A crooked cop chases someone through the streets of New York City. Someone who has something worth a lot of money, money that he wants. The cop corners the man more than once, but the man slips away each time. The story climaxes at an evening rendezvous in Chinatown, as the cop demands the item.
Now a typical Hollywood movie depicting those circumstances would use force. The cop would pull his gun and threaten the man’s life for the item. Gunfights would be a definite possibility, and depending on the director, a probability. Yet the story that I have related, which occurs in Premium Rush, has nary a gunfight. The only time the cop (Michael Shannon) even hints at threatening the man (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) with his weapon occurs at the climax in Chinatown, and all he has to do to make his point is to put his hand on the butt of his holstered gun. Only one gunshot is fired in the entire movie, and it is softly delivered at point blank range by someone else entirely.
I raise this issue after watching The Expendables 2, The Dark Knight Rises and the Total Recall remake in recent weeks, all of which feature incredibly intricate shootouts involving thousands of rounds of ammunition (not to mention all the effects needed to simulate all the misses and the body squibs to simulate all the hits). Such movies promulgate the notion that, at least in the movies, public discharge of weaponry is acceptable (whether on the side of good or bad), and that such gunplay infers exciting entertainment. I beg to differ.
Possibly because large-scale gunplay has become so prevalent in movies, it is no longer very effective. Some movie showdowns are so prolonged and silly (in the sense that no one seems to be able to hit their targets) that they have actually become boring. Let’s face it, the protagonist almost always emerges without much more than a few bruises and the bad guys and gals die in droves. Putting aside the moral considerations of mass murder for the moment, what is the excitement in seeing the protagonist (I refuse to use the term “hero” in these situations) fight his or her way through seemingly impossible odds when we know darn well that he or she is going to survive without injury and then say something pithy about the experience. It’s getting old.
I think it’s time that filmmakers stop being lazy and begin to work realistic conflict and resolution into their stories. Premium Rush does just that, at least in its use (or, rather, non-use of gunplay). The crooked cop doesn’t shoot anyone when his day goes historically bad. He beats up a couple of guys when he loses his temper, one of them fatally, but he doesn’t have to use his gun to do so. It is the power of his job — and this he is not afraid to flaunt in the faces of his foes. He remains alive only because he is a cop, until at last his own actions override any such considerations. This dynamic is real, and infuses the movie with a convincing reality that bolsters its drama. Whether or not the rest of the movie works (and it does, for me) is really immaterial to this discussion; David Koepp’s treatment of violence kept in check gives Premium Rush a genuine quality lacking in most summer blockbusters.
By contrast, so many movies use gunfights as visual conflict. It often makes no sense for characters to be shooting at each other, but it has become accepted since the gangster movies of the ’30s that it is fun to watch. Even I, who abhor the idea of gun violence, feel the adrenaline rush fueled by watching Sylvester Stallone and his cronies blast the bejesus out of the bad guys in The Expendables 2. I am not immune to enjoying such savagery, partly because I know it is all nonsense.
But gun violence is not nonsense. Just last week New York City cops shot and killed a man outside the Empire State Building who had shot and killed someone else. Nine people were injured, all of whom were hit by police bullets. These are the good guys shooting! In real life, guns and bullets kill, wound and maim people. Bullets bounce and ricochet until some of them burst into soft, yielding human flesh. Shooters lose control during conflicts, affecting their judgment and often their aim. People, often innocent bystanders, suffer the consequences.
And that’s the difference between real life and the movies. Consequences. Effects. Ramifications. Upshots, if you will. Many movies depicting gun violence, especially large-scale gunfights, completely ignore any possible consequences, except to kill off a secondary character or accidentally annihilate a bystander or several. Often the gun violence isn’t perceived as personal, but rather a byproduct of “business.” Well, it’s certainly personal to the person who is killed. It is rare that movies realistically deal with the personal ramifications of shootings, be they grief, guilt, anger, or fear.
I’m not calling for the end to gunfights in movies. Nobody would listen if I did, and even I see the need and benefit from having them, as long as they are produced and presented responsibly. For instance, the best scene in The Bourne Legacy involves a scientist suddenly, calmly deciding to stop his researches, find his gun and then trap, hunt and kill his colleagues in the laboratory where he works. It is a harrowing scene that echoes what has happened all too often in real workplaces in the past few years, yet it serves the movie’s purpose as well. That scene is extremely personal, which is why it is so effective. The rest of the movie pales by comparison.
Premium Rush isn’t a great movie, but it does a great job of avoiding the screenplay pitfall of “…and then a gunfight occurs…” to solve its predicaments. It refuses to use that lazy, unrealistic plot device because its author has the sense to keep its conflict in realistic, believable, convincing terms. While the possibility of gun violence does exist for its characters — simply because the crooked cop is carrying a weapon — the movie allows that menace to hover quietly in the background, and that is as it should be. A lot of movies don’t need the sensationalism of forced gunplay to perk audience interest, and would be better off without such artificial, unbelievable and ineffective plotting. Keep it real. 31 August 2012.