Thursday, 14 February 2019

LIAM NEESON AND DEATH WISH: THE ANATOMY OF A CONTROVERSY

In the days of click-bait celebrity journalism, identity-politics opinion, and memory that extends no farther than the last hit of the 'delete' key, it was hard to figure out exactly what it was that actor Liam Neeson had done forty years ago after a 'close friend' had been raped that merited the headlines it generated. The rapist had been a black man, and the tabloids, both printed and virtual, screamed that Neeson had gone out on the streets looking to kill a black man in revenge. And of course the tabloid headlines generated more 'serious' reflection. One opinion piece in Britain's Guardian explained that Neeson confessed to having 'entertained a racist lynching fantasy' and gone 'looking for a black man to murder'.

But what Neesom had actually said was something not so subtly different, and it rang a warning bell in my head, as it should have done for anyone with a passing knowledge of popular film. Neeson told the online newspaper The Independent that he had packed a cosh and gone to black neighbourhoods hoping 'to be approached...that some black bastard would come out of a pub and have a go at me so I could kill him'. So he was a man seeking vengeance for a rape going out and making himself an obvious target so he could exact his revenge? I've seen that movie.

It was called Death Wish, based on the novel of the same name by the recently deceased Brian Garfield, and it starred Charles Bronson and was directed by Michael Winner in 1975, and thus not long before the incident Neeson described. It was a huge hit, and it's not unlikely that the 23 year old Neeson saw it. Bronson plays a Paul Kersey, a New York City architect whose wife is murdered and daughter raped by a gang of intruders (including Jeff Goldblum in his first film appearance). He begins setting himself up as an obvious target for muggers, then kills them.

So rather than seeking out any black man as a revenge victim, Neeson was specifically looking to be attacked, so his vengeance might be justified. Obviously, he never acted out those impulses, possibly because his local community, normally a hothouse of revenge violence, was unwilling or unable to provide the requisite bastards to have a go at him, but the whole thing is so close to the plot of Death Wish to suggest he may have been acting out a movie fantasy in his head. Which is still something for which he can indeed still feel ashamed.

Perhaps we should remember that although he was not an actor then, Liam Nesson is one now, and actors do tend to see the world as an extension of the movies. Let's set some more background here: Neeson gave his interview on a promotional tour for his new movie, Cold Pursuit, in which he plays a snow-plow driver seeking revenge against the drug dealers he thinks murdered his son. The film is a remake of the Norwegian thriller In Order Of Disappearance, and Neeson's casting is rather like Winner's casting of Bronson, because like Bronson, Neeson is best-known for his action hero movies.

In Garfield's original novel, Paul (called Benjamin) is an accountant. The book was originally adapted by screenwriter Wendell Mayes for director Sidney Lumet, the Michelangelo of New York City's urban decay in the Seventies, and was to star Jack Lemmon. In Garfield's words, the story was that of 'an ordinary guy who descends into madness'. It was meant to recall the adage about digging two graves when you embark on revenge. But when producer Dino DeLaurentis acquired the rights, Lumet backed off the project and Winner (whom Garfield called 'an idiot') was brought on board, along with Bronson, with whom he had a successful working relationship. In Winner's subtle hands, the violence was played with voyeuristic celebration, something perhaps more deserving of apology than Neeson's own fantasies. Bronson, of course, became an heroic figure. Enough to propel Death Wish to four film sequels, a fifth film based on Garfield's own sequel, Death Sentence, and a 2018 remake starring Bruce Willis, which I have not yet seen because frankly, life is too short.

In his interview, Nesson mentioned his growing up in Northern Ireland, during what are euphemistically called 'The Troubles'. He grew up seeing the urge, the constant demand, for vengeance played out all around him. His film career reflects that, especially the series of Taken movies, in which he avenges himself on kidnappers. Cold Pursuit was getting none of the buzz of a Taken film, and indeed opened to disappointing returns in the US, bringing in the worst box office for any Neeson action film since Darkman in 1990, his introduction to the genre. Which leads to the question of why Neeson felt now was the moment to unroll this forty-year old fantasy tale of revenge?

The original novel was called Death Wish because Paul Benjamin was acting out his own death wish, and Brian Garfield wanted to show his vengeance was leading to his own self-destruction. Winner and Bronson's version was more celebratory of Paul's transformation. Ambiguity persists.

Was Neeson's a bold confession, aimed at pointing out this futility of revenge? Or was he seeing, as Michael Winner had, a simpler vision, that, as Rap Brown reminded us,'violence is as American as cherry pie', and thus he was using his own life to bolster his standing as an action-hero purveyor of violence? Or was he merely conflating his fantasies with a deeper reality?

The link between films and reality is especially strong in Neeson's own life, where the tragedy of his wife Natasha Richardson's death recalled one his own most moving roles, in the days before he became the Charles Bronson de nos jours, in Ethan Frome. Eschewing cynicism, it would not be unreasonable to believe that Neeson was not simply promoting his latest, that he would feel drawn to unburden himself of a memory of great unpleasantness in order to remind viewers that his characters in films are just that, only characters in only movies, and reality is much more cruel. If that be the case, he should be faulted only for not realising that the sins of the past are today grist less for deep reflection than for the internet mill of short-lived high-flame outrage.

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