Creasy's actions save her validates the entire vengeance quest, meaning that everything he's done over the course of the film has had a purpose. It's been about saving her rather than avenging her.

So, it felt a bit weird that the film seemed to wallow in this violence without real motivation and then at the end chose to validate it completely, rather than question at all his decision to kill all these people. Unlike most revenge films, this one allows you to enjoy the violence without the pesky conscience. It's certainly more emotionally engaging than Domino, but the need to stick to a narrative seems to constrain some of the more experimental filmmaking. It was clearly a neccesary step, but I think Domino is a better film. Man on Fire is so sadistic, it becomes a bit depressing, whereas Domino presented a more fun, glossy fantasy world that you could enjoy.

So, switching gears from the genre ghetto to the uptown neighborhood of the prestige film. Munich is a more issue based film than most revenge movies, and that causes some problems. By taking a global focus, we're deprived of the personal emotional investment than usually motivates a revenge film. However, that was likely the intention, to throw the characters into a morally ambiguous world where revenge is something they're supposed to seek, even if they're increasingly unsure about whether they want to.

I think the film was very effective in creating a morally uncertain world. Even as the mission begins, it's clear that not everyone is totally on board for what they're doing. As things go on, they make more and more compromises, willing to kill civilians, and also taking out people on the periphery. The very act of killing loses its taboo status, something that Avner makes explicit when he says he doesn't even think about it as he's going to sleep. Yet, at the same time, each member of the crew is starting to question whether or not what they're doing makes any difference, and gradually they each fall away from the mission.

By killing others, they make themselves targets, and in the best sequence in the film, end up having to kill a woman assassin, solely out of their own desire for vengeance, with no connection to the general mission. The reason why that sequence is so powerful is because it's the primary crossing the line. There's no political reasoning behind this killing, it's just a pure desire for revenge.

That's the primary arc of the film, showing the dehumanization due to their violence. So, my primary issue with the movie was we never got a really strong moment where Avner reacts against this and reclaims his humanity. The ideal place to do this would have been after they're chased out of the Salemeh compound. This is the first time that Avner's life is really in danger, and confronting that would have allowed him to recognize the seriousness of what he's doing. Thematically, it's definitely conveyed, and we see him rejecting the original quest, but you never get that strong moment where he chooses to put down the sword and choose peace over the cycle of violence.

I guess the moment I'm looking for is like in Return of the Jedi, when Luke chops off Vader's hand, and then stops, recognizes what he's become and throws down the saber. That's one of the best moments of the film, and you miss it here. The entire character arc is building to this moment and it's not shown. Now, this may have been deliberate, it would be tough to do, but I just felt emotionally incomplete after the film ended.

The intercutting of the sex with the murder of the athletes provided some emotional impact, but the sequence didn't directly comment on Avner's actions. I suppose you could read it as Avner seeing himself in the terrorists, it certainly works on an intellectual level, but not emotionally.

It's a really strong film, but it stops just short of greatness. Part of this is because it's putting forth the exact same theme as Irreversible, and Irreversible absolutely immerses you in the violence, to the point that you literally cannot imagine wanting to seek revenge. This film presents things from a more de-dramatized perspective, telling us at the end that violence creates cycles, so we understand the idea, but we don't feel it. Part of what's preventing me from really embracing the film is just that Irreversible took the same themes, but told them in a much more exciting, personal way.

Now, you may say that Munich isn't a revenge film in the same way those are, but thematically and narratively, it is. It has the same structure, and a film with this much violence certainly belongs with those others. Just because something's about historical events doesn't automatically exclude it from genre classification. It's a much more socially responsible film than Man on Fire, but the two films are not that far removed.

Filmmaking wise, this is a really well made film, but it doesn't immerse you in the world. Revenge stories are so simple that they're the perfect excuse for stylistic excess. My beloved revenge trinity (Irreversible, Oldboy, Kill Bill) are three of the most exhilirating movies ever made, constantly wowing you with the shot and music choices. That's the difference between a well made film and a virtuostic masterwork, a well made film you respect and admire, whereas a masterwork draws you in and makes you gasp at watching the medium used in a new way.

There seems to be a conception that any film that uses over style or editing is somehow cheap and gimmicky. People put them down as all style and no substance, but all substance and no style is no fun either. I want that moment where you are just in awe of the film, and that's what this was missing. I would consider it a compliment to the movie that I'm talking about it in those terms, since it means it nailed everything else, it just couldn't go the extra mile to greatness.

Vengeance continues when I get the DVD of Sympathy for Lady Vengeance from Hong Kong, which should be in the next couple of days. Oldboy was one of the best films of recent years, and I'm a big fan of films with women killing people, so it should be quite the film.

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