The vigilante as productive of popular geopolitics

Later this year, Phil Kirby (now at the University of Exeter) and I will publish a paper in Critical Studies on Security. It is entitled ‘Resurrecting the Vigilante: Paternal Sovereignty, Exceptionality and Familial Security in Taken (2008) and Taken 2 (2013)’.

Our interest in the vigilante, and in particular the vigilante father, came about as part of a broader interest in popular cultural engagements with the war on terror and prevailing security anxieties, including the role of humour. We posit the claim that in order to understand contemporary security dynamics, and the imagined geographies that underpin them such as a sharp and distinction between friends and enemies, attention needs to be devoted to this particular generic figure, made popular in movies, television programmes and books such as  Gran Torino (2008), Machete (2010), Harry Brown (2008), the Batman series, superhero movies such as the Iron Man and Thor collection, and the novelistic adventures of Mitch Rapp. While we focus on the male vigilante, acclaimed films such as The Brave One (2007) remind us popular culture has also imagined women to be vigilantes as well (albeit in fewer numbers).

With their origins in the 1970s, the vigilante film has enjoyed a resurgence of popularity in the post 9-11 era. As a generic type of film, the premise is based on a protagonist turning to vigilante violence in the aftermath of a traumatic event; one which has exposed the incapacity of law enforcement agencies either to apprehend the perpetrators or to impose appropriate sentencing. Films such as Taxi Driver (1976) and the Dirty Harry series (1971-1988) are the preeminent examples, perhaps most famous is the Charles Bronson vehicle, Death Wish (1974), which saw a desperate father hunting for the assailants that mugged and raped his daughter. The movie poster for Death Wish posited Bronson’s professional architect character, Paul Kersey, as ‘vigilante –city style – judge, jury, and executioner’. Like Inspector Harry Callaghan in the Dirty Harry films, Kersey’s pursuit of violent justice is based on disgust with corrupt and impotent institutions and police officers. Callaghan’s contempt for his superiors, such as Briggs, is visceral.

In the aftermath of the Vietnam conflict, film scholars and social commentators interpreted the popularity of the vigilante (regardless of their job description) as a commentary on a troubling legacy of geopolitical frustration and cultural trauma. The United States, although not defeated, had clearly struggled to impose its military superiority over a South East Asian adversary and over 58,000 American soldiers perished, with countless more returned home as deeply troubled soldier-citizens.  But there are other parallels as well, as both Kersey and Callaghan were battling frontier like environments in New York and San Francisco, respectively. For Richard Slotkin, the vigilante hero ‘draws energy from the same rage that drives the paranoids, psychopaths, mass murderers, and terrorists of the mean streets’ (1992: 634). Like the western film genre before it, the vigilante films of the 1970s were informed by a cultural critique of the city as an urban frontier needing the decisive presence of the reluctant vigilante hero. For Callaghan and Kersey, the rule was simple – don’t sit back and wait, don’t negotiate and don’t wait for policing authorities to intervene. Because it might be too late when they eventually do.

In the Taken films, we consider the role that a retired American counter-intelligence officer and middle-aged man, Bryan Mills, performs as he desperately seeks to discover the whereabouts of his kidnapped teenage daughter, Kim; seized during a holiday in Paris and later in Istanbul where his wife is seized on that occasion.  Determined to restore the logic and practice of masculinist protection, as Iris Marion Young might term it, Mills embodies and enacts the role of violent vigilante, as he encounters a corrupt French counterpart, Albanian sex traffickers, Euro-Mediterranean charlatans and Middle Eastern paedophiles. Many of these characters feature in the film’s sequel, too, which nevertheless partially inverts the narrative of its predecessor, and installs Kim in the role of rescuer; assisting in the release of her father, which then enables Mills to save her mother. In addition to drawing analytical parallels and differences between the two, our paper uses the films as starting points for the consideration of how the ageing father figure has been used to restore a particular set of security logics which foreground vigilantism in the name of saving vulnerable female subjects.

The vigilante film, like some aspects of the superhero film, thrives on a series of conceits: the law alone cannot deliver justice; the hero reluctantly engages with violence in the pursuit of justice; the victim(s) is often female and sometimes related to the hero-figure; the use of exceptional practices is justified because of the fear that the crime committed by the perpetrator might go unpunished and finally, the vigilante’s violence leads to a righteous outcome (the family, the state, the law is salvaged). By providing some exceptional supplementary violence, the vigilante (paradoxically) helps to sustain the legal-territorial order of the state. The central conceit of the Dirty Harry series was that Inspector Harry Callaghan was helping to expose and rid San Francisco of people and organizations that were flouting and exposing the limitations of the city’s legal and policing system. In the Taken films, Mills demonstrates that his extraordinary training and field experience is needed to keep his family safe from the jungle-like environments of Paris and Istanbul.

So by way of conclusion, our paper engages with other scholars who have explored how particular figures in the post-9/11 environment have contributed to a popular geopolitics, which is shaped strongly by the intersection of race, gender, sexuality, age, class and the body.



One thought on “The vigilante as productive of popular geopolitics

  1. I saw only Taken 1 and I immediately thought of the way is shows how Americans are showing the European nations – corrupted, degenerated, dirty and dangerous for the innocent US citizens who only want to be tourists and if they reach out to violence it is only to bring justice to the world. I even thought of writing a paper or a comment on my blog on how this picture helps to reinforce the US popular geoimagination of the world. But so far I had no time to deal with it.
    I am looking forward for your paper then.

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