Although there can be disagreements about taste and cultural coarsening, no real being suffers from violence in a movie - a film is a narrative illusion in which violent or any other events are merely notes in a symphony at the total whim of the artist (or hack) creating them. So for me, I feel sad when I kill a spider in reality, and am haunted by the few occasions some small animal has run out into the road when I couldn't safely swerve, but I laugh my ass off when someone's head explodes in a movie. And out of all the great films out there soaked in fake blood, there are a few whose violence in fact resonates with liberal morality rather than inverting it.
These aren't "message movies" per se, although there is plenty of meaning in them. They are simply a hell of a lot of fun, and represent a peek into the liberal id that our responsibilities as enlightened, empathic people necessarily suppress in real life:
10. The Running Man (1987)
One of the most gleefully outrageous corporate dystopias ever imagined on film, The Running Man is a cheeky action-movie take on Richard Bachmann/Stephen King's novella about a near future where an all-powerful media conglomerate disposes of undesirables by running sadistic game shows where people are hunted and murdered for the amusement of the masses. The novella is pitch-black despair with no smirk to it - it ends, as so many Stephen King works inexplicably do, with a suicide bombing - but the movie adaptation is pure fun, with game show legend Richard Dawson portraying the psychotically glib game show host Killian, and Arnold Schwarzenegger as ex-cop Ben Richards framed by his superiors for a massacre he tried to stop.
The show he is sent is to, Running Man, sends "criminals" into an underground "game zone" where various theme hunters called Stalkers try to kill them in visually interesting ways while a studio audience cheers and the viewing public places bets on which Stalker will get to them first. The aplomb and humor-laden creativity with which Richards dispatches the hunters one by one is a hallmark of a Schwarzenegger character, and the interplay between his smirking triumphs and Killian's slimy attempts to regain control of the show after every time Richards kills a hunter are just delicious to watch. It's a giant, theatrical slap in the face of media sociopathy, and it never, ever gets old. The death scene of the first Stalker, Sub-Zero:
9. Death Proof (2007)
Quentin Tarantino's half of the retro-double-feature Grindhouse, Death proof is itself divided into two parts: The first half is an illustration of an aging, misogynistic loser who used to be a '70s car stuntman and now uses his automotive skills as a means of serial murder; the second half is his righteous compeuppance at the hands of some nubile young ladies, one of whom is herself a stuntwoman (both in the film and in real life).
Tarantino has a preternatural gift for choosing actresses who both exude sexiness and yet have a profoundly assertive presence, and this is no exception - both the victims of the killer and his nemeses are irresistible. They're not cliched horror-movie avengers either - not the girl at the end of the movie whose friends are all dead. Nor are they "bad girls" in some silly exploitation movie way. They're just very self-confident, and believably so - they're definitely not airheaded model-actresses hamming their way through the lines of a character they can't relate to the way Hollywood so often foists on the audience. It's always refreshing to see women doing a very visceral, physical movie without their role in action scenes seeming like something pieced together by an editor in post-production rather than something they actually did.
8. Death Race 2000 (1975)
One of the funniest, snarkiest movies of all time, Death Race 2000 takes place in a "future" America (relative to 1975) where the presidency is a lifetime position, Cabinet officers have the power of life and death over all citizens, and the chief pastime of the nation is a cross-country auto race where specially-outfitted death cars try to run over bystanders and kill each other for points. Hospitals roll their elderly patients out on the road to become roadkill; deranged fans offer themselves up as targets; and on occasion, a driver becomes tired of being used as a tool and goes after more deserving prey. Meanwhile, a democratic rebellion is afoot, and soon ropes in the protagonist - one of the most popular and enigmatic drivers.
If you have the time and are in the mood to watch it, the full movie is available on Youtube - I guess it's old enough that the owners aren't bothering to enforce copyright:
7. They Live (1988)
John Carpenter's blistering satire of Reagan-era politics, They Live tells the story of an independent-minded drifter who discovers that the wealthy and powerful are actually malevolent aliens who have taken over the Earth in order to enslave the human population. He makes contact with a resistance movement, and finds that a special type of glasses can reveal the true form of these aliens and the true messages beneath advertisements - things like "Obey," and "No Independent Thought" broadcast beneath the more familiar product ads. When the resistance is massacred by the alien force and its right-wing human collaborators, the hero takes increasingly desperate measures to liberate Earth. A bit of a downer for my tastes, but pretty damn funny.
6. Unforgiven (1992)
This is the only truly "serious" movie I include in this list, but I felt it to be sufficiently relevant, aesthetically enjoyable, and violently-themed to rate inclusion. It's one of those rare films - a movie without good guys, but one that doesn't leave you hating the experience of watching it. It's also watchable enough for repeat viewing. A cowboy gets angry at a prostitute for making fun of him, mutilates her face, and the local lawman is such a self-righteous douche that he finds it more enjoyable to show his contempt for whores by letting the guy go with a fine rather than harsher punishments. The prostitutes use their collective earnings to set up a bounty on the heads of the perpetrator and his otherwise innocent companion, who actually tried to make up for it by offering one of his horses to the victim, but his overtures are spurned.
Then a man with a history as a murderous outlaw (William Munny, played by Clint Eastwood) who has spent the past decades living as a farmer with his wife and kids decides it's worthwhile to pursue the bounty with his old crime partner and a young wannabe, and a number of misfortunes and pointless killings ensue - some by the trio, some by competitor assassins, and some by the lawman (Little Bill, played by Gene Hackman) and his posse. Little Bill is not a guarantor of justice, but a bully who tortures prisoners and delights in displaying their corpses as a warning to others not to cross him.
He looks down on anyone who does not meet his arbitrary and largely hypocritical definitions of "character," and shows people whom he looks down on virtually no consideration or compassion. When the final confrontation inevitably comes between the criminal and the authority, it's a collision of chaos and tyranny. The arrogant self-importance of the narcissist in a badge who is so casual with other people's lives is confronted by the universal, remorseless, meaningless finality of death. With his last words, the lawman determinedly misses the point and refuses to recognize his own role in the brutality that now claims him. The outlaw himself is no less doomed - he sincerely believes himself to be destined to burn in Hell, and in his own mind his punishment is already well underway.
So it's as if through Bill's arrogance and lack of compassion, the ghost of a doomed soul that had been waiting in exile was invoked to bring ruin on him. It's not really a tragedy though - the whole thing is too mythic to be that - but more of a sad, quiet song carried on the wind. The only upside is that the wannabe who pretends to be a badass, confronted by the reality of cold-blooded slaughter, abandons the hunt and refuses to ever kill again. Unforgiven is like an epitaph of the frontier, in many ways like Sergio Leone's Once Upon A Time in the West - the pinnacle of the genre. It's a cold wind, but carries on it the promise of warmer days.
5. Repo Man (1984)
It's hard to even articulate what Repo Man is about or why it's so important to liberalism, but I just know that it is - and that it's one of the funniest, most brilliant, most awesome movies of all time. There's so much satire on so many levels it's like the movie's more about everything than anything in particular. Here's the premise: A pissed-off teenager whose parents gave all the family's money to a televangelist ends up getting a job repossessing cars, which ends up involving dodging bullets and navigating through a labyrinth of weirdos and LA urban blight. Only he ends up repo'ing a car containing a lethal alien artifact being tracked by various deadly groups and totally unpredictable hijinks ensue. Seriously, how often are hijinks unpredictable? These are. Especially the finale, which is truly unique and unforeseeable.
4. Heathers (1989)
Heathers is probably the movie that best makes clear where the dichotomy between liberal and conservative arises in youth: The predation of the vulnerable by the undeservedly strong, with power and popularity dictated by the inherited privileges of money, looks, or physical strength rather than personal character, effort, or benign talent. Veronica - a compassionate, honest interloper among a trio of mean girls who rule their high school by degrading others - becomes increasingly tired of them and what they stand for, and allows herself to be roped into eliminating them one by one by a psychotic new student (JD) who puts on airs of individuality to mask his basically malevolent outlook.
Although the murders in the film are portrayed pretty lightly and with plenty of schadenfreude, the audience isn't allowed to get away completely guilt-free - a few key moments force the viewer to see the spark of a deeper character at work in the petty sadism of the target as well as the cascading unintended consequences of their demise. The tyrant Heather Chandler secretly betrays self-loathing; the little kid sister of a bullying jock weeps at his funeral and turns to Veronica in obvious pain. She notices these things, and they begin to change her mind about JD as his homicidal intentions become increasingly bald-faced.
In the end, she rejects him and the self-destructive madness he represents: She is the true individual, and he is just damaged goods who can't hack it in life and is trying to drown out his pain by destroying those around him - a camouflaged version of the Heathers. The popular students whom he originally targets posture themselves as pillars of the high school community while actually being its most destructive parasites, and he pretends to be a revoutionary while in fact being a coward with a rotten soul. And she who lacked the confidence to resist what he was doing even though it repelled her, perhaps due to something dark in herself, finally knows who she is and puts him down with a smirk on her face and a cigarette on her lip. She chooses, and her choice is more powerful than his compulsion. But this is all just analysis - it's a brilliant, hilarious, classic movie any way you slice it, and a profound metaphor for class warfare and the counterfeit revolutions it can breed.
In many ways, the first two films of the Planet of the Apes franchise are a single work, with the first film climaxing on a devastating revelation and the second on the apocalyptic consequences of that revelation. But in more superficial terms, it's a lot of fun to watch the smug, swaggering John Wayne analog jackass portrayed by Charlton Heston be reduced to the status of an animal and then reclaim his humanity only to face the same degradation at the hands of what remains of the human race. One could see it as a sweeping condemnation of the preceding WW2 generation, the madness of militarism, racism, and religion, and the insanity of defining strength through ignorance.
The first film has some of the most iconic lines of all time: "Get your stinking paws off'a me, you damn, dirty ape!" "It's a madhouse! A MADHOUSE!" "You maniacs! You blew it up! Damn you! Goddamn you all to hell!" And the translucent-fleshed mutant humans living underground are culturally significant in their religious worship of an instrument of apocalypse, as well as their hypocrisy in insisting that they do not kill simply because they telepathically force others to kill each other. Hate and destruction are everywhere in this universe: The gorillas are violent militarists who hold the orangutans and chimpanzees in contempt; the orangutans conspire and plot, keeping secrets and cynically sacrificing the truth and lives for their webs of power and their ideologies; and the chimpanzees, so ready to think of themselves as more evolved than the other two, conduct heinous vivisection experiments on humans. Meanwhile the mutant-humans prepare to destroy the world rather than make any attempt to communicate meaningfully with the "marauding, materialistic apes."
We easily forget in the 21st century, with its complex social webs and relatively free-flowing populations, that most of the 20th century was such a prickly and impenetrable hell of rigid ideologies and identities for which entire nations were willing to risk total annihilation rather than look in the mirror. What passes for these problems today isn't even in the same evolutionary league as the towering nightmares that ground up 50 million lives in WW2 and put civilization on the brink of ending for decades. The first two Planet of the Apes films are a nice metaphoric reminder of that past, and how fortunate we are to have escaped it. And they're also just really twisted fun.
2. Robocop (1987)
Paul Verhoeven's ultra-violent satirical masterpiece masquerades as both science fiction and gritty '80s crime drama, but is actually the most disembowelingly savage anti-corporate snark ever put on film, and remarkably prescient on several accounts. The narrative flow of the story is periodically interrupted by "commercial breaks" for humorous products and services illustrating the state of social and environmental decay - e.g., a car called the 6000 S.U.X. that proudly boasts about its low gas mileage. It has not one but two iconic villains - the archetype-defying Clarence Boddicker, who is a middle-aged, bald, white guy in glasses who also happens to be the leader of a gang of homicidal maniacs, and the Cheney-school corporate sociopath Dick Jones who employs them to do his bidding when they're not busy wreaking havoc on their own account. The hero is essentially a ghost in a machine, tortured by the memories of a person he can no longer be, and can only find solace in seeking out those who killed him.
A giant, malevolent corporation called OCP - of which Dick Jones is senior VP - has essentially privatized the city government and police department, and the company intends to wipe away the old city and build a new, gentrified one to serve people more like themselves rather than the people who already live there. This was an incredibly forward-looking topic to satirize in 1987, because privatization of the public sphere was nowhere near the problem it is today. OCP also has its tentacles into the federal government, and Jones proudly notes that he already had contracts lined up for decades into the future to buy a robotic system that didn't work.
When a young hotshot VP vies for the favor of the company President against Jones by spearheading the Robocop program, Jones has Boddicker kill him - another insightful satire of a major problem today: The power of corporations has erased most of the incentive in most industries to innovate, and upstarts with great ideas are simply crushed beneath the weight of dominant players. In the movie, it doesn't matter that Robocop works and Jones's system ED-209 doesn't - Jones is more ruthless, so he survives while the younger guy gets whacked.
There are really two halves to Robocop, with the first being Robocop's war against Boddicker and his gang. This much is relatively straightforward, gritty crime-action stuff, although no less awesome for that - Boddicker is a truly kinetic, irresistible badass and evil sonofabitch, and his battles with Robocop are epic struggles between an immovable object and an unstoppable force. Even the secondary members of his gang display an amazing level of energy that you don't see very often even in action movies.
When, in an iconic moment, one of the lackeys tests out a heavy weapon by blowing up a car and bellows out "I...LIKE IT!" there is a very believable immediacy. And so many scenes are just so damn funny and random: The same guy from Boddicker's gang holds up a nerdy gas station attendant at the point of a Mac-10, and starts ridiculing him with increasing ferocity for studying geometry. Later this douchebag sub-villain ends up a half-melted freak during an industrial battle with Robocop, and Verhoeven's direction makes it clear how much fun you're supposed to be having with that...and you do. The direct confrontations with Boddicker himself are no less satisfying.
At that point, the movie transitions to a focus on getting to Jones, since Boddicker is now a known quantity. There are tons of action movies where the bad guy is a corporate slimeball, but no other film portrays it so convincingly and incisively, and no other film provides more satisfaction in disposing of the bastard. The progress of the story makes it believable that Dick Jones is untouchable and beyond accountability - the audience isn't simply asked to accept it because he's the designated Big Bad: The script and the actor portraying Jones actually create that role and the world surrounding it that makes it plausible. So every inch forward that Robocop makes toward getting to Jones is very easy to appreciate and feel good about, and the finale when the guy's diabolically far-sighted contingency plans to avoid accountability are circumvented, it's actually delightful. The victory of the hero and demise of the villain are not a fait accompli, but something that the story has to work toward, and the journey is damn fun.
1. Inglourious Basterds (2009)
We return once again to Quentin Tarantino, who seems to be developing a bit of a habit in this respect considering that soon he'll be releasing a movie about a slave in the antebellum South who goes around hunting down Klansmen (It's called Django Unchained). I do believe I'll enjoy that one too, but nothing can really compare with the first instance of the bizarre new sub-genre Tarantino created with Inglourious Basterds - history vengeance: Avenge the great crimes of history through fantasized historical fiction where victimized badasses go around massacring the sons of bitches who made the past such a terrible place to live. It's a rare genius who can invent a whole new freaking genre, but I believe Tarantino has done it, and done it well.
In the universe of Inglourious Basterds, the Jews of Europe do not have to wait for the Nuremberg trials or the Israeli hunt for Eichmann decades later to get justice for the Holocaust: A unit is specifically formed of Jewish-American soldiers to function as guerrilla fighters behind German lines and take psychotic glee in brutally slaying SS officers and others with clear ties to the Nazi state. The Germans call them the "bastards" because of their viciousness and they adopt it for themselves. Meanwhile, a young Jewish woman (Shoshanna) in France who escaped being killed with her family in hiding now lives under the identity of a non-Jew as a cinema owner in Paris, and plots a bloodbath when Goebbels chooses to host a film premier for the Nazi high command in her theater. In a much smaller role, a psychotic German enlisted man named Hugo Stiglitz (his introduction is one of the funniest moments in the film) with a bitter personal grudge against the Nazis represents the revenge of the non-Hitlerites of his country against the monsters who had taken it over.
With the exception of the introductory scenes establishing the diabolical nature of Colonel Hans Landa and the vendetta that drives Shosanna, the remainder of the film is almost pure wit, aesthetics, and situational tension, and it is glorious. The British officer who comes to be associated with the Basterds speaks with the kind of outrageously smooth, hyper-exaggerated James Bond attitude that's hilarious at every turn, and only made more entertaining by the brief appearance of Mike Myers as a British general going out of his way to overpronounce leftenant. There is just nothing at all wrong with this movie, and the fact that it's completely nuts only seems natural.
Given that I've already said the movie is a historical revenge fantasy, I doubt I'm giving anything away worth keeping secret by saying that it ends with the comically extreme swiss-cheesing of Adolf Hitler followed by the total incineration of the entire Nazi high command. But words can't really convey what goes on in those final scenes - they must be experienced to be appreciated and understood. It was especially powerful seeing it in the theater, because it was as if Hell had opened up to welcome Hitler and his henchmen - the scene is pure revenge pornography, and brilliant for that. There is not even a trace of moral complication: The Nazis of the film are the real-world crimes of Nazism personified for the sake of orgiastic vengeance - a kind of artistic resurrection of demons simply for the satisfaction of killing them again. And meanwhile a lot of very funny things are said.
V for Vendetta (2006)
The Last Supper (1995)