Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Fighting Back (1982)

by Alec “I’m scared, where the fuck’s my .38?” Cizak

The early 1980s had to be confusing as hell for anyone old enough to give a shit about the social and political climate. I was in grade school. I gave a shit about KISS, Star Wars, and the Pittsburgh Steelers. I gave a shit about saving money from my paper route to buy comic books. I read Daredevil before Ben Affleck made that title totally cool (hohoho…). My introduction to The Punisher was through Daredevil. Right after the shocking issue where Elektra gets a sai shoved through her belly, Frank Miller decided to do some propaganda work for the flowering “War on Drugs.” Created by Nixon, this moronic attempt to engage in combat with inanimate pharmaceuticals was cultivated to deadly perfection by Reagan and then that skeletal, evil fuck George H.W. Bush. But I’m digressing. Don’t watch. Anyway, The Punisher was Marvel Comics' answer to the Hollywood genre involving avenging madmen armed and ready to exterminate the punks of the world. Or, at least, the punks in inner-city America.

Whoops. Weren’t those punks generally non-white? Herein lurks the great debate about Charlie Bronson and Clint Eastwood and even our good buddy Travis Bickle. Were these guys committing righteous, vigilante murder in the name of justice and security (of the middle class, but pretend you didn’t read that), or were they just a bunch of crusty old crackers gunning down brown and black people to remind the minorities that Whitey was still around? By 1980, the sentiment among left-wing critics and scholars was that these movies projected a “reactionary” conservative fantasy to an impotent, right-wing fan base (see Bobby Kolker’s book Cinema of Loneliness for the politely articulated version of this theory). As the indulgences of the 1970s came under scrutiny in the 1980s, motion pictures struggled to reflect the left-leaning sympathies of the majority of the artists working in Hollywood while satisfying the recuperated conservative sentiment ushered in with the election of Ronald Reagan. The business folks in Hollywood were in the process of wrestling control back from the directors so that the “bottom line” could once again be given its proper respect and that pesky concept of “art” in American movies could be shown the proverbial door once and for all. It was in this schizophrenic environment that Lewis Teague’s Fighting Back was created.

This is a film that is just as confused as society was in 1982. Lewis Teague had to have some leftist leanings considering he directed Alligator, which was scripted by that commie fuck John Sayles (who made the greatest goddamn independent film of the 1980s, Matewan). Fighting Back is a vigilante movie that wants very badly to be an intelligent, self-conscious examination of the genre it represents. Sort of like a Scream for Dirty Harry movies. Fighting Back is better than Scream, however, because its critique is not spotlighted by piss-your-pants-clever dialogue. It is like The Manchurian Candidate, an unconscious assassin. The film satirizes reactionary sentiments, even the election of Ronald Reagan, without ever letting its core fan base realize that their murderous fantasies are being mocked.

I believe a clue to understanding how this bizarre film got made can be found in the writing credits. David Z. Goodman, who wrote Straw Dogs and Logan’s Run, is clearly the brains of the two screenwriters. His partner is Tom Hedley, the vapid genius behind Flashdance and Hard to Hold, Rick Springfield’s edgy counterpunch to Prince’s Purple Rain (Prince’s film was released a month after Hard to Hold, but one suspects some insider information compelled the producers of Hard to Hold to get their film in theaters first and with good reason; once Purple Rain was released, nobody gave a shit about the Rick Springfield movie. But I digress. I’m attending a support group so save your lectures).

Fighting Back begins like any other honky avenger movie—an old man is moving away from tough Philadelphia to go live in Colorado where, apparently, there are no criminals. It’s a metaphor for “white flight,” if you’re really paying attention. On the other hand, if you're the sort of person who thinks John Cage should compose a symphony of NASCAR engines revving to the tune of “Freebird,” this opening scene will rather suggest a great tragedy that needs to be fixed by a short, bad-ass white dude with a gun. John D’Angelo (Tom Skerritt) will answer the call. He and his wife Lisa (Patti LuPone) stay behind despite concerns over the state of the neighborhood. Lisa witnesses a pimp reprimanding one of his female employees. She makes hubby pull over so that she may admonish the pimp. Even the hooker, however, feels like the middle class woman should mind her own “fucking business.” After Lisa throws ice on the pimp, a car chase ensues. John D’Angelo crashes his cracker station wagon and his pregnant wife is injured. He pulls a gun on the pimp and our not-so-subtle racist agenda takes flight.

By sheer coincidence, the kind that occurs only in the movies, John’s mother and son witness a robbery just a day or so later. The thugs cut off the mother’s ring finger in order to get her wedding ring. Lewis Teague’s camera never flinches as this poor old woman has finger snipped off. It’s pure manipulation to hook the more emotional members of the audience, the ones who pay smarmy no-talent fucks like Jeff Foxworthy to entertain them by belittling them, into going along with whatever crazy shit the gun-toting John D’Angelo comes up with.

Someone in the production, however, understood that one of the main critiques of the old vigilante movies was that a lone man taking on the criminal element in a city or a neighborhood was pure, conservative fantasy. John D’Angelo doesn’t simply take up arms on his own. He creates a neighborhood patrol of pissed-off, (mostly) Italian guys and one black dude for token purposes. We get the usual nonsense about the cops being ineffective. Our riled contempt for law enforcement and other bureaucracies is quelled when the very police officer John chastises for being “chicken” joins the neighborhood watch. The cop rides along with him when they engage in community enhancing activities such as rousting a bar with the most diverse clientele I’ve ever seen. Again, we are rocked by the film’s overt contradictions: when the neighborhood patrol wanders into the bar to raise hell, the patrons—black, white, Hispanic—are all getting along just fine. It’s an incredibly peaceful and idealistic vision of an inner-city America where everyone gets trashed together without qualms over ethnic differences. In marches the neighborhood patrol who promptly turn it into a giant, violent professional wrestling venue. The question starts to form in the mind of a thinking audience:

Who are the bad guys again?

The movie addresses its obvious racial contradictions with the help of big, bad Yaphet Kotto. John D’Angelo pleads that they are on the same side. Washington, Kotto’s character, drops the most telling line in the movie—“We got nothing in common… I’m trying to help the poor.” Ah, here is the Lewis Teague that directed Alligator. The movie makes no effort to hide its awareness that white vigilantes shooting black people does not constitute benevolent community action. Washington calls D’Angelo a racist and, for all intents and purposes, the movie should end right there. It would have been just the right length for a violent ABC Afterschool Special.

No such luck. D’Angelo continues his campaign against the "punks" who are dealing drugs and panhandling in the local park. Lest Latinos feel left out, he chases a Hispanic-looking purse snatcher down and hangs him on a hook for the Pabst Blue Ribbon crowd to ogle and ridicule. Eventually he gets the attention of local politicians. In a surprisingly cynical move, the movie suggests the suits and ties aren’t so much concerned about a vigilante roaming the streets and getting angrier with every run-in with those pesky minorities, no, the politicians are worried that John D’Angelo will garner enough attention to threaten them in the next election. Their worries are not misplaced, either. The opposition party approaches D’Angelo and suggests he run against the incumbent. The lovers of small government that dictates what you can and can’t do with your own body see a working class hero getting a chance to bring his psychotic vision of minority-bashing to public office. Those of us with a broader view of post-World War II America understand that Lewis Teague and his screenwriters are making a sly reference to the building up and electing of the man who would do everything he could to restore pre-civil rights America—Ronald Reagan.

Fighting Back ends on a bleak note. The night John D’Angelo is elected to public office, he murders the pimp who pissed him off in the beginning of the film. The Rambo crowd breathes a sigh of relief and the more adept viewer realizes Teague is telling the future, when black neighborhoods would be decimated by crack and violence. Maybe it’s a stretch to propose that Fighting Back is a sly, early critique of Reagan’s America. But the film contains too many contradicting ideologies to be completely unaware of its schizophrenic agenda. Then again, maybe I’m just reaching. Without a lot of complex deconstruction, this movie is just a piece of shit. I’d like to believe the time I spent watching it and taking notes was not wasted.