Stone Killers

January 08, 1991|By Stephen Hunter

THE NEWS about kids and guns is not good. In Washington, a few miles down the turnpike, a unique combination of crack culture and easy availability of illegal handguns has driven the murder rate sky high.

What's so depressing about this is the stone chill with which the kids blow each other away. Recently, in a turf dispute, three boys in their young teens (two were 14, one 15) opened fire on a playground and hit five children; fortunately, none of the children died.

Now, it seems possible that that unprecedented level of gun violence has spread to Baltimore. In the dreary litany of back-alley shootings and executions and domestic tiffs turning suddenly fatal, the most depressing recent event involves the point-blank shooting of a young architect, allegedly by a 15-year-old boy who had already taken the wallet from his unprotesting victim.

Then he shot him again, as a police detective said, ''for fun.''

Where do kids learn to kill like that?

There are many sources: they see death on television all the time, both in dramatic programming and on news shows. The killers usually come from fractured families and are abused themselves; many are themselves the children of teen-agers, and they grow up without forming a primary bond with a caring adult, who can nurture them into caring for their fellow man and teach them how to settle disputes without reaching for a magnum. And then there's the overwhelming crush of poverty in the midst of a society that celebrates material wealth above all things, and daily issues the proclamation that you are what you own.

All that is true. But when I read of the above atrocities, I didn't think of any of them. Instead, what I read seemed tragically familiar to me. It's where I make my living. It's the movies.

The truth is that in the past 15 years, and particularly in the past 5 years, there's been a marked change in the way Hollywood films portray the act of killing. Once upon a time, killings were dynamic and dramatic, traumatic. A man's death had significance; it was the sound of that bell that tolled for him, but also for us.

I think, for example, of one of the most violent of the '50s films, ''High Noon,'' where Sheriff Gary Cooper is isolated by the cowardice of the town he's served admirably for many years and must face four hardened gunmen alone. There's nothing particularly glamorous about the shoot-out: Cooper is terrified by what he must face, and what he faces is even worse than he could have imagined. It's an exhausting, terrifying rathunt through alleys and down dusty streets. Each death is powerful, as a real man, whom we've gotten to know, is erased forever; the carnage mounts until, in the last seconds, Cooper is able to shoot the last of his antagonists at close quarters, at which point he's literally exhausted, sodden with sweat and clearly showing signs of what happens to most policemen when they're forced to kill -- post-shooting trauma, a stressed-out, almost narcotized state.

I suspect that anybody who saw that movie wouldn't see killing as anything except the most degrading of ordeals, perhaps necessary but demeaning.

The modern era, alas, began with ''Dirty Harry,'' the Clint Eastwood film which marshaled the anti-coddling-criminals argument, suggesting that justice was better issued from the barrel of a gun than from the wishy-washy liberal courts. But let's leave politics out of it: What concerns me isn't conservative vs. liberal as it's played out in cop movies so much as the visual texture of the killings.

In ''Lethal Weapon,'' to pick just one example, there's not merely more killing numerically -- body count must be in the 20s -- but there's much less emotion and at the same time an investiture of coolness, of elan, of sangfroid in the act of killing.

What we arrive at is the paradigm of the modern big-city teen-age crack-culture killing as enacted by millionaires like Mel Gibson who haven't been in a big city in a long, long time: a stone killer, cool and confident, who eliminates human beings that clearly don't exist for him. He's never scared; he never misses; he wears great clothes; his mousse never cracks; his gun is more vividly evoked than his personality, and it's always some gleaming, high-tech artifact.

He has made no emotional connection with the people he shoots. They're just stooges. They live to die. Their deaths have no ramifications, not even of the practical nature; some unseen municipal division scoops up the bodies. There are never any post-shooting investigations; he never feels guilt, only triumph. When spectators are hit, it's an evil joke -- in ''Total Recall,'' for example, Arnold Schwarzenegger plucked a passer-by from an escalator to use as a shield from several hundred bullets and the scene was played for humor! There's simply no appreciation of the terrible possibilities that ensue when 124 grains of gilded lead and copper are released into society at supersonic speeds.

It's hard not to believe that kids who see this ritual over and over in the movie theaters, where they flee to escape the sheer hell of their lives, don't connect with it in some dark and passionate way. And that they don't re-enact it on the streets, becoming, if only for a moment and at tragic cost, stars.

Mr. Hunter is The Sun's film critic.

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