Martial arts trends of the ‘70s and early ‘80s temporarily rescued Hollywood’s dispossessed hero from his post-Vietnam ressentiment. If nefarious government officials betrayed him, he could always reclaim his soul in some Tibetan monastery (like Rambo) or at the local dojo (like Chuck Norris or Steven Seagal’s characters). Of course, orientalist excursions are just pretexts for the white man’s wanton violence (how long could Rambo stand a monkish hermitage?). The only exception I can recall is the Chuck Norris vehicle Good Guys Wear Black (1979), whose uniquely ethical climax features not spent bullets or brandished fists but a ten-minute lecture on the bloody exigencies of Kissingerian realpolitik. Militarism, claiming countless ingenuous soldiers, is properly identified as the villain—but who is John T. Booker if not a militarist?
Though it’s commonplace to dismiss Wilhelm Reich’s direct equations between sexual and political repressions, our erotophobic, Christianized mythologies tend to prove his point. Misanthropic Dirty Harry must be the most sexually repressed hero Hollywood ever devised, and Californian men of action usually suffer from divorce or marital estrangement (a lá Die Hard). Of course, it’s true that the “European” strain of heroism—Don Juanism—also infects Hollywood men, and ritual heterosexual conquests are part and parcel of his charisma. But the erotic swagger of the urban gangster, the Bondian spy, or the blaxploitation hero hides the residue of the primitive hero’s feral nature and romantic untenability, now writ large as cosmopolitan superheroism.
Indeed, his hypersexuality appends to a loneliness that desperately substitutes known sexual penetrations for unknown societal ones, and his calculus of conquests demonstrates not romantic viability but the fact that there’s one thing from which he isn’t alienated—his heterosexuality. Even if he draws alleged power from a promiscuous heterosexuality more vitalizing than that degraded by the bourgeois institution of marriage, he always displaces his true orgasm to spasms of exceptional violence. Such is the 12-year-old’s bravado.
This lineage of sociopathy ends with Taxi Driver (1976), which allows the disillusioned hero the (somewhat comic) opportunity to re-enter society without entirely abandoning his disillusionment. Travis Bickle is a “clownish” sociopathic because he is apparently unaware of his own asociality; nonetheless, we suspect that his alienation is only symptomatic of general urban despair and debauchery. Unable to relate sexually to the liberated working woman of the ‘70s (as portrayed by Cybill Shepherd), he seeks redemption in bloodily rescuing an underage prostitute, whose biological age of about 12 is comparable to Bickle’s own mental age.
After he plays superhero and cathartically slaughters her pimps, the film decides he’s been redeemed, especially after he attempts and fails suicide (all his bullets have been justly spent). He realizes his apparent psychopathy has only been sociopathy—that is, his madness is only an artifact of social malaise. After his little catharsis, he, an egoist but not an egomaniac, realizes in the film’s coda that he can live with his smallness, as he chauffeurs around Cybill Shepherd without a trace of psychotic resentment. In this, Taxi Driver is unusual for Scorsese, as the egomaniacal male heroes of Raging Bull (1980), Goodfellas (1989), and The Aviator (2004), tormented by fears of insignificance, spiral downwards into paranoia, never achieving closure.
Thus far, we’ve discussed only mainstream currents in Hollywood to avoid overambition and overgeneralization (though I’m already guilty of the latter). Certainly, the heroic masculinity at stake in Hollywood’s action film manifests differently in the martial arts film, which traditionally has afforded women equal participation in violent contests.
Chang Pei Pei was arguably cinema’s first truly great heroine, though in King Hu’s Come Drink with Me (1965), her heroine, “Golden Swallow”, must alternate between male dress as a public swordswoman and eroticized female attire in the boudoir, in typical Mulan fashion. In Chang Cheh’s sequel Golden Swallow (1968), the heroine’s estranged beloved, Silver Roc (an intense Wang Yu), finds succor in brothels when he cannot face his love lost.
Critic Stephen Teo sees Wang Yu’s performance as Chinese cinema’s first psychological (that is, neurotic) characterization of the martial hero, torturously torn between disposable whores and Golden Swallow’s untouchable purity. (Stephen Teo, Hong Kong Cinema: The Extra Dimensions, British Film Institute, 1996, 100.)From the perspective of Hollywood, the non-neurotic Come Drink with Me is perhaps more instructive: like King Hu’s A Touch of Zen (1969) and Raining on the Mountain (1978), it foregoes conventional romantic relationships and places male and female heroes within a Buddhistic or Taoistic worldview that transcends mundane psychologizing.
The rejection of materiality—Taoistic or otherwise—is not likely to inform Hollywood ideology, but our filmic machismo has had to confront the slow victory of liberalism. In 1971, the year politically correct Billy Jack was Hollywood’s top box-office earner, Dirty Harry despondently tossed his badge into the river. The world was progressing in all the wrong directions, and Harry was too resolute to remain complicit in an emasculated legal system. But the call of the box office was re-masculinization enough, and by repelling San Francisco’s terroristic homosexuals in both Magnum Force (1973) and The Enforcer (1976), he reclaimed a potency not entirely housed in his magnum.
In the ‘70s, the threat of homosexual agitation was quite enough to trigger re-illusionment. I’m not sure where audiences’ illusions are today, but Hollywood has surprisingly done little to change the ideology of its heroes, who are more or less glorified policemen. Out of political necessity, ‘70s blaxploitation films emphasized the oppressiveness of police, often elevating the character of the corrupt cop from a minor plot complication to the primary villain (e.g., Black Caesar, 1973). Miraculously, Hollywood still produces nostalgic cop spectacles and closure-friendly police procedurals—fewer than were made in previous decades, but they still trudge on.
Even the white bourgeoisie, however, no longer believes the police are magnificent, deserving of Hollywood’s multimillion-dollar propaganda. Detective stories feed on our desire to rationally uncover truths, yes, but at least Sherlock Holmes was a doper, a musician, a narcissist, and an independent contractor—who wants a detective beholden to officialdom? As American courts are now determined to humanize corporations and dehumanize actual humans, one would imagine a genre extolling legality would cease to exist, or at best become a masochistic experience for the audience.
On occasion, the cop undergoes a transformative consciousness-raising, realizing he is not a municipal paladin but an Orwellian cog or simple dupe. An unusual instance of heroic-legal consciousness-raising is offered by Kuei Chi-hung’s Killer Constable (1980), an ultimately ethical wuxia from a director better known (in the West, anyway) for moody horrors (e.g., Ghost Eyes, 1974, and Hex, 1980). The film’s hero is a secret chief of security during the Qing Dynasty, shortly after the suppression of the Taiping Rebellion. Because the central government is still weakened and afraid to lose face in front of Western observers, Qing officials authorize the hero to use every treachery to recover stolen royal loot.
His ruthlessness far outstrips that of any Schwarzeneggerian bully or dutiful wuxia hero, as he executes unarmed, wounded prisoners and even orders a man decapitated before his wife. When one of his followers suggests helping some emaciated peasants in a godforsaken village, the hero unthinkingly toes a partisan line: “They are Hans,” he says, “and we are Manchus…we cannot interfere with politics.”
However, his most loyal follower insists he harbors a conscience: “His emotions are like his sword, hidden deep beneath its sheath.” The hidden heart is revealed slowly; though he fulfills the final wish of an official crucified by Han bandits by delivering a coup de grâce, he is unmoved by the official’s admonition to treat the bandits humanely. After much bloodshed, the hero discovers the actual thief is the very Manchu Lord who initiated his mission.
Like the contemporary American hero awakened to the immorality of Vietnam, the Killer Constable finally wields his violence conscientiously, taking revenge on Manchu instigators who used him as a decoy. A tragic ending sees the belatedly enlightened hero slain by a final act of government treachery, and he remains unable to fulfill an earlier promise to a rival swordsman, who had begged him to care for his blind—and metaphorically apolitical—daughter.
Though simple, Killer Constable’s narrative of ethical tragedy remains anomalous. Demonstrating the genesis of heroism, the film takes great pains to explicate the political disillusionment Vietnam-haunted films such as Missing in Action (1984), Rambo (1985), or Above the Law (1988) relegate to backstory. Yet Killer Constable is more ethical than its Hollywood analogues because the hero’s charisma and timely epiphany do not exempt him from being punished for his complicity in state-sponsored atrocities. Nevertheless, Killer Constable is ensconced within tragedy, and its didacticism depends upon chastening heroic hubris. But what if hubris and tragic aesthetics are ignored entirely?
John Cassavetes offered a more audacious rebellion against the cult of heroism in The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1975), which goes the Takeshi Kitano-Johnnie To cult of genre irony one better. Here, Cassavetes doesn’t merely play with genre conventions but disregards them entirely, favoring his trademark improvisation over generic notions of honor or immutable fate.
After suffering wounds during the titular assassination, Ben Gazzara’s nightclub-owner-turned hitman stumbles about the city, and we wonder how tragic, nihilistic, or simply pointless his end will be. But Cassavetes disregards any generic comeuppance or catharsis. As the wounded Gazzara returns to his club, he joins his clownish performers onstage for a perhaps final, joyous hurrah. If Gilberto Perez is correct to see Gazzara’s character not as a misguided hero but as “a figure of the director” whose control of the nightclub stage parallels Cassavetes’ own auteurism, the final nightclub scene accrues more subversive meanings. (Perez, “Imperfection”, Senses of Cinema, September 2001) As Gazzara takes to the stage in death-defying revelry, the film doubly reveals the clownishness of its murderous hero and the burlesque of noir’s masculine, gun-slinging charades, all of them a self-conscious, staged performance.
Auteurism has the advantage of sabotage, but what films truly—yes, the key word is “truly”—subvert genre from within, without self-reflexive gamesmanship? I’ll close with one such film, Peter Hyams’ Busting (1974), a mostly forgotten ‘70s artifact that takes heroic disillusionment surprisingly seriously and unforgivingly. Its jokey cynicism tempered by attempted realism, Busting is perhaps unique as an “anti-buddy film”, a narrative impossible in the Hollywood of today. Hardly more than a decade later, Hyams would reconstruct the archetypal buddy film as Running Scared (1986), whose partnered cop heroes initially question a bureaucratic legal system only to rediscover the glories of upholding the Reaganite war on drugs.
Deliberately and even satirically deglamorized, Busting offers its heroes (Elliot Gould and Robert Blake) no chance for re-illusionment, yet it also concludes with a strange optimism that transcends the defeatist tendencies of Sidney Lumet’s anti-establishment diatribes. For much of the film’s running time, Busting is an unusually slick policier with mild social commentary, mainly remarkable for some of the longest, nimblest tracking shots since Welles’ Touch of Evil (1958). Gould and Blake play vice cops dehumanized by the injustices their job entails, entrapping whores and harassing patrons at a gay bar. Though their faces register resentment, they still labor under a false consciousness, believing their work is part of a larger, invisible justice.
In the film’s second half, however, a drug kingpin they trail begins to lecture them with the truth: “You think you’re doing something by arresting ten-dollar hookers and beating up on faggots…you think you’re Captain Marvel.” They stalk him, deliberately humiliating him at every turn, but the audience realizes the villain is correct—the heroes are essentially lowly enforcers of a fascistic order.
After a final car chase, the villain is disarmed and Gould has him at gunpoint, in a standard “Dirty Harry moment”, in which the hero either ascends to vigilantism or succumbs to an impotent system incapable of delivering justice. But the film does something unexpected. We cut to a close-up of Gould. Then suddenly the credits roll, and over a freeze frame we hear Gould’s disembodied voice explaining to an employment office worker that he needs to change his life. Dirty Harry tosses his badge because the system is ineffectual; Gould’s character comes to the greater realization that, for all its uniformed heroism, policing is not chivalry but quotidian treachery. The villain’s fate is unknown and irrelevant, as the hero’s consciousness-raising renders moot any conventional notions of closure.
Most importantly, as the credits roll, we hear only Gould’s voice in the unemployment office, not Blake’s—apparently only Gould’s character has abandoned policing, and Hyams thus dissolves the customarily inviolable bond through which partnered male heroes enable one another’s fascistic abuses. In 1974, Busting already had concluded that genres professing “professional” masculinity were bankrupt. Why should we continue to insist otherwise?