What do you call a man who raises his children to hate, to fight, to view war and death as the ultimate glory achievable in this life? A man who slaughters hundreds if not thousands of enemies indiscriminately and without remorse?
"Uncompromising, arrogant, a bit more demonic, insane and brutal than the standard," Gerard Butler said of his character, King Leonidas, in Zack Snyder's "300" — which topped the box office last weekend (see " '300' Destroys Box-Office Rivals With Record-Setting Haul" and " '300' Trivia: Albino Giants, Sequel Chances — And Sienna Miller").
How about a man who kills for revenge (when he's not out killing for his job)? A man whose idea of justice is to murder everyone in his way, whose ultimate victory comes with the cold-blooded assassination of his enemies?
"Dark ... disillusioned ... betrayed," director Antoine Fuqua said of Bob Lee Swagger (Mark Wahlberg), the central figure in his upcoming flick "Shooter" (see "Mark Wahlberg Says Today's Leading Men Remind Him Of ... His Mom?").
Modern audiences have learned to embrace another word to describe characters like Leonidas and Swagger: hero. From Jason Bourne to James Bond to Jack Bauer and beyond, action heroes aren't just getting grittier and more realistic, they're also becoming more, well, indistinguishable from the guys they chase.
"Heroes aren't necessarily the people who get the medal at the end of the story, like Luke Skywalker does. Or get the woman, or get cheered at the end of every story, or come back to school like Harry Potter," "300" author and neo-noir stylist Frank Miller declared. "Heroes are the people who do things that are right."
But what makes something right? It's a notion that, according to "Shooter" co-star Danny Glover, is "something we [used to] associate with action heroes like Bruce Willis, Sylvester Stallone or Arnold Schwarzenegger," who, in movies like "Die Hard" and "Commando," saved the day without losing their sense of fair play.
Glover could have added former co-star Mel Gibson to his list. Sure, Martin Riggs fatally shoots the bad guy at the end of "Lethal Weapon" — but only after the albino kidnapper, Mr. Joshua (Gary Busey), overpowers two police officers and pulls a gun.
Not anymore. Heroes today don't need to be in mortal danger to justify a kill. An enemy can practically sign his own death warrant merely by disrupting a hero's internal moral compass.
"It's all about honor and integrity for [Swagger]," Wahlberg asserted. "When they do him wrong, it's a good enough reason for everyone to stand behind me, cheer, and watch him take care of these bad guys in a way that's very satisfying to me."
Or else, as is the case in both "300" and "Shooter," an enemy need only represent an ominous, future threat. And that, insisted Fuqua, is entirely indicative of a cultural shift due to current foreign policies.
"We couldn't have made ['Shooter'] six years ago. We couldn't have made it right after 9/11 either. [But now] we keep sending troops [to Iraq] and, whether you believe in it or not, we still don't know why we are there really," he contended. "We know that after 9/11 Bruce Willis and Arnold aren't going to come and save the buildings — that's not going to happen anymore. Crowds want something that feels more real."
Modern heroes, then, can get away with doing the wrong things — so long as they think they're for the right reasons. And exposing those wrong things is ultimately as important as the hero's journey itself, Wahlberg maintained.
"I didn't want to just go out there and be a robot and kill people even if it was for the right reasons," Wahlberg asserted. "If a young kid in the middle of the country wants to go see me because he knows I'm going to kick somebody's ass, at the end of it he's going to come out of there wondering if some of the stuff I was talking about really rings true. He is going to ask questions and demand change."
Why not? The type of change Wahlberg advocates happened before, when stars like Clint Eastwood ("Dirty Harry"), Charles Bronson ("Death Wish") and Robert De Niro ("Taxi Driver") played characters who, motivated by ruthlessness, revenge and anger, took the law into their own hands. "Guys that are out there doing it, making it happen," as Wahlberg described them.
According to Fuqua, America is only now embracing their return.
"In the '70s, the directors got a chance to do these sorts of things, to have their political opinion. They said what they felt about the government and what they felt about big business," he argued. "Now we are in Iraq. To me, Swagger represents what could happen and does happen to a lot of young soldiers who are disillusioned when their patriotism is betrayed."
In an age when the heroes are no different than anyone else, either everybody is a hero or no one is. With films like "Shooter" and "300," it's hard to tell the difference.
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