One of the interesting things about remakes is how they can both introduce new elements to familiar cinematic stories and, often, emphasize elements that already existed. Take Dredd, the remake of Judge Dredd starring Karl Urban as the futuristic law enforcer, which has seriously amped things up in the violence department. Granted, the Judge Dredd comics were not averse to violence. In fact, Dredd became renowned for shooting everyone he came in contact with; there was even a villain who saw simply being alive as a capital offense. The '90s version of the film was nowhere near as brutal as the remake; Urban’s Dredd goes so far as to explode a man’s head with a flare in slow motion.
As much as we may enjoy this on a base level, it does force us to look back on a few recent bloodier studio action films and examine their use of violence. When is it artfully utilized and when does it venture into more over-the-top territory?
For starters, let us consider Underworld: Awakening. The horror genre is not necessarily one that should be overly scrutinized in terms of its violence. Gore and death are fundamental elements of that genre. That said, the reason Underworld: Awakening finds purchase on this list is that the franchise long ago opted to categorize itself along action cinema lines far more so than anything that resembles horror. These movies have never shied away from bountiful bloodletting, but the fourth installment goes far above and beyond anything we’d seen from them up to that point.
The seeming “out” this franchise always possessed was the fact that the majority of the violence was relegated to monster-on-monster fantasy carnage. In Underworld: Awakening however, non-magical humans are slaughtered in droves and in fashions worthy of all manner of cringing and groaning. The elevated level of brutality in this installment serves no higher function than, possibly, to welcome Kate Beckinsale back to the franchise: a clear, yet not so clean break from Rhona Mitra’s singular outing.
The thing about discussing the appropriateness of the violence in films is that it always borders uncomfortably on censorship. The merits of a film’s usage, or rather over usage, of death and destruction should be concluded in regards to whether it takes the viewer out of the story. In that regard, one could make the case that Jason Statham’s Safe is questionable in its application of killing.
There is a difference between graphic violence and gratuitous violence, and Safe certainly fits comfortably into the latter category. While no one moment is stomach-churning in its explicitness, the prevalence of violence is more than a bit uncalled for. Chinese gangsters wipe out entire lobbies full of innocent bystanders with complete impunity. It’s not as if the film had been confined by rigid standards of logic up to that point, but that moment cemented within the audience the fact that Safe was nothing to be taken seriously.
The Expendables 2 on the other hand, is, shall we say, extraordinary in terms of both graphicness and gratuitousness. With a cadre of '80s action movie heroes comprising the cast, it isn’t unreasonable to expect a certain heightened level of mayhem. Yet the violence in Expendables 2 is so dependent upon digital buckets of computer-generated blood that it becomes something of a chore to watch. In this case, it’s not the amount of violence as much as it is the exaggerated and false nature of the violence that is the problem. Were they reserved enough to use more practical effects, and allow the impact of the fights to resonate without computer enhancement, the bloodiness would have been more justified.
The Raid: Redemption is interesting to note in this regard. It features plenty of vicious fight sequences that often involve blades, point-blank gun blasts, and even jagged door frames to the jugular. So why does it feel significantly less exploitative than The Expendables 2? It’s because the violence in The Raid: Redemption is not a garish display of testosterone as much as it is completely utilitarian. These officers, characters that are completely grounded to the real world, are in an impossible situation and are fighting for their very lives. The tenacity with which they dispatch enemies is a function of their occupation, but even more so a desperate fight for survival. It’s a matter of the tactics matching the stakes.
Don’t be misled. The issue here is not a prudish hard line against violence. In fact, there are instances wherein movies can fail to be violent enough. Gary Ross’ big screen adaptation of The Hunger Games is one that could have stood to be more intense in this area. The goal here is obviously not to witness more savagery against, and at the hands of, children. As much as we do see kids killing one another in the movie, there is a considerable neutering of the violence from the book to the screen. The aim of this toning down was to earn a PG-13 rating, and thus reach as wide a young adult audience as the books had garnered. But there is something to be said for the violence in the books doing a far better job of establishing the stakes. Much like with The Raid: Redemption, if the stakes aren’t conveyed strongly enough to the audience, the tension of the action sequences is diluted.
So it’s not that an arbitrary allotment of violence need be assigned uniformly to all movies. As viewers, we must simply ask ourselves whether that violence serves the story, the characters, or just the violence itself. With a character with as hostile a past as Judge Dredd, perhaps the remake’s deadly force is apropos.
[Photo Credit: Lionsgate (2)]