At the end of "Cobra," Sylvester Stallone corrals a band of cultist killers in an iron smelting factory (it must be the last one in America) and kills the lot of them, two by immolation. At the end of "Raw Deal," a gun-wielding Arnold Schwarzenegger cuts down an army of hoods who offer themselves up for his bullets like blades of grass before a hard-charging suburbanite.
Everything that has gone before -- what used to be known, in better times, as the "story" -- is merely the pretext for this pie ce de re'sistance, in which the hero takes out his piece and the villains offer little resistance.
You pay your five or six bucks, and what do you get? Bang, bang, they're dead.
What's notable is not simply the brutality, which we've seen plenty of for years, but the way it's presented. The approach is essentially comic, and these movies epitomize the late decadent period of what might be called the comedy of revenge.
Revenge has been a staple of English drama roughly as long as there's been English drama. Shakespeare used revenge, for past slights real or imagined, as a plot engine in a number of his plays; almost all of Jacobean tragedy involved the plots and counterplots involved in getting even.
And revenge is no stranger to comedy, either. Much of what made Charlie Chaplin's Little Tramp so identifiably human was the way he lashed back, to hilarious effect, at the betters who bullied him.
But the comedy of revenge doesn't employ revenge as a device -- the revenge itself is essentially comic. The genre finds its roots in Clint Eastwood's "Dirty Harry." That was no comedy, of course -- it was a serious movie, if not exactly a complex one, with serious themes. Eastwood's Harry Callahan, an insubordinate cop with an outsized .44 magnum pistol, had a simple, black-and-white moral outlook, and his impatience with "the system" and its sometimes ironic results expressed the frustrations of ordinary people for whom American society had become menacingly unmanageable.
The elements that made "Dirty Harry" so appealing to so many -- the idea of the Last Good Man drummed out of the corps by the namby-pambies in charge, the espousal of violence as an answer to violence, the suspicion of democratic processes, the fetishistic love of guns -- became the basis for a series of "Dirty Harry" sequels.
Regularly, Eastwood reappeared, sometimes armed with a new gun, surrounded by new namby-pambies and new psychotic killers, and as the formula was ritually resumed, it inevitably turned into a form of comedy. Watching Harry dispatch the villain became as routine as watching Ignatz brain Krazy Kat with a brick, or the Road Runner send Wile E. Coyote over a cliff -- and it became pleasurable in the same way. The distance from reality that the repetitions of formula bred in the audience served the same function as the ironic distance required by comedy. The camp attitude, which Susan Sontag once identified as the province of a small, elite, mostly homosexual urban audience, became universal.
The apogee of the "Dirty Harry" series, and the end of it as a fertile source of inspiration, came with "Sudden Impact," which was, not too far below the surface, a full-blown comedy. By this time, Eastwood, with his receding thatch of hair and features receding farther still, had become a kind of pathetic figure, almost like the put-upon husband of situation comedy; the misdeeds of the villains may have been bloody, but because they were so schematically part of what Dirty Harry was all about, they had little more resonance than the antics of a nutty sitcom wife. When Harry's quarry turned out to be a woman avenging her rape years earlier, it all came full circle -- Sondra Locke played a gun-toting Lucy to Eastwood's gun-toting Ricky Ricardo.
Wherever Eastwood goes in "Sudden Impact," he attracts trouble -- he can't even order a cup of coffee without blundering into a stickup. That idea -- the ubiquity of disaster -- is essentially a comic one: It's what powered the Harry Langdon comedies in the silent era, and some of Buster Keaton's. And the audience returned, not for the killings themselves (which were, by this point in the series, meaningless) but for the verbal slaughter, the devastating putdown, the Killer Line: "Make my day." This was the sarcastic banter of a '30s comedy, scaled down for a somewhat less literate age. Here was the consummate comedy of revenge.
Dirty Harry was hardly an intellectual's hero, but he was someone intellectuals could warm to. He even looked, with his tweeds and Ray-Bans, like a hip semiotics professor on sabbatical at the Sorbonne.
When Stallone and Schwarzenegger adopted the Dirty Harry formula, however -- in "Cobra" and "Raw Deal" as well as the earlier "First Blood," "Rambo" and "Commando," the canon of the comedy of revenge -- they pushed it in a direction more explicitly calculated to appeal to the masses as masses, with a nod to the proto-fascist cinema of Germany during the '20s. This is true particularly of the "Rambo" movies, with their symbolic images of mountains, their espousal of primitive virtues, their cult of purity and their imagined past of a war lost because the soldiers were sold out at home by mealy-mouthed politicians.
While these movies make elementary attempts, particularly in the early going, to humanize the hero -- Schwarzenegger begins both movies as a "family man" given to sloppy, puppy-dog grins, and Stallone's Cobra is named "Marion" to indicate a softer side -- they spend most of the movie as mute, emotionless, extravagantly muscled killing machines essentially no different from the robotlike protagonist of "Der Golem." They are the Mass Men, pure vessels of resentment.
More to the point, however, Stallone and Schwarzenegger took the comedy of revenge and punched up the comedy. In both "Commando" and "Raw Deal," Schwarzenegger is George Jessel with biceps; Stallone's Cobra is more literally the "Toastmaster General" when he says, "You have the right to remain silent" and drops a match on a baddie doused with gasoline.
Each killing is presented as the occasion for a quip, which accords with the nature of violence in these movies generally. Slapstick, after all, is a form of violence, and slapstick is close to what's going on in "Cobra" and "Raw Deal." While we get to know the chief villains' names and faces, they're not given any human characteristics, or rounded in any way; and the set piece of the climax consists not so much of these villains' comeuppance as of the spectacle of armies of faceless extras charging into the line of fire and being blown right out of it.
This is cartoon violence, with dauntless coyotes plummeting down a canyon into a plume of dust, only to emerge intact in the next scene. What it's closest to, in truth, is the Keystone Kops, that delightful, many-legged organism of pratfall.
The Keystone Kops, though, or even the Three Stooges, were marvels of sophistication and subtlety compared with the work of Stallone and Schwarzenegger. You don't have to be Sigmund Freud to see that movies like "Cobra" and "Raw Deal" grow out of the "anal expulsive" stage of psychosexual development -- you just need to know a year-old kid, and his joy in making a mess, and his urge to smash and claw at your face when you take him on your lap. The parents of a 1-year-old I know bought him a "bop bag," an inflatable pillar with a weighted bottom, as a prop to these desires.
At a theater near you, courtesy of Stallone and Schwarzenegger: bop bags for the nation.
Now, those given to hand wringing could bring their knuckles to a high polish over how this attitude breeds real violence in real life, and they're probably right. What strikes the poor moviegoer more immediately, though, is just how goshdarn boring it is. Movies geared to teen-agers are bad enough. But movies geared to infants?
When these movies pander to the lowest common denominator, the emphasis is on lowest. Even the ad campaign for "Raw Deal" -- "The system gave him a Raw Deal. Nobody gives him a Raw Deal" -- repeats the title twice, as if we were all so dimwitted we'd forget it from sentence to sentence.
Well, it's not working. P.T. Barnum got it right when he said that a sucker was born every minute, but he forgot to add that the suckers eventually wise up. "Cobra" has grossed $34.5 million so far, but the more relevant figure -- the per-screen average -- was a pitiful $2,370 a theater on its third weekend. (By contrast, "Rambo" was earning $4,418 per screen after three weeks, for a cumulative box office of $85 million.) "Raw Deal," similarly, opened to a disappointing $4.5 million, or $3,142 per screen.
So the encouraging news is that the panderees are sick of being pandered to -- they don't just want blood, they want stories. As everyone knows, the basic element of drama is conflict, but these movies offer noise masquerading as conflict. It's like making a movie about a lumberjack hacking at a tree, and calling it drama. There's never any doubt that the hero will achieve anything other than absolute victory, or how he'll go about it, either -- he'll be the Last Good Man, the namby-pambies will oppress him, a woman will befriend him, he'll drag out the state-of-the-art military hardware, etc., etc., up until the final orgy of perforation.
This complaint shouldn't be construed as a diatribe against formula. Formula -- boy meets girl, odd couple, or what-have-you -- has always been at the heart of Hollywood filmmaking. You didn't go to a Cary Grant movie to see him not get the girl. But in Hollywood movies at their best, the formula is given some interesting twists along the way (you didn't go to the movies to see Jimmy Stewart not get the girl either, but in "The Philadelphia Story," he didn't), and in between, the movies were about character, and conflict, and human emotion. "Cobra" and "Raw Deal," on the other hand, aren't about anything at all. When we say formula here, we mean pablum.