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Targeted by the trigger-happy

Posted by on 21/12/2018

Shoot ’em up … Gangster Squad doesn’t take itself or its gunplay too seriously.The other day I made the mistake of engaging a teenage male in conversation while he was playing the video game Call of Duty: Black Ops II. He was blasting away at helmeted soldiers in a landscape that looked like a bombed-out Los Angeles.

I asked him what his character was doing. ”I’m shooting those guys,” he said.

”Yes, I see,” I said, ”but who are they? What’s your mission?”

”I don’t know,” he said, ”I just have to shoot them. I’m in multiplayer” (which means he’s linked via the internet to other enthusiasts around the world). I pressed on: ”Isn’t there a backstory, like aliens or zombies or invading Russians?”

His reply: ”Probably, but I don’t care about that stuff at the moment. It’s not about goodies and baddies. I just need to kill these guys as fast as I can.”

That conversation stayed in my mind last week when I went to see Django Unchained and Gangster Squad, two films that have become entangled in the US debate about gun control – along with games such as Call of Duty. The gun lobby argues that governments would save more lives by restricting access to violent entertainment than by restricting access to automatic weapons (because movies and games brainwash people into wanting to commit mass murder, while guns are tools).

Django Unchained and Gangster Squad are violent. Both end with mass slaughters that look very similar to scenes in Call of Duty – blood splashes everywhere, bodies crash to the ground and twitch pathetically. And that’s after two hours of bashings, floggings, burnings and stabbings.

But in these films, the violence has a narrative context (it fits logically within the story) and a moral context (it is justified by the need to rid the planet of monsters). Most of the people you see suffering deserve it. The few innocent victims are obliged to die so we understand the villains are beyond redemption.

Django Unchained is a black revenge fantasy. Gangster Squad is an honest cop’s revenge fantasy.

Both films make it clear you’re not meant to take them seriously. Tarantino keeps pushing the message: ”Don’t worry, it’s only a movie.” He’ll follow a scene of sickening brutality with a scene of ridiculous hilarity – like the Ku Klux Klan arguing about the quality of their headgear.

Both films want you to notice references to earlier films. Django starts like Blazing Saddles, with splashy red titles, a chain gang and frequent use of the word ”nigger”. The tone is set by a deliberately dumb theme song (”Django! You must face another day, Django! Now your love has gone away”).

If Django is a mash-up of Blazing Saddles, The Unforgiven and 100 westerns from the 1950s, Gangster Squad is a mash-up of Who Framed Roger Rabbit, The Untouchables and 100 noirs from the 1950s.

The trick is to keep the audience enthralled in the narrative while letting them appreciate the style. Given the level of abstraction required, it’s hard to see how either film could encourage viewers to go around shooting people.

But making a drama that is simultaneously a parody is a thankless task.

Recently, The New York Times described one of the movies above as ”genre zombie-ism: the hysterical, brainless animation of dead cliches reduced to purposeless, compulsive killing. Too self-serious to succeed as pastiche, it has no reason for being beyond the parasitic urge to feed on the memories of other, better movies.” You could easily say that about Django Unchained but, in fact, that was about Gangster Squad. Its director, Ruben Fleischer, fell off the tightrope. Tarantino, according to The New York Times, completed the walk successfully.

Where does all this leave Call of Duty: Black Ops II? It is certainly not intended as genre parody. It turns out to have a complex backstory that jumps between the final years of the Cold War in the 1980s and a future cold war between the US and China in 2025.

But as far as I can make out, it has no moral core.

Taking itself seriously, without presenting goodies and baddies, without right and wrong, and without a sense of justice, the video game ends up supplying ammunition – if you’ll pardon the term – to the gun lobby.

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The original release of this article first appeared on the website of Hangzhou Night Net.

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