Violence, Masculinity, and the Action Film: 3:10 to Yuma vs. Shoot ‘em Up

September has been a rough month for the cinema.  More specifically, it’s been an extraordinarily violent month.  Kicking off with Rob Zombie’s nasty, mean-spirited “re-imagining” of Halloween, the end of summer has been a dreary trudge through the annals of infantile nihilism translated to the screen in the form of sympathetic killers (the aforementioned Halloween, 3:10 to Yuma), angry gun-toting antiheroes (War, Shoot ‘em Up), and desperate avenging angels (the vigilantes of Death Sentence and The Brave One). 

Collectively, these films have made around $150 million, so far.  Violence in American cinema is anything but new; however, the films listed are unique in that each has an unusually cynical bent, and each has a thematic mirror.  Zombie manages to make Michael Myers the new face of martyrdom (an accomplishment both conceptually ridiculous and morally repugnant), while James Mangold’s Western throwback Yuma asks the audience to be charmed by and even root for a heartless killer who possesses the charisma and capacity for pure evil of Lucifer himself. 

War seems to be another convoluted Asian-by-way-of-Hollywood actioner that continues the trend of music video directors effectively destroying the action film with MTV editing and ADD storytelling, while Shoot ‘em Up both gleefully basks in and mercilessly satirizes the very same genre.  More troubling are Death Sentence and The Brave One, two movies with protagonists who effectively become serial killers in the process of avenging the senseless murders of loved ones.
A more elusive parallel can be drawn between Shoot ‘em Up and 3:10 to Yuma, two sensationally violent, overtly masculine throwbacks to a pre-pc era that simultaneously criticize and wallow in a morally ambiguous milieu of kill-or-be-killed heroism and glorified cynicism.  They opened on September 7th.

Upon first glace, the two could not be further removed from one another. However, both have a preoccupation with romanticizing violence as a masculine art form.  They also share the regrettable flaw of pretending to be at least somewhat socially responsible by injecting messages that seem to contradict the films’ desire for visceral impact (although how guilty Shoot ‘em Up is of this is open to interpretation).  Of the two, 3:10 to Yuma fares better artistically, but is ultimately less admirable in the way it dresses up its bloodlust with murky 21st Century moral relativism.  Regardless, it’s an energetic homage to the old-school western (fittingly, it’s based on a short story by Elmore Leonard that was previously adapted for the screen in 1957, in the western’s heyday) that attempts to capture the archetypes and trappings of a genre that is uniquely American in origin. 

It opens with an attack on a homestead, the starting point for what eventually leads to rancher Dan Evans (Christian Bale) escorting outlaw Ben Wade (Russell Crowe) to a far off train station where Wade will be taken to prison.  The dichotomy between these two characters is at the heart of Yuma.  Evans is failing as a provider to his family; he owes money to creditors, he lost a leg in the civil war so his physical authority has all but vanished, and his wife and son both seem to loathe him.  Wade, on the other hand, is charming and generous, intellectually and physically foreboding, and evil to the core.  The film’s main flaw is in its obvious admiration for Wade.  The moral strength of Evans is undermined by a constant focus on Wade’s good points. He’s generous. He’s charming. He’s loyal. He abides by his own code of honor. Women love him. Boys want to be him.  But he’s also a selfish, manipulative, unremorseful thief and murderer.  The film’s downfall isn’t that it chooses to focus on the positive side of Wade, but that it pretends to posit moral dilemmas and questions of right and wrong between Wade and Evans, while thinly and unsuccessfully disguising its obsession with the amoral Peckinpah aesthetic of “violence = masculine”.

Shoot ‘em Up may be, artistically speaking, the lesser of the two films, but it is infinitely more fun and consistently, wildly, utterly tasteless.  Like Yuma, it takes a que from Sam Peckinpah (albeit in a much shallower, cosmetic sense), and basks in its gratuitous, violent masculinity.  However, while the safe Yuma reeks of self-appointed prestige and importance, Shoot ‘em Up gleefully makes a point of offending every sensibility known to man in its short 87 minute run-time.

The plot is brief and to the point: Mr. Smith (Clive Owen) must protect a baby while an army of gangsters attempt to kill both him and the child.  The film opens with Smith delivering the baby in a hail of gunfire (he shoots the umbilical chord).  What follows is one outrageous set piece after another; a gunfight while having sex (literally), a gunfight while falling from an airplane, a gunfight in a gun factory, the list goes on.  Bloggers have jokingly referred to it as “action porn”, and, the truth is, that’s exactly what it is.  Director Michael Davis makes absolutely no attempt to dress up or disguise anything; the title says it all.  Still, Davis manages, however absurdly, to insert a preposterous pro gun control message into a film otherwise devoid of real-world values.  Whether the political subtext is sincere or ironic is anyone’s guess; both would make sense.  Regardless, it bogs down a story that is otherwise delightfully lacking in substance.  

Of the two films, 3:10 to Yuma will be the unequivocal success.  It’s nicer, prettier, more eloquent.  It’s the mannered ego to Shoot ‘em Up’s maniacal, lumbering id. It’s also manipulative, pretentious, and ultimately empty.  Shoot ‘em Up may be empty as well, but at least it’s self-aware.