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Killer Elite

On some level, even the least sophisticated moviegoers realize that what they see when they watch a violent movie is representation, not reality. How they respond depends on how much violence they've experienced in real life, their religious and philosophical beliefs and a number of other personal factors. Yet ultimately, each time a viewer draws a line and says, "I will accept exactly this much bloodshed in entertainment and no more," it's for the same reason: because the film in question has not established a clear artistic context for the violence it portrays. When a film establishes a moral and artistic framework for its violence, it can take you anywhere and show you anything. You may not like what you see, but you can appreciate that there's genuine thought behind it.

Though countless filmmakers have lifted Peckinpah's violent visuals, they've often done so without thinking very hard about where those images came from, about the demons that drove a lonely, alcoholic, pill-popping, womanizing, manic-depressive ex-Marine to come up with a new way of looking at violence, arguing about it and dreaming about it.

In the Rambo films, for instance, Peckinpah-style violence is trotted out like a fashion accessory; there's nothing in them to indicate an ambivalence about violence, or even that their scenes of graphic bloodshed are intended to provoke any thought at all. In The Terminator, at least one serious aspect of Peckinpah's violence is being evoked -- the part that reminds us of the fragility of human bodies, and how helpless they are in the face of deadly technology. But because the film is a comic-book thrill ride, its violence is ultimately more a matter of style than world-view.

Other times, the invocation of Peckinpah is a bit more thought provoking. In Hard Boiled, John Woo infuses comic book characters and situations with an operatic level of emotion, and when he borrows from Peckinpah, he puts his own stamp on everything he takes. The bloody violence is torqued up to insanely high levels because the filmmaker wants to give us a wild, orgasmic release -- an epic catharsis that can do justice to his brooding heroes and villains. In Reservoir Dogs, the much-discussed cop torture sequence gives us a voyeuristic thrill, yet at the same time it makes us deeply uncomfortable. It makes us feel both giddy and repulsed.

But here's the caveat: as occasionally brilliant as Peckinpah borrowers such as Woo and Quentin Tarantino can be, there's nothing truly dangerous about their movies, nothing that forces you to look within yourself after the final credit has faded and question who you are, what you believe and whether you, too, would be willing to kill to defend a lifestyle, a friend or an idea. With someone such as Tarantino, sincerity and passion simply aren't part of the picture. It's revealing to note that his movies, especially Pulp Fiction, are most often discussed not in terms of emotion and meaning, but "outrageousness" and "audacity" -- as if the notion of treating pain and death as a sight gag was no more or less disturbing than dying your hair orange or eating pizza for breakfast. There's something secondhand and safe about the violence in Pulp Fiction. As gory and nasty as it is, it feels abstracted, even playful.

This quality is what makes Tarantino such a poor subject for debates about movie violence. Arguing the possible effects of the mayhem showcased in Pulp Fiction -- or the latest Steven Seagal movie, for that matter -- is like debating the effects of the dance numbers in Oklahoma!. What you're debating is the ratio of an ingredient in a film recipe, struggling to decide whether the artist used too much spice or not enough.

But other kinds of movie violence spring from a primal artistic impulse that can't be laughed at or shaken off. This kind of violence -- Peckinpah's kind of violence -- comes from the friction created by an artistic mind struggling to resolve profound contradictions. The demons wrestling inside a filmmaker create sparks that rise up, catch fire and consume the boundaries of the screen. The violence of The Wild Bunch comes from the national agonies of World War II and Korea and Vietnam, and from sudden, shocking eruptions of domestic savagery, on city streets and inside darkened bedrooms. That violence is still with us today. It's everywhere. It's hanging in the muggy night air as bored, armed teenagers from impoverished households struggle to find a way to feel like men. It's clinging to the portals of helicopter gunships and aircraft carriers and the handgrips of U.N. rifles and police-issue billy clubs. It's like a poisonous fungus forever in need of sustenance, forever moving and reproducing, finding new host bodies in new generations of human life.

In The Wild Bunch, Sam Peckinpah captures the deep-rooted human need to lash out savagely, projects it out over our heads in color, in stereo, and lets it hang there and wriggle in space.

The filmmaker's alter ego, Pike Bishop, the homicidal antihero of The Wild Bunch played by William Holden, carries himself like a man who's been staring at that wriggling vision his whole life. But he keeps moving, thinking and acting, delighting us and appalling us. We're never asked to look at him with either sympathy or scorn, just to look at him, to feel what he feels and to consider the fate of the society that produced him.

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