What a difference 43 years makes. That is the time between the on-screen birth of Harry Callahan, Clint Eastwood’s iconic protagonist in Don Siegel’s brilliantly controversial Dirty Harry (1971), and the screen rebirth of Alex Murphy, freshly minted drone-with-a-heart-of-gold in Jose Padilha’s RoboCop reboot.
Harry, for those who don’t remember, was the American conservative middle class’s wet dream reaction to the social and political upheaval of the 1960s; a Vali who seemed born to avenge the sins of Escobedo and Miranda. This “silent majority” of the American public swept Richard Nixon to victory in 1968 and 1972. They craved a return to law and order after a decade in which they felt the rights of the criminal were elevated above the rights of the victim.
As Harry pursues the sadistic killer Scorpio, he is continually frustrated by a bureaucracy that he feels prevents him from doing his job. The stakes are raised and he begins to bend rules, first disobeying orders, then disobeying laws. The key moment comes at the midpoint, when Harry pursues an injured Scorpio across an empty Kezar Stadium field. Harry shoots Scorpio in his already wounded leg, then, as Scorpio screams for a doctor, proceeds to step on that mangled leg in order to extract information. In simpler terms, he tortures a wounded suspect.
But Harry, to his defenders, had a pretty good reason for engaging in such behaviour. Scorpio, whom he knew to be a murderer (though as yet unconvicted), had kidnapped a 14 year old girl and buried her alive. He had told police she had a limited amount of oxygen. The information Harry was trying to extract was the location of the girl. He was attempting to save a victim from a horrible death. Later, after the girl’s dead body is recovered, Harry’s illegal investigative tactics will permit the murderer to walk. That torture scene is not the only moment of transgression, but it is the most dramatic. It was a key component of an attitude that prompted leading critic Pauline Kael to call the movie “fascist medievalism” and a “right-wing fantasy.” The movie and the review spawned quite the controversy in the early 70s, and it helped cement Eastwood’s status as the leading no-nonsense badass of American cinema.
Now consider Alex Murphy, a cuddly teddy bear in a Transformer suit compared to Harry. In the new RoboCop, Alex does the exact same thing that got Harry in so much hot water with the D.A. and Ms. Kael in 1971. Alex steps on an injured suspect, Jerry, in pursuit of information. He grinds his heel down mercilessly as Jerry screams, and he rather quickly gets what he is after. Based on the plot circumstances in the movie, Alex’s action should be far less forgivable. No one’s life is in immediate danger, as it was in Dirty Harry. Jerry is not a deranged murderer, as was Scorpio. He is a rather goofy low level gun runner.
So where is the outrage? Where are the critical descendants of Pauline Kael to point out that such behaviour is not to be cheered and laughed at? It probably surprises no one that there has been nary a word about it. Audiences may have felt a sense of justice at the climax of Dirty Harry but it was a bridled celebration. There was sadness in Harry and, I suspect, in us, that things had gotten so out of hand. There is no such sadness watching Alex Murphy take out a nest of gun-toting bad guys in RoboCop. We no longer seem bothered by the necessity of official brutality.
Obviously the world has changed since we had Harry Callahan to do our dirty work. From the rise in international terrorism to the proliferation of violent media, from school shootings to anonymous cyber-bullying, violence, be it physical or emotional, seems unavoidable. RoboCop may simply be another rather small voice in a public debate that has consumed America since its inception, and which prompted Benjamin Franklin to opine on the relative values of liberty and security. To say that it seems to speak in favour of liberty recalls Cecil B. DeMille’s popular formula “six reels of sin, one reel of virtue.” Because even though we may take away a hint of warning from the new movie, I dare say no one thinks twice about poor, little Jerry, literally trampled by the very manifestation of modern, state-sanctioned, corporate-industrial power.
Where is Pauline Kael when we need her?