Damaged Goods 

At the movies this week, racism and revenge.

Released in major markets late last year in order to qualify for Oscar contention and already picking up a few early acting awards, Monster's Ball is the season's most inexplicable buzz film. If there's such a thing as an overrated sleeper, this small film with big pretensions is it.

For an illumination of Monster's Ball's many imperfections, take a look at Paul Schrader's very similar but far superior Affliction from a few years ago. Monster's Ball is essentially a below-the-Mason-Dixon-Line rewrite of Schrader's New England-set film.

Both films are about breaking free from a monstrous masculine heritage, with Monster's Ball featuring Billy Bob Thornton in the Nick Nolte role of a lawman (in this case, the middle of three generations of prison guards) struggling to live up to, then separate himself from a domineeringly macho father (Peter Boyle, a second-rate heavy next to James Coburn's iconic hamming in Affliction). As the youngest member of the family, the one who first escapes the curse of heritage, Monster's Ball has Heath Ledger as the softie son/grandson who puts a bullet in his chest. Affliction's younger brother (Willem Dafoe) simply skips town and becomes a college professor.

But the difference between the two films is more vast than the gulf between Massachusetts and Georgia. With Monster's Ball, previously unknown director Marc Forster is all purple prose and clumsy execution where Paul Schrader presided over Affliction with subtle command. And where Schrader's star was surrounded by myriad memorable supporting performances, Thornton doesn't get quite as much help.

Rather than exorcising the demons of the father in a cleansing inferno, a la Affliction, Monster's Ball sends Pops packing and looks for peace in the gentle redemption of romance. Because Monster's Ball is set in the South, the rejected heritage consists of more than brutish masculinity ("I got more pussy after she killed herself than I did when she was my wife," Boyle's character says to Thornton's of his long-departed wife), it's also racism portrayed as typical (in the movies anyway) redneck boilerplate. Boyle's evil father is barely on-screen before he's spouting vile racist epithets, and when Thornton threatens a couple of black kids who have come over to visit his son, we know that like cracker icon Hank Williams Jr. said it's just family tradition.

Thornton is forced to confront his inherited racism when he falls for an equally down-on-her-luck African-American waitress (Halle Berry, who may be too beautiful for the role, a problem the filmmakers do nothing to alleviate). But it would be way too simple to stop there, so the love interest is actually the wife of a man (Sean "P. Diddy" Combs, who acquits himself well in this cameo debut) whose execution Thornton has recently overseen, and she's a single mother grieving over the loss of a child.

Monster's Ball has redeeming elements. The low-rent, small-town Southern settings are realistically depicted, and there are a lot of small moments in which characters are deftly developed. The film also boasts one of the most engagingly raw and realistic sex scenes in recent American film, but Forster's approach through a window and with jump cuts only detracts from the desperate heat his actors generate.

Forster ultimately lays it on too thick. This is hard-sell prestige cinema, its measured pace and high-minded veneer at odds with its ham-handed accumulation of Job-like travails (multiple deaths, an eviction, job loss, racism, etc.), and its Big Subject themes (the horror of capital punishment, inherited racism, parental loss, small-town romance) don't really add up to much. The film ends with what is supposed to be a grand summing-up Thornton and Berry together, past demons buried, with Thornton saying, "I think we're gonna be all right." One gets the feeling that Thornton is supposed to be speaking for us all, that this is meant to be the moving conclusion of some parable about racial reconciliation in the New South, but on this score Forster is a few years late and far from worthy of the challenge. And it's especially damning when the best recent films about the small-town South and the milieu's race-ridden heritage have been Thornton's own A Family Thing and One False Move.

With a Republican back in the White House, it was only a matter of time before Last "American" Action Hero Arnold Schwarzenegger attempted to rebound from his Clinton-era irrelevance.

Set to release last fall but postponed after September 11th, the somehow pro-vigilante-justice yet anti-terrorist Collateral Damage arrives with the kind of unimaginable "good" timing that marketers dream of. No one associated with the film is happy about what happened last fall, of course, but that doesn't mean they won't be pleased to capitalize on a post-9/11 environment where patriotism is an institutionalized imperative that carries a martial whiff and firefighters (the profession of Schwarzenegger's protagonist) are our most celebrated national heroes.

Schwarzenegger's shoot-'em-ups from the '80s and early '90s were decidedly Reaganesque, most notably the stunningly proto-fascist True Lies (geez, just think about the title), in which Ah-nold's free-lancing government agent embodied the State as a rough-riding outlaw hero, mowing down an Arab terrorist group with all the freewheeling spirit of a junior high kid conducting sleep-over pranks. But that world no longer exists, so Collateral Damage updates and corrects this perspective, offering a right-wing fantasy for a post-Clinton era.

For starters, Schwarzenegger is no longer an agent of the government. After eight years of Clinton and the Republican "revolution" of 1994, government is the enemy. Schwarzenegger's Gordy Brewer is a firefighter who is shown fearlessly saving lives during an apartment fire in the film's suitably harrowing opening scene (director Andrew Davis, who helmed the ace Hollywood action film The Fugitive, knows how to make the trains run on time). But when his central-casting-cute wife and son become "collateral damage" during a bombing planned by a Colombian terrorist known as El Lobo, the government isn't much help.

Brewer must contend with a State Deparment reluctant to make "hasty decisions," a Senate without the balls to go all-out against this terrorist threat, and a CIA (the most macho and thus the most respected of the bunch) that is congratulated for working outside of congressional oversight but damned for caring more about department goals than exacting vengeance in the name of one wronged American.

And so this firefighter does what any good American would if faced with typically ineffectual bureaucracy telling him, "Justice for your wife and son isn't a priority now" not to mention harassment from an uncomprehending liberal media he takes things into his own hands. And so Brewer, after surfing the Web for information and sipping coffee from an American-flag mug for a while, makes his way into the guerilla zone in the jungles of Colombia, eludes 20 men with rifles, leaps into a river and down several waterfalls, escapes from a military prison during a guerilla attack and raging fire, infiltrates the terrorist camp by clinging to the bottom of the guerrillas' jeep as they ride in, blows a cocaine processing plant to smithereens, and kills innumerable faceless combatants. Not bad for a simple American fireman.

But despite those cartoonish fireworks, the other thing that separates Collateral Damage from Schwarzenegger's Reagan-era work is a deliberately softer, more somber tone. This is compassionate conservatism with a willingness to conform to the new realities of political correctness (Schwarzenegger's standard dark-skinned foes carefully countered by a crew of firefighting buddies so precisely integrated they could be posing for the cover of a college-admissions brochure) and a surface tone of thoughtfulness.

When Brewer finally confronts his nemesis, there's a hint of a counter-critique when El Lobo says to him, "You Americans are so naive. You see a peasant with a gun on television and you change the channel, but you never stop to wonder why a peasant needs a gun." But this claim is dismissed by some kind of forgettable, blustery, non-sequitur response. In this fantasy, heroes don't think, they act, and so the film's ultimate vengeance comes from nailing El Lobo in the chest with an axe and throwing his two-faced, back-stabbing wife headfirst through an electrical grid.

Coming on the heels of In the Bedroom, a film that dealt responsibly with the impulse toward vigilantism that sometimes arises from tragedy and loss, it's a real downer to be confronted with something as shamelessly crass and silly and obscene as this.


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