It's summertime, and the killing is easy -- or looks that way, in the suspended reality of movies THE VIOLENT ONES

August 09, 1992|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

Fourteen, if you count the guy who gets electrocuted. He may have just been stunned, of course, but from the sparks and the way he squirmed, I think he was totaled.

Ten, but one or two of them may have survived what appeared to be mortal gunshot wounds, though with frontier medicine (that is, no medicine) this is unlikely.

Those are the body counts in two American movies that sit like bookends at both ends of the summer. Fourteen deaths in "Lethal Weapon 3" and 10 in the just-opened "Unforgiven" -- it's summer, bloody summer, at the movies.

Here's some others, by my crude calculus: "Batman Returns," dozens, most in weird costumes. "Unlawful Entry," three, including a cop shot by his own partner. "Whispers in the Dark," four, including a psychiatrist played by a lovable character actor who gets a gaff in the head and floats in the surf like Moby Shrink. "Mo' Money," a "comedy," three, one getting his neck snapped, one being stabbed repeatedly and one hanged. "A Stranger Among Us," a movie set among the orthodox Hasidic community of Brooklyn, four, including a young woman shot by the rebbe's son in a synagogue. "Death Becomes Us," two, though the joke is they don't really die. I couldn't begin to count the number in "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," though again there's some question as to whether they're really dead.

But it's a pretty average summer. No film approaches the pagan abandon of "Total Recall" in its wholesale wastage (often for comedy) of human life. There's no hard horror or misogyny, with some demented pervert chasing down and slashing women to ribbons. There's no macho battle movie with dozens of extras perishing in the anonymous explosions. No giant spaceship collapses into another, taking thousands along with it.

It's just like reality: the usual prosaic run of death by 9 millimeter or kitchen paring knife in a few by-now familiar and squalid scenarios, nothing really remarkable or outstanding. In fact, no critic has raised the usual hue and cry about "What is this doing to us?" and "Why do we love violence so much?" It's strictly a business-as-usual summer, violence-wise.

But "Lethal Weapon 3" and "Unforgiven" are interesting in contrast because they seem to represent the two attitudes toward violence that have wound about each other like the strands of a double helix on American screens since a cowpoke fired a six-gun directly at the camera in "The Great Train Robbery" in 1903.

Slapstick violence

"Lethal Weapon 3" represents what might be called the "goof" approach, although it's true that each of the "Lethal Weapons" films has worn a fig leaf of seriousness -- in the first, it was the Vietnam syndrome; in the second, the issue of South Africa, and in this current one, concern over the proliferation of guns in the inner city. But in each case (and particularly and most nauseatingly in the third), the attempt is so half-hearted it's clearly cynical.

Instead violence, particularly gun violence, is represented as a sort of elaborate slapstick without real-world consequences. There's a secret sense of the universe being completely elastic, as if the laws of physics have been suspended. No particular sense of danger fills the air; what blood we see is entirely cosmetic, employed in dabs to give the actors the suggestion of wearing war paint. The movies themselves kid about this; they frequently make references to "The Three Stooges." If you look carefully in "Lethal Weapon 3," you'll note a sign in a garage in the first sequence that reads: "No Parking. Violators will be terminated."

Most children know the rules of this universe, and Mad magazine has parodied it enough times. The first rule is: The heroes can't get shot. Or, if they do get shot, they're not really hurt. They can run through blizzards of machine gun fire while the earth around them spatters under the impact of the many, many bullets, while they miraculously escape unscathed. (Mel Gibson, in fact, frequently looks like Gene Kelly in "Singin' in the Rain," except that the rain is lead.)

In the "Lethal Weapon" series the two actors are conceived of and characterized by their firearms: Gibson, reckless and wild and sexy, is a Beretta 16-shot semi-automatic. He doesn't even have a holster for it but merely sticks it in his belt; at odd moments he fondles it. He pulls it to scare a pedestrian (the most ludicrous scene in "Lethal Weapon 3"). He fires it rapidly, without any commitment to aiming, and, by the laws of Hollywood, always hits his man. Danny Glover, on the other hand, carries a six-shot Smith & Wesson, a gun designed at the turn of the century. It's a slow-loader that bespeaks a traditionalist's approach to such things. No spray and pray for Sergeant Murtaugh: He's got to aim.

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