“The Mechanic” opens on an unfortunate note this month, blazing into theaters on the heels of a real-life assassination attempt in Tucson, Arizona. In the film, a professional hit-man (Jason Statham) trains a new protege who is connected to one of his past targets. Think “The Professional” with a “Black Swan”-aged Natalie Portman, and probably no Björk on the soundtrack.
In the event of a tragedy like this (the shooting, not the movie), we as a society usually rush to examine ourselves in the dark mirror of our entertainments, and we rarely like what we see there. Assassination saturates film and video games to an almost absurd degree, with the outlaws themselves serving as heroes more often than not. We’re now fully accustomed to protagonists who survive on the fringes of society, we sympathize with characters who cope with vices and mental illnesses, even when their actions have devastating consequences. The intelligence with which this is executed varies widely – a courageous filmmaker can make even the most cold-blooded killer seem noble and trustworthy (hello Uma Thurman in “Kill Bill”!); a lazy filmmaker will at least impress you with their physical prowess and cunning.
Likewise, we clutch our pearls over reports of child assassins in other countries, and consider the military (or paramilitary) use of children to be a human rights issue, while our own literature and entertainment continually romanticize the idea. From the Narnia chronicles to A Wrinkle in Time to Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (in which Harry and his friends form “Dumbledore’s Army,” a secret society that prepares Hogwarts students for combat against their enemies), we are urged to fight, kill, and perhaps die for our beliefs, however contrary they may be to the prevailing power structure. This idea is explored to its logical end in more mature classics such as The Lord of the Flies and Ender’s Game (the latter is finally in the process of being adapted to screen), but by the time we are old enough to appreciate them we’ve already internalized the other narrative, imagining ourselves shaking in Dorothy’s red shoes as the Wizard orders us to go carry out his fatwah on the Wicked Witch of the West.
There are countless examples of this, but no matter how compelling that reflexive glimpse in the media-mirror can be, the case against our entertainments is ultimately not strong enough to carry the blame for real-life tragedies. Storytelling has always been a grisly affair; any anthropologist can regale you with myths that rival the worst excesses of Bret Easton Ellis. Certainly, no killer exists in a vacuum, and even the blandest entertainment may exert undue influence upon a diseased mind – but the rest of us can’t escape ourselves, or our stories, nor should we try. However, if “The Mechanic” feels like the wrong movie at the wrong time, there’s lots of more thoughtful fare still out there. Like “True Grit,” in which a young girl embarks on a vigilante mission to track down her father’s … oh.
Well, coming soon we have Steven Soderberg’s “Haywire,” in which a young woman with a shaky past finds redemption in her training as a … uh, black-ops agent.
You know, maybe this is one of those Netflix months.