Revenge, the plot for cinema and life.
John Wick is an exciting character and series of films. It fits nicely inside the ranks of a classic genre of fiction, especially in the masculine action film era which died out in the late 1990s. Though we have had glimmers of that period of action heroes, individuals or a small group over coming the odds it is a story line that like the Western and Sci Fi era had passed, despite the occasional random sprinklings. ‘Heaven’s Gate’ marked the end of the Western era, only to have the runaway success of ‘Dances With Wolves’ to appear as an exception, ‘John Wick’ is just that for the revenge action flick. It is easy to invest oneself in a grieving solitary character who has lost the one element in their life that was an anchor for redemption, in this case his beloved. A former hitman, a good one at that, John Wick left his field to enjoy a new life of love. His wife died of an illness, leaving him with a puppy. His living reminder of love and a better life. Circumstances arise where his car and dog are taken. The skills and focus of the character are reinvigorated, no longer lost he succumbs to the impulse to kill with purpose. No longer a mercenary for murder he is now a noble hunter killer, avenging his dog and all the principles that can be imagined when one enjoys such a film. He is unstoppable and for the viewer his killing spree is righteous.
Now imagine if reality were to intercede. Not the reality of a one-man army taking on legions of well trained and armed to the teeth henchmen and villains. Not even the over the top constant action that is exciting as it would be exhausting. Let us switch the villains. Those who killed his dog and took possession of the car, suppose that they do not belong to organised crime but another organisation, the government. In the nation that John Wick lives the United States, it has been reported by The Nation and other news sources that the police kill approximately 25 dogs a day. Regardless of the charges being bought against a person or their guilt, the dogs are destroyed with indiscriminate violence. The same police also enjoy the right to confiscate private property at will. Now given John Wick’s background it is likely that it would be a Law Enforcement agency that would break into his house, beat him, murder his dog, destroy his property and steal his car all before any charges were laid. Would John Wick then have gone on a rampage once he was set or broke free?
In that case would the public that has enjoyed such a film flock to the cinema to see it, would the cheer for him to kill and beat police officers as though they were the henchmen for a mafia organisation. In the eyes of many, they are just that, henchmen. In an age where people trust politicians and their government less and less and despise them for all the vile policies that impose into their day to day could they see them and the entity with as much criminal perspective as they do a mob or triad depicted in Hollywood fiction? Could they love a vengeful John Wick if it was police officers laying dead at the foot of a figure like Wick in the sewers or car parks of the urban night? Could he kill police officers because the murdered his puppy in cold blood? What makes them so exempt from murdering a dog or even a child?
One of the classic revenge films is the 1974 action movie ‘Death Wish’ based on the novel of the same name. It is about a normal father and husband and in the novel a stereotypical American ‘liberal’, played by Charles Bronson. At the time the film resonated with many frustrated and pent up viewers as they experienced an inability to deal with the then upsurge in violent crime. In both mediums a gang of vile fiends brutally rape his wife and daughter, his wife does not survive the attack and his daughter is left mentally and physically harmed to the point that she is in a vegetative state. Buying a revolver Charles Bronson’s character Paul takes to the streets and becomes the vigilante that many fantasise that they would become. Expanding on into a series of books and films that turned into 1980s action schlock. How a man feels after his wife and daughter is raped and murdered like that is an experience no one wants to undergo. It is also a genre that many feminists decry where the female characters are used as a plot device for a masculine character. They must suffer so that the masculine protagonist may have his heroic arc. Unfortunately in this context and many others often the predators of such violence are men and their victims are girls and women. Often it is women and girls who suffer such horrific acts at the hands and loins of men in uniform.
Let us suppose that Paul was instead of being Charles Bronson but an Okinawan father who on 4th September 1995 learned that three US military servicemen kidnapped, beat then raped his 12 year old daughter. Instead of letting those go through the complicated Status of Force Agreement between the US and Japanese government the father went on a rampage killing those men and any others in the same uniform protecting the rapists. Given the history of rape and assault inflicted before, during and after this period the father could perhaps feel justified as plenty evidence would suggest that the communities near military bases were under attack from a seemingly violent alien gang that was attacking the women and children with sexual violence. Most notably his precious child. Would this vigilante defending the honour of his child daughter have found a compassionate and even jeering viewership? It is perhaps a more realistic plot motivator as this incident does occur often around military bases across the world. The numerous protests that occurred during the period over the rapes expressed a frustration and helplessness, but the people of Okinawa are still subjects to both the Japanese government and the US military so with impotence most obey the political process. It would not likely be a popular film with American audiences but in South Korea or Okinawa it is certain that it would find its sympathetic and relatable audience.
Sylvester Stallone was one of the greats of the action era of cinema, his portrayal of Vietnam war veteran John Rambo is as iconic as his Rocky Balboa is for sport’s films. The Rambo franchise had gone through a process of change, from a serious portrayal of a lost loner struggling with civilian life after having been used as a killing tool in an unpopular war into a corny action super star. At first Rambo was a vagrant suffering trauma, discriminated against by the local police after he found one of his comrades had finally succumbed to the cancer caused by Agent Orange that his government had dropped all over Vietnam. Rambo II was action and the ultimate show bag seller, big explosions, cardboard villains and a simple mission of rescue of those lost and forgotten MIA-POW’s. Filmed at the height of the MIA (Missing In Action) movement where many families hoped that their loved ones may still be alive somewhere inside Vietnam. ‘Uncommon Valor’ and ‘Missing in Action’ itself to become a franchise, all capitalised on this yearning to see soldiers returned home. It was Hollywood’s campaign to do what they felt their government should do, rescue the prisoners, assuming there was any and they were alive. Regardless Rambo was a hero.
The third Rambo film was in the tradition of the second, action packed and with a message oozing the Cold War. This was the Rocky IV in the Rambo series; the evil Soviet Union the fixation of the hero’s adversity. Afghanistan was the setting. In the 1980s Central Asia was viewed differently in the West than it is today, then it was a battle scape between atheist Communist imperialism pitted against devout Islamic freedom fighters who had the full support of the US and its allies. Rambo 3 was the 1988 sanctioning of this struggle. Rambo’s mentor Colonel Troutman after having been unsuccessful in his attempt at recruiting Rambo enters Afghanistan to meet up with the Mujahedeen freedom fighters only to be captured by the Soviet military. This activates Rambo who returns to his war on Communism out of friendship, but instead he finds a cause worthy of his skills. The Afghan warriors are depicted as noble and though not shown as simplistic holy jihadists, they are partisans that are resisting the foreign invader, a Viet Minh, Maquis or Apache of their time. Romantic in their cause, this is how many of the Afghan and Islamic resistance saw themselves then and in this age. The freedom fighters united with Rambo are avenging the crimes committed by the Foreign invaders.
As Mousa, the resistance leader says in his conversation with Rambo “This is Afghanistan… Alexander the Great try to conquer this country… then Genghis Khan, then the British. Now Russia. But Afghan people fight hard, they never be defeated. Ancient enemy make prayer about these people… you wish to hear?” To which Rambo nods ‘Uh Hum’, he then continues “Very good. It says, ‘May God deliver us from the venom of the Cobra, teeth of the tiger, and the vengeance of the Afghan.’ Understand what this means?” Rambo answers with “That you guys don’t take any shit?” His words are prophetic and perhaps the script writer was clairvoyant in the dogged determination that Afghanistan should present to all invaders, including the United States and its allies who would become for Afghanistan the new Soviet Union in the next century. The mayhem and carnage that the Soviet invasion wrought on Afghanistan caused devastation then and for years after, what ever government ruled in Kabul did not truly govern the rest of Afghanistan, a complex region of isolation and extremes that is not just any one culture and yet despite outside pressure and insistence it continues to defy borders and central authority. Whether Taliban or US imposed government the many peoples of Afghanistan are almost as ancient as the mountains in their customs, but it was in a unity against outside invaders that many have found a common ground.
What if John Rambo found himself meeting the very same freedom fighters in the hills of Afghanistan in 2008 or even 2018 instead of 1988, to those on the ground resisting the invader, a Western coalition is as artificial and deadly as a Soviet one. For many in Afghanistan a Kabul government loyal to Moscow is as vile and corrupt as one that is loyal to Washington. Much of the training and arming enjoyed during the Cold War is now used by those inside Afghanistan their next enemies. The violence is as ugly as ever, local murderers are as horrendous as the foreign ones inside a region that has seen endless war since 1979. Could a viewership in the West watch a film where Rambo assisted local guerrillas resisting an invader who instead of using Hind gunships operated Predator drones, who were not armed with AK-74s but M4s? Would this still be the same movie, or would it be a terrorist propaganda piece? Would it defy the cultural narrative? Could it ever be digestible with the right casting? Would Rambo still be a hero doing the same thing as he did in the 1980s there but now?
The Chris Kyle biopic starring talented actor Bradley Cooper was one that showed how omissions and charismatic casting could over rule ugly characteristics and reality. The Kyle in the film is a different man to the one inside the autobiography. One is a loyal soldier and family man who is trapped in a profession that is driven by a noble need to protect and avenge the attacks of 2001. The other is a killer, who brags, fabricates, exaggerates and celebrates war and the mayhem of his profession. One is the real world of war, the other a tragic hero. Regardless the real Kyle was a hero in the minds of many and the war that he fought was one of nationalist writ, a right of a superpower to exert itself as it pleases with its own self interest in mind. Though more complex at first glance than the John Rambo in ‘First Blood’, Kyle is in fact more boorish and simplistic than even the Rambo in the sequels. Popcorn chewing audiences would often not dare to compare the two, as one is a relic the other is a swarthy man of the era of the war on terror. Yet the fictional Rambo likely never murdered unlike Kyle who seemed to relish in it. In both the book and the film Kyle along with his nation cite revenge as their motivation for a second war on Iraq. Yet an explanation as to how Iraq’s dictatorship was responsible for such an attack is never given, it is merely an assumed known.
Inside the film are the gritty examples of combat, confusing and violent. Among the urban sprawls of the desert nation of Iraq the people appear as different as though it could be set on Tatooine. Cooper’s Kyle is in conflict at times as his finger rests on the trigger, when a young boy nearly raises an assault rifle for example reluctance is shown, yet the Kyle of the book would never be in doubt. And likely was not. The insurgents are evil, an example is used where one deplorable human uses an electric hand drill to penetrate the skulls of those captured. A horrific way to murder someone. Such screen moments can help to secure the viewer in supporting Kyle and his comrades as they fight a war against such evil men. Except in real life, the man wielding the drill was an ally, an American supported murderer. Yet, this would be complicated to reveal in the film as the true reality of conflict spews with many colours, all of them bloody. Kyle would not seem as noble providing over watch for such a man as he performed such executions, perhaps the viewers would see him in a different light, then again nationalism is a powerful thing. Kyle likely in his mind and inside the film’s narrative was pursuing revenge for 2001, the intent is all that matters for many who fly the flag high.
What is Justice?
Revenge is powerful, the genre of films will go on for as long as movies exist. It is a fantasy that resonates with many but what is the real tipping point that most people would experience before they fulfilled the drive to live revenge. Many boast that if someone defiled their children or even in the case of Wick their dog that they would destroy or harm that person or people and yet often as we see in the real world many are impotent in the moments where such a horrible experience arise. Sure, some do take revenge in the moment or hunt the killer or rapist down and exact justice, but these are rare. Instead many are forced to cuckold justice to the state, they are then helpless in their voyeurism as professionals often with indifference go through the motions or with sincere intent pursue a sanctioned form of justice on not the victim’s behalf but societies. The punishment is seldom fulfilling. We are told justice is blind, yet in the hands of the State it is often shown to be arbitrary and deviant.
But what if the rapist of your child or their killers was not a lone individual or even a pack of gang banging thugs but instead uniformed agents of a national government? What if it was an organisation of highly trained professionals who whether in defiance of apparent laws and conduct of war destroyed everything you loved and held dear? What if they did it with the full legalese of governments? Would it matter. Somehow, we live in a World where one could tell a story of intimate savagery, where a child is ripped apart or ravaged with every instant being an experience of sheer terror, painful shame and endless fright until death snatched them away. If it was a single man who did this, a Bundy or Gacy type figure then their name would be held pariah for all eternity. They would be for the most part hated and doomed to judgement and at the end of every imaginations target for revenge. What if instead of distant oriental My Lai it was the familiar warmth of your local town that suffered such an atrocity? What if it was your baby that was burned when a grenade was thrown inside its cot? Your city blown to pieces by phosphorous, napalm, depleted uranium and high explosives? What if it was your mother mauled by a dog as she emptied her garbage? Those who would seek revenge would be labelled terrorists and outlaws. Those implementing the misery and pain would be protected.
It is with the nameless group of trained men and women who are instrumental agents of government who do violate the innocent, absent of wide spread indignation of the public. No matter how vile and vicious the many examples of murder, rape and misery that truly does exist in the now and the past most will shrug and claim with some vapid morality that bad things simply happen in war. Even if no war is declared, even if no resistance was met. Somehow through the majesty of a religious obedience and desire for a simplistic idealism most subvert any claimed morality and allow it to happen. And when those who do dare to resist, those who should fall into a frenzy of vengeance then they are seen not as the heroic star of action vengeance but are instead dangerous criminals. John Wick would be a Most Wanted poster fiend despised by all. The heroic thin blue line is thick and deep inside the minds of most. It constricts any reason or moral principles allowing only an asphyxiated bias to reach their thoughts. For the victims it is a lifetime of fermented agony, those inside the nations of power it is but a moment in history often forgotten.
It is complicated, not all cops and soldiers are murdering, rapists because some have and do. Yet, all gang bangers are tarred by the same brush as those inside their organisation. Is it the declared mission statement and belief in a benevolence that such government entities do or should provide, regardless of consistent infractions and errs. Yet how does this desire to do good transcend cynical professionalism, mercenary obedience or corruption? When is righteous violence against such purveyors of violence justified? It is the mask that central authority wears, beneath it is an imperfect face of millions. Confused, contradictive, vile, sincere, altruistic, malicious but always coercive. Those wronged can only see the mask, the veil of authority, the uniform. The symbol. Not the individual. For Wick every henchman was the enemy. Bronson every punker and Rambo every Soviet a bastard, even the conscripted teens.
Perhaps the quote from the film Street Fighter when Chung Li finally confronts the man she has spent most of her years pursuing for vengeance is apt. Not just for a criminal mastermind warlord like Bison but such a disregard is found in the many national governments, their agents, policy makers, pundits and wider public have when it comes to the plight of the victim. Chun Li begins “ It was twenty years ago. You hadn’t promoted yourself to general yet. You were just a petty drug lord. Huh! You and your gang of murderers gathered your small ounce of courage to raid across the border for food… weapons… Slave labor. My father was the village magistrate. A simple man with a simple code: justice. He gathered the few people that he could to stand against you. You and your bullies were driven back by farmers with pitchforks! My father saved his village at the cost of his own life. You had him shot as you ran away! A hero… at a thousand paces.”
Bison indifferent in his reply “I’m sorry. I don’t remember any of it.”
Shocked Chun Li asks, “You don’t remember?”
“For you, the day Bison graced your village was the most important day of your life. But for me, it was Tuesday.” And with that Bison is smug and honest. He could encapsulate entire nations with their inability to recall any history of consequence. The Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Iraq, Honduras, Nicaragua, and so on the history is not merely Tuesday but every lasting.
Bison employed henchman, he was a warlord that had seized power. Much like the examples given in Rothbard’s Anatomy of the State, it would be with time that he should become a legitimate and accepted leader of a region or nation. Or he should be toppled and punished. Those who served him likely would become absorbed in the new regime. They were after all just doing their job, obeying orders. If a soldier or a police officer is just doing a job or obeying orders absent any personal moral responsibility, then what makes them any different to a henchman who is hired to perform a task. Assuming the henchman is as human as those shown in Austin Powers, they act with a mercenary’s interest to perform tasks only with money and perhaps a lifestyle in mind. The loyalty that they exhibit can be as strong as a uniformed agent feels or expresses for their agency or nation, the outcome which is all that matter may remain the same. Is it then just for a wronged individual, some one truly wronged, to mow through the henchman as John Wick did if all were employed by the government? Not some rogue government agency but the legal ruling authority of the land. If that same entity acted with all the real world callous and maliciousness of professional indifference that we see often, could the viewing public feel a solidarity? Would the tax paying and voting public enable or support such a man even if the entire legal world was against him despite the cause he fights for? Is it possible to empathise, is it even legal in our day and age to ask such a question without some how being deemed one that is inciting some form of violence or hate? What is the context that validates one form of murder of innocence over another? What would truly satisfy blind justice in this reality?
Revenge is powerful, not merely in fiction. It is powerful on this Earth. Inside the abstract mindset the firebombing and atomic destruction of cities was somehow a justifiable act of vengeance for the attacks on Pearl Harbour. It happens daily on a personal level whether it is petty or extreme. Grudges can last decades and the fuel that one can experience from being wronged will carry them deep and far into the night of hatred. It is also called Blowback. The response and unintended consequences of policy. It is the righteous hatred that entire regions experience for decades after the cheers of jingoists have moved on to the next nationalist expression. It is the most powerful recruitment device for even the vilest ideologies and movements. It helped the swell the ranks of Bolshevism and Nazism, the violent Anarchists in Europe and throughout the Spanish civil war, to every terror organisation that is viewed in the perspective positive to those viewed as negative. The 2001 attacks on the US by Al Qaeda, itself an act of vengeance helped to spurn a reaction that invigorated not just a nation but an alliance of Western nations into vengeful invasions deemed righteous. A foreign policy of revenge. On and on goes the cycle, the innocents die and in turn those who grieve overcome their sorrow with hatred, anyone with vengeful passions will seek to exert that hatred, whether it is with stones, slurs or a suicide vest. If the idea of someone you love being tortured, raped, mangled and murdered turns your stomach then imagine what it must be like to those who experience it daily, often in your name.
Kym Robinson, Feb 2019