Payback films pay off big

Less than an hour into "Man on Fire," Denzel Washington's new film, a friend describes Washington's character by saying that "death is [his] art form and he's getting ready to paint his masterpiece."

The former government assassin is preparing to launch a bloody killing spree as revenge for the murder of a little girl he had been hired to keep safe.

The Oscar winner joins what has now become a steady parade of killers ("Kill Bill"), former government agents ("The Punisher"), and old-fashioned sheriffs ("Walking Tall") who are gracing national movie screens this spring in a veritable stampede of vengeance.

Last weekend was payback time at the box office, with two revenge pictures - "Kill Bill Vol. 2" and "The Punisher" - in the top two slots.

Stars with pedigrees as varied as Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson and Uma Thurman are jostling to prove who's the baddest, the bloodiest, and the best at taking the law into his or her own hands.

This return of the private justice theme appears unsatisfied by even Old Testament maxims. "An eye for an eye" is no longer good enough - in addition to the eye, they also take out the opthamologist, his assistant, and all their close family relations. (And these are the good guys.)

On the one hand, it's easy to suggest that these films are simply a response to the national mood following the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

After all, a project takes about two years to go from idea to the multiplex, so the movie math is pretty obvious. It was reported that Disney's Michael Eisner hoped "The Alamo" would benefit from a post-9/11 patriotism (it doesn't appear to have done so - the movie is one of the few revenge-themed flicks to flop, taking in only $16 million so far).

But a few cultural observers suggest that there is more to this relish for destruction - a deeper zeitgeist, one full of a fatalism and obsession with death that veers into nihilism.

"These films are symptomatic of a civilization that seems to be insisting on its own annihilation," says Christopher Sharrett, professor of communications at Seton Hall University.

While Professor Sharrett targets director Quentin Tarantino in particular, he says that none of these films shows any empathy for human beings. The consequence, he says, leads to a state of schadenfreude, the German term for "the idea of joy in the suffering of others, including self-destruction. It's a very dangerous tendency."

This month's films share another tendency: three out of the four are remakes, and "Kill Bill," the lone original, references almost every grindhouse movie ever made. And each one has brought such realism to on-screen eye-gouging and finger-chopping that they would probably make Sam Peckinpah blanch.

While critics of the trend see the vigilante pictures as evidence of Hollywood's moral and creative impoverishment, the stars and filmmakers believe the movies satisfy an audience need and offer a redemptive message.

"Man on Fire" director Tony Scott recounts that at an early screening, the most enthusiastic supporters of the on-screen gore were women ages 18 to 34. "It's some maternal instinct thing," says Mr. Scott. "They appear to be getting great satisfaction from seeing violent justice for the terrible evils that have taken place."

Washington himself says his film is about redemption, not death. "There's a spiritual journey this guy takes," says the star. "He's a guy who's put pain on people, and he has to take that journey out of the darkness."

"The Punisher" star Thomas Jane told a group of cheering theater owners gathered in Las Vegas for the annual industry confab, ShoWest, that it was time for a such hero.

But others wonder if cartoon heroes who brush aside the rule of law is the image America wants to back right now.

"Society has a whole range of attitudes towards violence," says John Michalczyk, director of film studies at Boston College. "Some say it's therapeutic, but others say it's dangerous, because we get unthinking copycats. We need to be thinking about all these things. What message are we sending to ourselves and the rest of the world?"

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