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Hollywood Isn't Aiming for Realism

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 8, 1998


    Chow Yun-Fat in 'The Replacement Killers' Chow Yun-Fat plays a hitman in "The Replacement Killers." (Columbia)
It is said that the average police gunfight takes place in the dark at a range of seven feet, in which four or fewer shots are fired. The whole thing lasts less than two seconds.

The rules for surviving such an encounter would therefore seem to be:
1) Shoot first. 2) Shoot first. And of course, 3) Shoot first.

That is not how they do it in the movies, where the gunfight has been a staple of human interaction for 95 years, since "The Great Train Robbery." As the movies have it, these to-dos almost always take place in daylight or at least in a clean, well-lighted place – a nightclub full of big-breasted dancers or a steel foundry where sparks pour from the rusty struts overhead or on Main Street at high noon. It's always one against many, which means that the many are seriously outgunned and have no chance. The whole thing has the air of Mardi Gras, Fellini and NFL instant replays. It almost never looks scary. It never looks like it would leave you with pee in your underpants or shaken for life. It doesn't look like you'd have trouble sleeping for years afterward. It just looks like fun.

What compels these observations is the arrival of "The Replacement Killers," directed by Antoine Fuqua in the style of John Woo. Its gunfights are so far beyond realism that to use them in the same sentence with the word "realism" is somehow an affront to logic. Instead, they're so expansive and madly choreographed that they resemble Busby Berkeley numbers with guns.

For the current variation of Woo-ified Hollywood gunfighting, the survival rules are also three:
1) Shoot two guns with two hands while diving through the air in slow motion.
2) Use the very best in industrial-strength mousse.
And of course,
3) Choose really cool sunglasses.

But gunfights are like anything else in film culture – subject to the laws of fashion and consequently expressive of considerable evolution over the years. They didn't just start where they are now. Nothing could be that spontaneously stupid. No, they've had to work hard to get stupid.

Ironically, the first filmed gunfight remains one of the most realistic. That's a scene in "The Great Train Robbery" that is notable for its artlessness. For, of course, gun battles must be artless. But in Edward M. Porter's version, two groups of men – a posse and a gang of robbers – just blaze away through the trees at each other in a wild panic. The guns – little smokeless powder in 1903! – belch thunderous clouds of dense, white fog, obscuring the battlefield, turning everything to chaos. Every once in a while, someone spins to the ground, arms flung out, mouth wide open. Then, just as abruptly, it's over. The sequence is hard to watch. Nobody has thought about directing it. It's in one continuous shot, and it just happens, untidy and almost ridiculous. There's no beauty to it, and as the art form developed, beauty became the governing aesthetic in gunfire exchanges.

For the longest time, gun violence was the province of the western. It unspooled by certain rules, all of them having more to do with dramatic camera placement than with reality. But for nearly 50 years, it was the same: the slow stride of two gladiators down a deserted main street, the intense gaze as each shootist met the other's eyes, then, at an agreed-upon signal, the blur as each man reached for iron. Inevitably, one was a bit faster, and the other fell to the ground.

Within this small compass, amazing variations were worked. In "Vera Cruz," for example, Burt Lancaster smiled, spun his guns, returned them to his holster, then dropped dead. In "A Fistful of Dollars," Clint Eastwood shot first. In "The Tin Star," Anthony Perkins drew and fired both guns, toppling Neville Brand. In "High Noon," Gary Cooper killed the gang that was hunting him in reverse order of hierarchy: little guys first, big guy last. In "Silverado," Kevin Costner stood at a corner and took out an opponent down each intersecting street. On and on it went, all of it bogus.

There's very little evidence that such cinema-friendly encounters ever happened in the Old West, where the real-world rule prevailed, and he who shot first usually won. That's clear merely from the holsters. The Buscadero style holster, holding the gun low, with all of grip, hammer and trigger guard exposed, and tied down to facilitate the fast draw, wasn't invented until the 1920s – for the movies. Old-time gunmen, according to historical photos, carried their revolvers in high holsters mounted at waist level, in the Mexican style, where the point was to protect and carry the gun, not access it quickly. The gun was sunk deep, almost completely encased in leather. If trouble was brewing, the owner took it out. Billy the Kid and John Wesley Hardin, for example, were both slain by men who had already removed and cocked their pistols. That's not to say frontier gunmen couldn't shoot fast and well, but that gunfights then were like gunfights now: nasty, brutish and short.

It's clear, however, that the fast-draw ritual was expressive of chivalric values that underlay the western for much of its time as America's reigning genre. It spoke of the magnificence of virtue, the malevolence of evil. In the crunch, morality would express itself in the swiftness of hand to gun, and evil would doubt itself, slow down, fumble or miss. The better man would be the faster man, so fast he could react and still beat his opponent. There was a connection between reflexes and morality, as if a just God were the true director. Even John Wayne, down to his last four rounds, lets the bad guys shoot first in "Stagecoach." Coop, facing four men in a naked street under a remorseless sun, lets them make the first move.

Even in other genres, it was clear nobody really cared about reality. Think about some of the famous shootings in movie history. Remember Rick Blaine drilling Maj. Strasser at the end of "Casablanca"? He holds the gun low, down by his hip. The range is about 15 feet. He doesn't aim, he just shoots. I tried the same shot with the same gun (a Colt hammerless .380) on a man-size silhouette once. It's hard. (I missed the first six times and finally, by trial and error, got it right on the seventh. Would the major have allowed Rick six tries?) He hit because he was a Good Guy, not because it occurred to him to aim the pistol.

What about the shot Chico takes on Nick at the end of "West Side Story"? It's about 50 feet, in the dark, with an unfamiliar handgun on a moving target. Bang, he nails Nick cold, just as he's about to hug Maria. Only in the movies. Chaos in gunfights arrived at just about the time chaos arrived in society – in the '60s. Suddenly, gunfights became swirling whirligigs, most notably in "The Wild Bunch," the magnum opus of gunfight movies. Expressing the ambivalent morality of the Bunch, director Sam Peckinpah plunged the dying shootists into a world of complete craziness. The clarity of action broke down as absolutely as the clarity of morality, as the fights became mad skeins of fast- and slow-motion knit together in a thousand micro-cuts, and the bloody strike of bullet on flesh was fetishized. But how realistic was this?

Well, probably not very. Again, the exchanges were governed more by an aesthetic sensibility than by a realistic one, despite the increased quotient of gore. The increasing percussiveness of the editing and the new rhythm of fast motion-slow motion excited your respiratory system and had the effect of exhilaration. The fights were no longer simple, but there was no sense of danger to them, even though we saw people die, perforated a dozen times. Peckinpah gave a dozen interviews pointing out that the film – quite controversial in 1969 – was "anti-violence." All spin: In fact, one sees those fights and is drawn to them so totally that it's the pleasure centers of the brain that are being stimulated, not the flight-or-fight centers. They mesmerize you, take you in, like a thunderous symphony. They're gun music, and that's why "The Wild Bunch" was one of the most influential movies ever made, its theories of aesthetic violence dominating American movies for decades afterward.

It's that pleasure center stimulation that Woo and his Hong Kong acolytes have played with in their depictions of gun violence. At their purest, the Hong Kong gunfight films are a combination of the Western obsession with gun violence and the Eastern tradition of martial arts. They are informed not merely by incredible gore but also by an acrobatic freedom from gravity, physics and reality. Woo does them spectacularly, and his influence had spread even before he moved to the United States. Even a film from so stoic a craftsman as Walter Hill showed the imprint of the Woo style in the absurd "Last Man Standing," which featured Bruce Willis as the diving two-handed shooter. That seems to be where we are now, so far from reality that the meaning of violence has all but vanished.

For the truth is that despite the incredible number of gunfights that have been filmed, almost nobody in movies ever thought about a violent exchange rigorously. That is why the exchanges are so inflated and preposterous.

Here are some of the things about guns that Hollywood doesn't care about, and never gets right. First off, they are very loud. If you shoot them without ear protection, you deafen yourself. If you are surprised by their sound at close range, you flinch wretchedly. Your ears ring for hours or, as in my case, forever. Guns are also large, heavy and dirty. Carrying one, despite the immense evolution in holster technology, is no fun; it's always slipping this way and that, it gives you a backache. A shoulder holster, so beloved in the movies, is really more like a brassiere with a brick in it. Most detectives take theirs off in the office. Guns wear out your clothes, either by abrasion or oil stain. They smell of oil. They go off accidentally far too often. (I've only seen one accidental shooting in movies, in "Pulp Fiction," where Samuel L. Jackson accidentally shoots the guy in the back seat.)

And what about the event itself? Probably the most filmed act of all time, the gunfight has almost never been portrayed accurately. Hollywood has still taught us that it's slick and beautiful. It's not. It's short and ugly. Filmmakers know nothing about it. We never get the dump of a ton of adrenaline into the blood that necessarily accompanies the presentation of weapons. We never get the auditory exclusion, as the hearing shuts down. We never get the tunnel-vision effect, as time slows down and the world closes down almost all visual information except the gun in the hands of the man shooting at you. We never get the kicking-in of the fight-or-flight mechanism where, beyond your will, you turn instantly into tiger or pussycat. We never get the coarse thickness of the hands as small motor movements become impossible. We never get the brain fog as the skull overloads with blood and the IQ drops a hundred points in the firing of a single synapse.

And the aftermath: We never get the blood, the pain, the screams of the hit. We never get the immense squalor that attends an act of violence and the ripples of revulsion that spread out from it, unsettling all who see it or are affected by it. We never get the post-combat stress syndrome, which is composed of nightmares, remorse, crying jags, flashbacks, irrational fears, sleeplessness, intense fatigue, inability to communicate, disinterest in sex or food. We never get the months, even years, it takes to come back from such an event, if you ever do.

Only one movie, to my way of thinking, has ever captured a taste of that experience. At the end of "Bullitt" (1968), Steve McQueen, as a San Francisco police detective named Frank Bullitt, has to shoot an armed man in the lobby of an airport. It's probably the best movie shooting, at least in terms of realism and impact on society. McQueen is very close, he aims carefully after finding the good shooting position, and he fires fast, three times. The shots are incredibly loud, and people dive and shriek; they are shaken to their essence. The gunman is hit and falls forward with all the dignity of a sack of flour going off a shelf. He hits the ground and in seconds is an island in an ocean of blood as people scream in disgust. Bullitt keeps him covered, his own face a mask of frozen tension. Finally, he walks over, kicks the gun away and, irrationally but believably, sheds his sports coat to cover the dead man's face and blood from the crowd. He looks shocked, spent, used, finished, washed out. We sense his life has changed forever. There's no triumph, only survival. Let's see that in a movie, one more time, instead of dances with guns.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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