The darker shades of cinema

Second Take

The darker shades of cinema

Everybody has them: Movies we’re embarrassed to admit we love. Nevertheless, these are movies we want others to like as much as we like them. We’d like to crusade for these films because others are busy dissing them. Two such dark favourites of mine have got recent releases on Blu-Ray. Foremost of all for me is Sam Raimi’s The Quick and the Dead. Here, director Raimi seems to have asked himself: ‘what is a western? And answered: ‘showdowns, shoot-outs, draws’. So The Quick and the Dead is the good parts version of a western: from start to finish the movie is just one draw after another with different contestants. And what fantastic contests, what stars — Leonardo Caprio, Russell Crowe, Sharon Stone, Gene Hackman, all lined up in one small movie. 

To refresh your memory about this underrated western from the 90s: The setting is a mean, one street town run by Hackman who makes money for himself and the town by having shooting contests year round. Nobody has beaten him yet, that’s why he gets to be mayor. One day a stranger rides into town and challenges him — it turns out to be a beautiful, blonde, long-legged woman — in other words, Stone. But before she gets to him, she’ll have to take on other gun slinging heavies like Ace Hanlon (Lance Henricksen), the Kid (DiCaprio) and the ‘Preacher’ (Crowe) to name only a few.

Every gunslinger’s face is chosen so carefully to suggest menace, humour, sleaze. Raimi varies each shooting contest with exhilarating style and Simon Moore wrote a clever, twisty, witty script. I just wish Stone had not been its star (though, without her, it would not have been made, and I like her in it) because if she hadn’t been in it, this stylish, exciting, inventive western — now dismissed as a mainstream Hollywood blockbuster — would be a cult fave the way Raimi’s underrated Darkman is. This neo-spaghetti western is funny, thrilling, genuinely suspenseful (the shooting draws have you literally at the edge of your seat or coach as the case may be) and — here’s the thing — finely acted. Compare this to that pseudo-serious, mediocre and overrated Unforgiven and see which one holds up as the better movie today.

“He’s an artist of death,” says Christopher Walken of the vigilante character Denzel Washington plays in Tony Scott’s scorching revenge thriller, “and he’s about to paint his masterpiece.” Man on Fire, the second in my dark favourites, was given a drubbing by the critics for its reactionary, libertarian politics when it released a decade ago. But for once it seems fairer to look at audience ratings than what the critics have to say. Because even though Man on Fire is a mediocre, improbable movie, it satisfies the thirst for a good revenge fantasy in all of us. If you can’t get it in real life, then we at least want to see it on screen.

Set in contemporary Mexico, where kidnappings are rampant, Washington plays John Creasy, a skilled bodyguard who is hired by a rich family to protect their little daughter. Washington is a pro at his job, but even he fails to stop the kidnappers.
Washington vows revenge. What is satisfying about this slick, stylish-looking thriller is that it isn’t timid and cautious. When Washington finally finds the bad guys and begins to torture and kill them one by one, you feel that’s exactly what you need to see. The whole movie was leading up to it. In those more level headed, subtle Hollywood revenge thrillers, the hero usually sickens of his violence, his sadism, and stops the carnage. And you feel cheated.

The few movies that take it to the limit are Point Blank, Get Carter, Death Wish, Payback, The Limey, Kill Bill and Audition. (Of these, Point Blank, The Limey, Kill Bill and Audition are masterpieces of violence). Taut, sleek, vicious, stylish revenge melodramas with improbable plots and situations. But who cares? We came to see the bad guys punished in all sorts of horrible ways (Washington chops off the fingers of one guy, sticks a bomb in another guy’s rectum), and our vigilantes on screen took care of it for us. When a character asks Creasy to forgive the kidnappers, Creasy says, “Forgiveness is between them and God. It’s my job to arrange the meeting.” And blows them away. And then there’s director Scott’s trademark nerve-jangling camera work — speeded up montages, colour saturation and focal depth, jump cuts and abrupt changes in light — which could either end up irritating you or put you in a good mood.

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