Shoot ’Em Up
Hollywood, Shootings, and ‘2 Guns’: When Is Stylized Violence Obscene?
Hollywood sure does love bullets, and ‘2 Guns’ keeps the tradition alive. But has America had enough?
The protesters were chanting “Trayvon Martin! Trayvon Martin!” on their march to Times Square as they chanced to pass beneath a jumbo video screen showing Denzel Washington and Mark Wahlberg brandishing handguns.
The clip was from the movie 2 Guns, and at this instant on this Saturday after George Zimmerman’s acquittal this trailer seemed to me to be more obscene than any fuck film shown on West 42nd Street during the bad old days.
Few of those marching appeared to notice it, much less take any offense. Their minds were focused on the 17-year-old who had been shot to death by a man with a handgun while out buying candy and a soda.
“Don’t shoot me, don’t hurt me! Just Skittles and iced tea!” they chanted.
At the march’s end, many began the journey home by going down into the subway, where there was a still image of Washington and Wahlberg with guns. Next to this poster for 2 Guns was one for another movie, R.I.P.D., also put out by Universal Pictures, also showing two men with guns. The muzzles of the R.I.P.D. weapons glowed.
Nearby stood yet another two men with guns, a real-life pair of police officers, looking watchful but profoundly bored, service weapons holstered. Zimmerman was repeatedly called a wannabe cop during the trial, but he did not likely fantasize directing traffic in the rain and cleaning puke out of the back of a radio car after transporting a drunk. Or, like these two actual cops, sweating under a bulletproof vest while keeping a lookout for fare beaters in a subway station. He more likely yearned to be a hero like the men in the movie posters.
The good news for those who think such movies at once glorify and trivialize gun violence is that R.I.P.D. bombed. The bad news is that 2 Guns may be a hit and thereby perpetuate the genre.
2 Guns seemed to be well received by almost everybody save me when it was screened last week at a theater on the same stretch of the “Deuce” where the Trayvon Martin demonstrators had matched, just across from the where the jumbo video screen showed the trailer. Nobody else appeared to be offended by the title in a time of the Aurora movie-house massacre and the slaughter of the school kids in Sandy Hook and the killing of Trayvon.
The actors were good. The dialogue was snappy. But I couldn’t help but think that the bravado and banter that make the two heroes so appealing are exactly the stuff that makes a guy like George Zimmerman want to be like them and hold one of those guns in his hot, living hand. Wahlberg‘s character is right out of a lost soul’s fantasy when he winks at a diner waitress and then later winks at a bad guy after besting him with some fancy shooting.
“I did wink at him because he’s my bitch now,” he says afterward.
And there are not just 2 Guns. There are many guns along with much shooting. The relationship between the Washington character and the Wahlberg character is cemented during the big gun battle at the end, when they kill every bad guy in sight.
“You good?” Denzel asks after the carnage.
“Never better,” Wahlberg says.
They are now family.
“All right, brother,” Denzel says.
The screening audience applauded. Washington then notes that his new brother shot and wounded him earlier in the film. The next line is a line for our times.
“I shot you before I knew how you were,” Wahlberg says.
Washington evens it up by shooting Wahlberg in the leg, then throws an arm around him as they set off together. 2 Guns concludes with a final, resonating gunshot that probably bothered nobody but me.
Nearly a half century and more than 250,000 gun killings ago, my father rode in a car with Robert F. Kennedy past the marquee of a movie theater that was showing Bonnie and Clyde, which had been nominated for the Oscar for Best Picture of 1968. Another passenger remarked that it was supposed to be terrific.
“I hear it’s the most immoral movie ever made,” Kennedy said in the quiet voice of somebody who had too much personal experience with gun violence.
That year’s Academy Awards ceremony was supposed to be held on April 8, but it was postponed for two days due to the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Bonnie and Clyde lost out to In the Heat of the Night, which was about race and justice in the South.
Two months later, on June 6, Kennedy himself was shot to death, with a revolver that had originally been bought by a senior citizen for self-protection after the 1965 Watts Riots, even though he was nowhere near the trouble. This 1 gun was subsequently stolen and ended up in the hand of an assassin who was tackled immediately after firing the fatal shot. One observer noted that he fought to hold onto the gun despite great efforts to pry it from his fingers, as if it were his entire identity.
The movie that Kennedy had heard described as the most immoral ever made became known as one of the best ever made. Bonnie and Clyde was among the first 100 films preserved by the newly established National Film Registry in 1988. The movie’s many defenders insist that it simply reflects a violent culture, and there is little denying that in a country of 350 million guns, more than two guns for every two people.
But the violence in Bonnie and Clyde is idealized, even stylized at the end. It is a glamorizing mirror whose reflection subverts any reflection upon the insanity of a society of guns.
Not that the producers of Bonnie and Clyde or, for that matter, 2 Guns had any priority other than to sell tickets. And the paying public seems to like simulated gunplay now as much as it did back in 1968.
One thing that has changed is that box-office totals somehow became newsworthy, reported by news outlets as if determined the worth of a movie. Nobody reported Bonnie and Clyde’s first-weekend ticket sales as a matter of great public interest. You can bet they will with 2 Guns.
And it will probably do pretty well. But I have to wonder how it would do in that movie theater in Aurora where a dozen people were shot to death. Or before the parents of the 20 school kids who were shot to death in Sandy Hook.
After that schoolhouse massacre, which also claimed the lives of six adults, President Obama finally found his voice regarding gun control. He asked Vice President Joe Biden to help formulate ways to curb gun violence.
On a day that began with a contentious sit-down with the NRA, Biden had a meeting with representatives of the film, TV, and cable industry that was much more pleasant, likely in part because he is old friends with the president of the Motion Picture Association of America, former senator Chris Dodd. Other participants included a lobbyist for Comcast, parent of Universal. Much of the talk was about ways to keep kids from seeing what is described as "entertainment meant for adults," not to be confused with adult entertainment.
“The entertainment community appreciates being included in the dialogue around the administration’s efforts to confront the complex challenge of gun violence in America,” read a collective statement by the various representatives. “This industry has a longstanding commitment to provide parents the tools necessary to make the right viewing decisions for their families. We welcome the opportunity to share that history and look forward to doing our part to seek meaningful solutions.”
The entertainment community now brings us 2 Guns, with an R rating that only bars unaccompanied kids under 17, if it’s enforced at all. Nobody can righty say that 2 Guns is a bad movie by the criteria that hold Bonnie and Clyde to be a good or even great one.
But I have a pretty good idea what Bobby Kennedy would think of it, most particularly of the title and of the jocularity about shooting people and of that final, reverberating gunshot.
To my ears, all the really good, crowd-pleasing movie-making preceding that gunshot did not make it sound any less like the one that signaled the end of Trayvon Martin’s life. And when I passed the refreshment stand on the way out of the theater, I could not help but think of Skittles.