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by tt stern-enzi

ImageLessons of modern day cinematic crime and punishment

What do we gain from capturing our fugitives, our most wanted fiends and scoundrels, the would-be terrorists dreaming of mass destruction and martyrdom? Didn’t we learn anything from Zero Dark Thirty?

A couple of back-to-back press screenings triggered this pop cultural existential detour. First came Justin Lin’s latest (and last) installment of Fast & Furious (Furious 6), followed up the very next evening with Star Trek Into Darkness, we see the same chess move executed by a criminal mastermind – the moment where they allow themselves to be captured. Sometimes it is after a heated chase or a twisty trap sprung by the hero, but it is quickly followed by a scene where the villain sits in some airtight, clear cell of bulletproof glass (or in the case of Star Trek, the glass is likely immune to photon phasers and such advanced gadgetry), waiting patiently for an interrogation sequence that reveals just who has the upper hand after all.

ImageHow can we forget the brilliance of this perfectly play in The Dark Knight, when the Joker (Heath Ledger) found himself face-to-face with Batman (Christian Bale) in the Gotham lock-up? Christopher Nolan gave us a delicious bit of torture with Batman bashing and smashing the Joker’s already permanently scarred visage. It wasn’t waterboarding or the old classic bamboo under the fingernails, but we knew the tactics and tacit approval flowed through us like precious lifeblood, jumpstarting our hearts. But the oh-so clever criminal flipped the script with the dilemma for the Bat – save either the lovely Rachel (Maggie Gyllenhaal) or the noble, but soon-to-be corrupted Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) – and once that distraction kicked in, the elaborate escape plan gets triggered with a simple phone call.

Or better yet, what about James Bond (Daniel Craig) and his surprise capture of Silva (Javier Bardem) in Skyfall – after the rote 007 power play of Bond in Silva’s clutches first? There was the quick transit to the bowels of the temporary home of MI6, with Silva’s reunion with M (Dame Judi Dench) and the breakout that triggers a massive foot chase through the underground leading up to the shootout in Parliamentary sub-chambers and somewhat inevitably in Bond’s ancestral home.

Supposedly God laughs at our plans, but somehow, based on these movie masterminds, it seems more like God’s just sitting back taking notes, impressed by the ingenuity on display, like the rest of us. I’d like to think he’s getting a little bored by now though because I sure am.

To marvel at the last time one of these criminal geniuses truly implemented an inspired series of moves, you have to go back to John Doe (Kevin Spacey) from David Fincher’s Se7en. Doe meticulously arranged a stunningly macabre collection of set pieces based on the seven deadly sins. It was a murderous sermon on contemporary social and cultural ills and each scene was more epic than the previous one. The fascinating part of his ploy was that there wasn’t even a real chase and capture. Doe waltzed right into the police station and turned himself in. Now that’s sheer genius, the kind that deserves to be labeled as such. Admittedly, the investigation by Somerset (Morgan Freeman) and Mills (Brad Pitt) had forced his hand a bit, pushing his timetable, but he orchestrated things with impossible omnipotence right to the very end.

Nobody does it better than Spacey though. His Doe is supremely creepy, Hannibal Lecter-ish delight without the cannibalistic tendencies, but he also gave us another example that same year (1995) of the form in The Usual Suspects as his verbalicious Mr. Roger Kint played the hapless cripple card while concealing a winning hand that could only result from a five-joker stacked deck. Is Kint the mysterious mastermind Keyser Soze or not? Despite the disagreement between writer Christopher McQuarrie and director Bryan Singer, it really doesn’t even matter because he gracefully exited with the grandest of grand prizes that every evil genius seeks – the clean getaway. And to make matter worse, he did so, while pretending to explain the plot to us, but truly just spinning us round and round until the needle had spun clean off the record.

And there is an intriguing lesson in Spacey’s deadly one-two combination. If we get the heroes we deserve – I’m paraphrasing a bit from The Dark Knight, so bear with me – then maybe we also land villains we teach or show us something elemental about ourselves in key historic periods. Back in 1995, John Doe and Verbal Kint could pull off great escapes because we were willing to buy into the “escapist” fantasy of such possibilities. Kint, indeed, waltzes right out from under the noses of the police and federal agents. Who wouldn’t find that ballsy? Yet, what Doe accomplishes is even more astonishingly insidious. The man has spent years and a small fortune (although it could be argued that he’s disciplined and quite thrifty as well) developing and maintaining the conditions for his grand opus. And he’s willing to top things off with his own execution just to prove his point. That’s the kind of commitment and dedication that crosses over into religious fervor, but again, in 1995, we watched it all unfold through a completely different lens.

Flashing forward almost 20 years, the United States has survived one horrific terrorist attack on the homefront, initiated a series of hyper-vigilant procedures (which some would deem over-reactive in nature), staved off smaller threats, and gotten embroiled in wars that have crippled our financial and moral standing in the world. We no longer have the appetite for entertainment that celebrates wanton destruction with the accompanying tragic loss of life and culprits who stroll off into the sunset or to claim their great rewards. None of these current criminal geniuses have accomplished their tasks to the same chilling degree. They, each and every one of them, have ended up dead, in some cases beyond the need for burial, but they’ve also left a string of collateral damage in their wake. Their victims are largely forgotten as soon as the credits roll. We retreat to the safety of a happy ending, one that doesn’t require us to support the survivors, many of whom will need costly long-term care.

This is who we are and what we need, right now. We are wounded and seeking a new justice that isn’t really new at all. We are just digging back into our pasts, settling on a frontier mentality. Shoot first – that’s our God-given right and an expression of our (declining) might, right? Don’t even worry your pretty little head about the questions. Who needs a prison like Guantanamo if you don’t take any prisoners in the first place?