Fred Russell is the pen name of an American-born writer living in Israel. His novels Rafi's World and The Links in the Chain both appeared in 2014.
Every New Year and on certain other occasions, my Israeli cable provider opens up all its channels free of charge. The idea is to generate goodwill by appearing to be generous but also, of course, to tempt viewers to shell out a few more bucks every month on new cable packages. I don't know what results they get, but at least for their film channels I think this generosity has the opposite effect, because instead of running quality films they show the usual crap. It may be that they themselves can't tell the difference between good and bad films, or believe their viewers can't, or that this is what Hollywood is turning out these days. Nonetheless, by the law of averages, among the thousands of films they show, there are bound to be a few worth watching, and when all the movie channels are open -- seven of them simultaneously -- you may even get a few being shown at roughly the same time. That's how it happened that I was faced with the dilemma of watching Kramer vs. Kramer, Cold Mountain, Blazing Saddles -- all of which I had seen -- or Taken with Liam Neeson, which I hadn't.
I chose Taken, but was able to catch a few minutes of the others before it came on. Cold Mountain and Blazing Saddles didn't really appeal to me this time around. In the case of Cold Mountain, I suppose it was because the idea of the film (and of the novel, which I had also read) -- the Odysseus story -- was etched so clearly in my mind that the film itself became anticlimactic. As for Blazing Saddles, I guess I wasn't in the mood for its craziness. Kramer vs. Kramer, on the other hand, was riveting, though I also had a very clear sense of it. This was of course because of the acting. Meryl Streep is always superb and Dustin Hoffman is always Dustin Hoffman, somewhat hyperactive, which can be annoying at times but which worked pretty well here. I watched a little of it and then switched over to the start of Taken.
Neeson is ex-CIA, a master of marshal arts and of getting things done. Reluctantly he allows his seventeen-year-old daughter to fly to Paris for a vacation, where she is promptly kidnapped by an Albanian human trafficking ring. Neeson is on the next plane to Paris, picks out the point man for the Albanians at the airport, who gets himself killed fleeing Neeson in a wild car chase. Neeson now gets onto the gang with a little help from French Intelligence, shows up where they are keeping some of the kidnapped girls on drugs and wreaks some more havoc, killing them all and rescuing a girl who gives him another lead. Next he shows up at an auction where the girls are being displayed holographically to a black marketer, does some more killing and finds out that his daughter is on a yacht, having been consigned to a fat sheikh. More mayhem, more killing, and Liam gets the girl.
I did not count how many people Neeson killed. Some he shoots, others he overcomes in classic karate style, one he electrocutes, and he even shoots the wife of a corrupt intelligence officer in the arm to get some information from him. This is heady stuff. Neeson is not Jean-Claude Van Damme or Steven Seagal or even Sylvester Stallone. He is a first-rate actor, that is, he is thoroughly convincing in an improbable story, carrying it off through the sheer force of his cinematic personality. The film grossed 230 million dollars and a sequel made 375 million. It is not surprising. Neeson is the indomitable hero we all want to be. He is resourceful, determined, forceful, invincible.
Paradoxically, in order to enjoy such films we must depersonalize them, that is, repress the vicarious element and refuse to recognize that they play directly to our feelings of resentment and inadequacy. We would all like to be forceful and invincible ourselves, but just as importantly we would all like to get back at people who occupy a higher station in life than ourselves and remind us of our insignificance by the very fact of their existence -- the rich, the powerful, and even the criminals who prey on our weakness and make us cringe. Neeson does it for us.
It is not just America or the West in general that requires heroes. Everyone does, and therefore you have flourishing movie industries in India and Egypt too, and eager audiences everywhere. Ultimately these movies tell us more about ourselves than a thousand sociological studies and all the Dr. Phils in the world. What they are telling us is something we do not really wish to hear, and hence the repression, leading us to affix some innocuous tag like "escapism" to these films so that we can watch them without having to think too much about ourselves. Even the movie makers don't understand fully what depths they are plumbing. Intuitively, they have gotten on to the great mother lode of human fantasy and are content to mine it for all it's worth.