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It’s been many years since I opened Leonard Maltin’s moldy Movie Guide—one outgrows the pettiness of “star” rating systems in post-adolescence, I should think—but one of its capsule reviews rattles in my memory. The reviewer of Ernest Dickerson’s Bulletproof, a 1996 action-buddy film reveling in routine male bonding and casual sadism, was perhaps unaware of the ramifications of his or her zero-star critique, but its main thrust could well undermine nearly every Hollywood genre film of the past three decades. It reads:   


A racial inversion of 48HRS, without the redeeming craft. Undercover cop [Daman] Wayans teams up with [Adam] Sandler, the crook he’s trying to bust. Their fortunes and ambitions are unified—often acrimoniously—by a vindictive drug kingpin/car dealer played by a pitifully hammy [James] Caan. Once great cinematographer Dickerson squanders his talent here directing a sociopathic mix of graphic violence and slapstick.


The word “sociopathic” hits hard, perhaps conspicuously so in a paperback elsewhere beholden to movie fantasies of puerile heroism and gross machismo. Bulletproof advances the usual Hollywood masculinity, embodied through conventions of law and order, death-defying gunplay, and sexist jesting. In the action film universe, subhuman stoicism masquerades as fearless superhumanity; anything resembling genuine emotion is a purely accidental detail, the result of human actors executing callous, committee-approved screenplays. Hollywood’s construct of masculinity is itself more or less sociopathic, or at least as demented as the average 12-year-old boy, drunk on his spiking testosterone. 


The reviewer, however, identifies sociopathy not in Hollywood’s conventions of masculinity but in the mixing of that masculinity (here signified by “graphic violence”) with buddy-buddy “slapstick”. The notion is immediately suspect—in fact, the subversive power of comedy might properly illegitimize violence, recuperating it as something other than banal machismo.


The Elizabethans certainly understood this: the farcical nature of Marlowe’s Jew of Malta (so emphasized by T.S. Eliot) mocks the overriding and useless notion of fate embedded in revenge tragedy, as does the preposterous violence of the Jacobean’s Bedlamite potboilers. In any case, the review’s necessary concision betrays some syntactic ambiguities. Is “sociopathic” an adjective easily excised, freeing us to praise certain non-sociopathic blends of clowning and atrocity? Likewise, if we remove “graphic” from “graphic violence”, does our spectatorship become less authentically deranged and more… Chaplinesque?


Undoubtedly, Chaplin loved his Tramp’s derangement, but we know that beneath his slapstick violence cries the call to pacifism finally explicated in Monsieur Verdoux (1947). More faithful derangement is rightly found in the animal torture of any Tom and Jerry cartoon—hence the bloody parody of The Simpsons’ “Itchy and Scratchy”, which supplants the cartoon cat’s Christlike immortality with splayed viscera.


But the lack of gore in mid-20th century cartoons—and mid-20th century cinema—normalizes rather than assuages their sociopathy. Nevertheless, we must exercise caution when attempting a cinematic morality, which, like the Chaplin of Monsieur Verdoux, risks pedantry and preachiness, and which will be rejected by culturalists regardless. Anyone who asks for a moral cinema surely knows nothing about cinema—and anyone who demands an ethical cinema surely knows nothing about ethics.


Using the word “sociopathic”, the Movie Guide reviewer obviously—if misguidedly—risks a highfalutin moral statement: violence is terribly tragic business, and camera-wielding, would-be nihilists who muck it up with comedy promulgate our multiplex epidemic of desensitization. To be fair, the reviewer uses the term “slapstick”, as opposed to more ethical forms of comedy (otherwise, “sociopathy” might be just code for a lack of realism). But surely this reviewer would approve of Bonnie and Clyde, whose then-startling mix of low comedy and blood squibs was part and parcel of anarchic antiwar sentiments circa 1967. Satirical violence, too, is necessarily justified, though the cruelty of Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket (1987) doesn’t necessarily make a deeper antiwar statement than the meditativeness of Ichikawa’s The Burmese Harp (1956).


If the Movie Guide reviewer seems naïve, it’s not because he has the audacity to be moral, but because his criticism implies that there is a noble violence that should remain pure, a conservative claim perhaps only Sophocles (but never Shakespeare) would support. Throughout the ‘70s, the sanctimonious film critic Pauline Kael used to pride herself on taking umbrage at cheap or easy violence; by the early ‘90s, critics realized the battle was long lost. The herd, in the shape of preadolescent boys, had in fact conquered American culture, and Hollywood needed to validate and venerate boys’ berserk gangsterism.


When a film of “thoughtful” violence emerges—say, the later-phase films of Eastwood or Spielberg or even Paul Thomas Anderson’s Hard Eight (1997)—it’s inevitably reactionary, rebuffing our culture of numbing, superficial irony with self-congratulatory descents into noirish ponderousness. Choosing between a sanctimonious violence and an ironic one is a beggar’s choice, and the beggar will doubtless refuse the piety of his superiors. Opting for the void, he only discovers…style.


Enmeshed in the “genre irony” of the films of Johnnie To and Takeshi Kitano, of Hideo Gosha’s Violent Streets (1974) and Seijun Suzuki’s Branded to Kill (1967), even of Godard’s Pierrot le Fou (1965) and John Huston’s Beat the Devil (1954), we forget that irony was once transcendentally Romantic. In their ironies, Goethe and Schiller were never nihilistic poseurs; if language on its face could not access truth, it had to be inverted and ironized, and in the literary spaces between language and its obverse stood not a void but a rickety door, seductively ajar.


The ironic genre film—take Takeshi Kitano’s once-influential Violent Cop (1989) and Sonatine (1993)—did away the door by replacing meaning with style and content with genre. Cinema began to believe it could only offer mirrors reflecting blindly inward, not windows overlooking uncramped vistas. We who worship the ways of undisciplined boys get what we deserve: the faceless tabula rasa we call style.   


Such is the state of cinema, but the ironies of hipster genre films are no match for those of commercial television, a shameful museum of unintended comic juxtaposition. Tonight the newsmen reported on Palestinian rockets flying over Israel and Israeli troops filling Palestinian children with bullets. Moments later a woman was trying to sell me a magical dust-collecting broom, and then coffee beans bounced in slow motion across a housewife’s spotlessly white countertops. I am then told that Taco Bell’s all-purpose meat slurry will be slid into a new sort of crispy shell. Then it’s back to a UN school on the West Bank, piled with corpses the media don’t deign to identify. Presumably undisciplined boys grow up to be errantly disciplined men.


Television’s crude juxtapositions inhibit rationality because they prohibit the possibility of synthesis. We are left with the irrationality—the childishness—of two adjacent monolectics deaf to each other’s screams, which is more or less the condition of warfare. The reviewer of Bulletproof takes offense at a perceived “excessive” synthesis of violence and comedy, but in fact the film ably segregates the two elements, such that its violence remains conventionally heroic and never truly destabilized by comic interventions.


To redeem violence from machismo and obsolete tragic aesthetics, we’d need to better synthesize the two elements—and by “better”, I mean in a way that negates the cultish heroism that generically attends acts of extraordinary violence. Problematically, even most horror-comedy or action-comedy hybrids do little to deconstruct gendered heroics, for the process of parody tends to embalm rather than unravel the absurd masculinity that parodies are obliged to reproduce. 


The mock-heroism of over-the-hill Quixote provides an antidote to the hero cult, as does the unknowingness of the clown, whose daring feats are stumbling and preconscious, antithetical to the conventional hero’s will to power. Chaplin offers an odd etiology of the clown-hero in Easy Street (1917), in which the Tramp signs up for the police force—usually his sworn enemy. Newly deputized but only marginally socialized, he wears his uniform awkwardly at first, but quickly synthesizes the clown’s license for anarchy with the cop’s license for coercion.


Only the Tramp can rout the hulking town bully, who thrashes and literally tosses about dozens of policeman in scenes of absurd, frantic violence. While ordinary cops are impotent, the Tramp newly invests the uniform with his clownish prowess and invulnerability, effecting fleet justice. In a street battle, the Tramp subdues the bully by jamming his head into a gaslight and asphyxiating him; when the bully proves resilient, the Tramp resorts to dropping an iron stove on his head from a second-story window. He then finishes off the bully’s street gang with the help of some unwittingly injected, galvanizing cocaine.


Stripped of its hyperbole and pro-drug agenda, Easy Street probably could be played straight—it’s only a stone’s throw from Dodge City (1939) or any antique Western whose stalwart outsider cleans up a crime-ridden town. What links the mock-heroism of the Chaplinesque clown to the stoic heroism of the stalwart cowboy—and what might extra-diegetically synthesize their respective comedy and violence—is an overriding alienation, always manifested as asexuality.


In Easy Street, the Tramp-as-Cop helps an impoverished family with countless children when he’s not thrashing bullies, but he remains as much as outsider to the civilized family unit as John Wayne is in The Searchers (1956). The clown may occasionally win the girl at the end, but we’re never convinced he’d be a viable heterosexual partner able to produce well-socialized children.


Although classical Hollywood’s man of action—say, Gary Cooper or John Wayne—is not inherently asexual like the clown, he is compulsorily abstemious and alienated from his (hetero)sexuality, displacing the genital pleasures forbidden by the Hays Code to disbursements of just violence. Although the action hero upholds the reality principle and the clown anarchically betrays it, entrepreneurial success for both the Protestant individualist and the infantile clown depends upon shunning permanent romantic attachments, as if buried in their respective extroversions were some remnant of Buddhist refusal. 


Yet the American cult of heroism—that grand illusion issuing from James Fenimore Cooper, from Manifest Destiny, from Frederick Turner’s colonialism, from Owen Wister, from the leathered cowboy’s sexual repression—was too potent for comedy to undo. Mark Twain famously tried to destroy Cooper’s manly stupidities, and thanks to him Cooper’s literary reputation has rightly suffered over the past century or so. Undaunted, Cooper’s spirit returns eternally and unrepressed, and Twain’s critique of Cooper’s The Pathfinder could well apply to the franchised Hollywood dross that continues fearlessly:


“The characters are confusedly drawn, and by their acts and words they prove that they are not the sort of people the author claims that they are; its humor is pathetic; its pathos is funny; its conversations are—oh! indescribable; its love-scenes odious; its English a crime against the language…” (“Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses.” Collected Tales, Sketches, Speeches & Essays, Vol. 2. New York: Literary Classics of the United States, 1992, 191-192.)


It’s no accident that Michael Mann inordinately prettified his Last of the Mohicans (1992) to camouflage the witless foundation of Cooper’s prose. But Twain’s critique goes further, scrutinizing the leaden ideology behind the language. When Pathfinder engages in a shooting contest and miraculously targets a nail’s head from a hundred yards, his superhumanity intends to dazzle readers inclined to extol machismo. In fact, such contrivances are the improbable stuff of comedy—the pathos that, in its physical inhumanity, is by all technical definitions “slapstick”.


No doubt the outdoorsman’s machismo and deadly aim are lies too beautiful to perish. Through revanchist genre films, the reincarnated frontiersman wears a cowboy hat, a badge, or the vigilante’s scorn, safeguarding a society from which he himself is alienated. American mythology made the Wandering Jew into a Restless Gentile and the Jew’s eternal damnation into a pioneering, Puritan destiny. The Restless Gentile’s so-called exceptionalism simultaneously springs from and opposes modernity: he signifies the earlier, primitive stages of a rugged individualism that, after the frontier’s taming, will soon be replaced by domesticity, industrial economy, and a more bourgeois, emasculated form of individualism.


He establishes a modernity that ultimately refuses him, for modernity cannot confront its savage roots, just as Manifest Destiny cannot admit to the slavery that enabled westward expansion. In his imperialist perversity, he establishes modernity not through procreation but through the furtive enjoyment of violence, clearing the land for future generations he cannot himself generate. The solitary man of action is thus historicized without being historical, for he cannot biologically (re)produce ongoing historical subjects.


On occasion, the stoic cowboy of traditional lore betrays some romantic humanity. In retrospect, the coda of John Ford’s seminal Stagecoach (1939) is remarkable not because outlaw John Wayne forgives Claire Trevor’s clandestine prostitution but because he really entertains the domestic life that, for Ford, signifies (unmanly) civilization. More archetypical is George Stevens’ Shane (1953), whose nomadic hero longs for a domestic life he deserves but which he must deny, as his phallic gun-slinging exists in inverse proportion to his potential domestication. Such is Shane’s masochism—a repressed heterosexuality masquerades as an asexual moral code that forbids a cuckolding affair with homesteader Jean Arthur. Eventually, the cowboy’s stoicism and self-denial became a formulaic, tepid joke.


At the end of Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo (1959), John Wayne’s sexually frustrated “Sheriff Chance” can only express his love to Angie Dickinson’s “Feathers” by exclaiming that he’d arrest her if she sauntered publicly in revealing attire. The joke is self-conscious but also self-excusing—the man capable of incredible violence turns out to blush like a prepubescent boy, his sexual immaturity indistinguishable from the frontiersman’s valor. 


Hollywood’s solution to prepubescent machismo was the psychology of its “adult” Westerns of the ‘50s, which supplanted the action hero’s comic shyness with tragic scars and tortured histories. The Freud-on-the-range formula, however, only tended to legitimize machismo by placing it within a pseudo-humanistic framework. When Jimmy Stewart defeats his evil brother in Winchester 73 (1950) or survives the nearly operatic family psychodrama of The Man from Laramie (1955), his manliness is effectively bolstered for having braved neurotic tribulations and emerging with his virility intact.


Such was the hero of classical Hollywood, stoic and desexualized, denying his animal nature as a Christian would. Hollywood’s post-Vietnam hero obviously politicized the neuroses more easily purged in the adult Western. The dispossessed, sometimes psychotic heroes of Rolling Thunder (1977), First Blood (1981), Lethal Weapon (1987), and so forth are, like John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards in The Searchers, permanently exiled from the family and nation-state. Of course, racist Ethan Edwards deserves his exile; the Vietnam vet, self-loathing and self-destructive, is the victim (not the pioneering enabler) of governments. The despondent action hero now wants to self-reflect, but the action film genre hasn’t bequeathed to him a self worthy of reflection. (In this, he differs from the noir hero, who is afraid of self-reflection, lest he take the femme fatale’s seduction seriously.)


He has little choice but to welcome further suffering and victimhood, thereby justifying his final, pseudo-cathartic rampage—“pseudo” because the rampage only keeps the hero’s masochism temporarily at bay and does nothing to address his political emasculation after the credits roll. As his sociopathy is made explicit, the disillusioned man of action, inheriting only a violence that transcends domesticity, no longer chooses loneliness—it is foisted upon him. But no matter: building a nuclear family is trivial business for the modern supra-individualist, whose rugged, less neurotic forebears paved vast geopolitical frontiers.


In truth, rarely does mainstream Hollywood ever fulfill the sociopathy of its action heroes—the result would be too depressing, too unsellable. The formula of Lethal Weapon allows suicidal Martin Riggs (Mel Gibson) to retain his façade of ressentiment but simultaneously affix himself to partner Roger Murtaugh’s (Danny Glover) comforting family unit. Like Shane, Gibson’s character comes to know familial stability but remains existentially apart, untainted by unmanly commitments. The vainglorious hero is reborn as a bourgeois parasite.


At the same time, his misanthropic caricature of American individualism casts off Thoreau’s transcendentalism—he has only his stubborn body, whose every torture he craves. Surely Dirty Harry, too, needs some time off at Walden Pond, though I doubt its tranquility would deter him from picking off the sparrows.

Andrew Grossman is a regular contributor to Bright Lights Film Journal, the editor of the anthology Queer Asian Cinema: Shadows in the Shade (2001), and a contributor to The New Dictionary of the History of Ideas.


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