Fantasy fascism: how to enjoy action films, despite the politics

Taken 3
Taken 3

The Bemolution ended up watching Taken 3 in a Peckham cinema to numb the pain of a particularly trying day-visit to London.

We could’ve watched award-festooned Stephen Hawking biopic The Theory of Everything. We could’ve watched Benjamin Cabbagepatch-starring Alan Turing-focused historical thriller The Imitation Game. But we didn’t, because we have absolutely no taste – and very little interest – in films.

It was distracting, brain-stupefying trash – precisely the kind of cultural output we usually lambast for infantilising whole generations, but hypocritically lap up, in small, strictly-rationed doses at least. Essentially, it’s two hours of wish-fulfilment for aging mid-life crisis survivors, seeing near-sexagenarian Liam Neeson beat (younger) people up, shoot people, torture people, drive fast cars and evade death in ways the film eventually gives up on even trying to explain. It’s dumb, disposable, illogical fun.

Later the same week, gently toasting by a rattling fan heater one evening back in Somerset, we watched 1973’s Magnum Force – the second to star Clint Eastwood as fascist supercop “Dirty” Harry Callahan. Equally violent, even more ethically dubious, and even more fun – an old favourite of ours, in fact.

But both films are politically horrible. So how is it possible to still enjoy them? By switching off the critical bit of your brain and just plonking yourself in front of them, is the short answer.

But even as you do that, there’s another very, very important something you also have to cling to or risk being swayed by bludgeoning right-wingery – the fact that these films aren’t set in the real world, and the things that happen in them, the kinds of values and practices that are celebrated in them, don’t work in the real world.

The Taken series is steeped in macho, action movie-standard ‘me-and-my-family’ politics – a sort of hard-right hyper-individualism. Because the bad guys have taken his daughter or killed his ex-wife, Liam Neeson’s Bryan Mills can do whatever the hell he likes to bring the perpetrators to justice, and feel blazingly righteous doing it. We all root for him as he has gunfights in public places, causes explosions, and triggers lethal motorway pile-ups. If this was the real world, he’d easily have killed more people than the villains he’s pursuing. And in 3, after murdering a half-dozen (admittedly armed) Russians in a private apartment, the police just let him go.

The Dirty Harry films are even more basic. Clint Eastwood rumbles through them as unstoppably as a glacier. He’s good, the baddies are irredeemably bad, and with his iconic 44. Magnum – firing rounds designed for hunting, and known to have successfully offed polar bears and elephants – he casually ragdolls every impoverished inner-city ne’er-do-well who crosses his path. (Magnum Force was actually intended as a step-back from the out-and-out fascist vigilantism of the first film. Eastwood, then a fluffy Democrat rather than the crusty empty chair-debating Republican he’d later become, was eager to show that there were lines Callahan wouldn’t cross, hence the story about a secret police death squad too dirty for Harry.)

But like so many of the films and franchises that followed its lead, Taken included, the Dirty Harry series takes place in a fictional universe where the agonisingly complex social and moral problems humanity faces in the real world can be blown away with immensely satisfying brute force. And it’s rollickingly good fun. It’s escapism – giving our poor, addled ape brains a break from all that churning, scary, indecipherably complicated reality. We shut off and get whisked to worlds where things are refreshingly straightforward for a bit. The problem arises when people began to take the escapism seriously – to see it as a template for how to deal with those same social and moral problems in the real world.

British comic book character Judge Dredd – a fascistic law-man operating in a dystopian future – is clearly largely based on Dirty Harry. If you read interviews with his creators, it’s clear that Dredd was intended as a satire on the increasingly authoritarian bent of both fictional and real-world law enforcement throughout the 1970s. Those same creators were understandably appalled, then, when they began to receive fan mail calling for his brand of authoritarian judge-jury-and-executioner policing to be introduced in the real world.

People are often surprised to hear that The Bemolution owns every single series of American counter-terrorism drama 24 on DVD. Much in the manner of a modern-day Dirty Harry, lead character Jack Bauer frequently clashes with lily-livered bureaucrats who dislike his uncompromising methods – which include routinely torturing suspects for information.

In Taken 3, Bryan Mills nonchalantly water-boards the lead baddie, in what we’ll readily admit was the most unpleasant thing we’ve seen on film for a long time. Later, he vindictively presses his pistol barrel into the gunshot wound of an ailing foe to make him talk.

Now, torture works splendidly as a dramatic device. It immediately ups the stakes – when the audience sees the ‘good’ guys resorting to it, you know things are getting really serious. But in the real world, it’s a) horrific, and b) doesn’t work. People will confess to anything under torture. It’s notoriously unreliable. Torturers commit war crimes and get little or nothing of worth in return.

Nut-shelled, that’s the problem. Lengthy police investigations don’t make for satisfying escapist films. Pain-staking, compassionate social work doesn’t make for satisfying escapist films. Senseless violence does. It’s entirely possible to have a healthy enjoyment of action cinema, despite its Neanderthal politics – as long as you realise that said Neanderthal politics is completely incompatible with the complexities and ambiguities of the real world.