Wednesday, October 29, 2008

CultCrit 101: Pride and Glory, or, 'The Wages of Sin Is Death' (Romans 6:23)

Let's get the bad stuff out of the way: Pride and Glory is a paint-by-numbers, "formulaic and forgettable" collection of cop-movie (and cop show) clich├ęs in which "overacting by Jon Voight and Colin Farrell is countered by underacting of Edward Norton and Noah Emmerich," all of which "holds the audience hostage" for more than two hours. Filmed and completed in 2006, it's just now seeing the light of day, even with such marquee-value leading actors.

Corrupt NYC cops? Check.
Irish family with multiple generations of cops? Check.
All the generations of Irish cops getting together for a Christmas dinner? Check.
Good brother vs. bad brother? Check.
Conflicted good cop unsure of what to tell Internal Affairs? Check.
Good cop facing impending divorce over his job, even though his soon-to-be-ex still loves him, but not his job? Check.
Cop living on a boat? Check. (See Clint Eastwood in Blood Work.)

The trailer tells the story:

But Pride and Glory is also an incredibly rich playground for cultural critique. Forget the whole "three generations of Irish cops" angle; that's boring. This movie is about cultural outsiders enacting a vivid illustration of St. Paul's mention to the Romans, a few millennia ago, that "the wages of sin is death."

Warning, spoiler alert: No moral crusaders will be complaining that this is one of those movies where criminals go unpunished, because nearly all the bad guys die. Of the ring of eight cops who've been robbing dope dealers, four are executed by a dope dealer, one commits suicide, one is shot by a local shop owner tired of being robbed by cops, and another is gruesomely ripped apart by an angry mob. But the fascinating sleight-of-hand here is that none of these are really the bad bad guys. They've done wrong, and they've ruined their careers and families and lives, and they've dishonored the badge, but the real bad guys are — Latinos!

Yes, it was a Latino drug dealer who killed the first four cops who came to rob him, and it's a Latino coke whore who helps him kill a doctor, and a Latino father who interferes when the good cop wants to interrogate his son, and a Latino cop who's really really bad because he went to school with the Latino drug dealer, and has warned him about the attempted robbery by the other cops. Do the screenwriters have some kind of attitude about Latinos? As Colin Farrell's bad cop character says: "Just look at how these animals live!"

But movies that vilify ethnic groups this way know better than to let their prejudices and semiotic shortcuts go unchecked. And so we have the Latino former bad guy, who is now a good guy — we know this because he has a family, and is eating dinner with them when the bad cops come to beat him and threaten to burn his infant son — even though the former bad Latino guy knows where the really bad bad Latino guy is, so he's not completely good. Still, it's this character who gets to enact the ultimate revenge in the film's climax, when Ferrell's bad, bad, bad cop is executed at the hands of an angry mob, incited by the wronged, and thus mostly good, Latino man.

And you know, it's really all okay, what happens to the evil and nasty bad cop, because Ferrell's character was never really part of the three-generations-of-Irish-cops family anyway. We know that the family patriarch (Voight) is a good guy, because he says that the only money he ever took was "checks with the city's name on them." We know that the oldest son (Emmerich) is a good guy, because he loves his wife and she's dying of cancer. And we know that the youngest son (Norton) is a good guy because everyone says it a dozen times. But Jimmy (Ferrell) isn't part of this group of good men and good cops. He's the brother-in-law — an outsider. The family has let him in by allowing him to marry the only daughter in the family, who happens to be a doctor. As Voight's family patriarch says at Christmas dinner, his eyes filled with tears of pride: "Look at my family. We raised the bar high." Brother-in-law Jimmy has wrecked it all by lowering that bar straight into the mud. So of course, he has to die.

Moral cautionary tale, passion play, triumph of good over evil, tribute to New York's Finest; Pride and Glory has it all, and that's what makes it a totally rewarding workspace for cultural analysis. And if that's not enough, it even comes with a trailer for Clint Eastwood's upcoming Gran Torino, otherwise known as Dirty Harry is 90 Years Old Now but Still Kicks Punks' Asses.* (And the punks are Hmong. Discuss.)


* And he drives a cool car. Hope it doesn't get destroyed in the film!

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