Wednesday, February 14, 2018

We Don't Need Another Hero

Sing it, Tina!

I am sick and tired of good criminals. Not everyone who steals is a violent psychopath, but it seems the current trend of "likable characters" means crooks who love the cops and America and help old ladies across the street. True, the contract killers I knew were very polite, if quiet individuals. Little Sammy was a gentleman in the pharmacy where I worked, where he bought smokes for himself and medicine for his family. I had the honor of mailing care packages to him in Rahway prison from his family. He never sent a thank-you card, but he also never growled a snappy one-liner and gripped my collar when I didn't grab him his Pall Malls fast enough.

He didn't smoke Pall Malls, or Luckies for that matter. They weren't Marlboros, either. It's been twenty years. I know exactly where on the rack they would be, but I can't see the logo. They were white, so not Benson & Hedges... I miss working at that drug store. I wrote my first stories there. The only one in "print" is "We're All Guys Here," which was almost entirely rewritten from when it first appeared in Blue Murder in 2001. I rewrote it for [PANK] Magazine in 2011. The one "drug store story" I wrote was called "Zero Tolerance," and I recently found it on my hard drive. It won't be in print anytime soon! But it was a good learning exercise. 

Anyway, why was I talking about a mobster I knew? Because he wouldn't be on the side of the cops. Unlike the "criminal" in a recent movie I was watching, Brawl in Cell Block 99. I didn't give the movie much of a chance after 30 minutes in, when Vince Vaughn, a supposed recovering addict who works for drug dealer (I wonder what his sponsor says?) but "won't work with people who uses." Right there this puts the novel in the realm of fantasy. He might as well have a third eye on the back of his head instead of the iron cross tattoo. You're not going to find much work in that business. He also likes punching his new associates, taking their weapons from them, and expecting them to not kill him when his back is turned, because he's a grade-A asshole. What sank the boat for me was when the police show up while they are making a drug deal, and the Latino dealers pull machine guns out of nowhere and start killing them, and he ... shoots them and saves the cops.

If you want to write about criminals, make them criminals. If he doesn't want to kill police, he can run. He can hide. But shooting his business partners out of some sense of morality, when he sells meth, broke any suspension of disbelief I had. The writer did not trust us to like this character, so he had to put him in prison for being a good guy. A cop actually says to him, at an interrogation, that "maybe he could be on the other side of the table" because of his morals.

Said no cop ever. 

I train in martial arts with police. My father was (briefly) a police officer, and even the bad cops call the criminals scumbags. They do not socialize with them. They do not say, "hey, you'd be a good guy if you weren't distributing tons of methamphetamine in my town. Let's go get a steak." For a realistic look, read Don Winslow's The Force, which captures the cognitive dissonance of the corrupt cop quite well. I wasn't a fan of the ending, but it's a damn good read and explains how good cops can be corrupted by our fruitless drug war and the billions of dollars it sends to organized crime and the justice system.

These aren't the Yankees and the Mets, who might brawl on the field but grab brews together. They might grow up on the same street, but if you're an outlaw, you don't feel bad for the police when they try to put you in prison and are outgunned. You get the hell out of there. One of the best portrayals of both sides I've read, other than Winslow, is Eugene Izzi's Invasions. Long out of print, but it captured it perfectly. There's a scene where an undercover embedded in a corrupt cop squad has to beat up a pro burglar who won't talk. He takes a baton and knocks his teeth out. He doesn't feel bad about it, not really. If he was soft, they would know, and kill him. So he does it, and he gives the guy respect later. The burglar, in a prison riot, helps a guard who was being brutalized. But he doesn't do it by beating up or killing any inmates. That would get him killed. He removes the nightstick from the officer (you can wince and use your imagination) and pushes him into an empty cell. That was believable. He doesn't risk his life. He doesn't try to stop the riot. He has a shred of decency and quietly acts. 

I've read a number of books recently where contract killers and so-called street thugs have hearts of gold for people they shouldn't give two damns about, and it doesn't ring true. One that did ring true was Jordan Harper's excellent She Rides Shotgun, about a crook who kills a white supremacist gang leader's brother and has to save his daughter from a hit on his whole family. That book deals very well with people who look out for number one. If you want people who make sacrifices for strangers, write about police and firemen. Or reformed criminals. People in the life rarely stick their necks out for people, and they certainly don't do it for the people who want to kill them or lock them up for life.

For indie crime films, let me recommend I Don't Feel at Home in This World Anymore, which starts with a burglary and spirals out of control. It's funny and wonderful. Blue Ruin and Green Room are both excellent and show bad people behaving as bad people do, with citizens caught in between. I also liked Small Crimes based on Dave Zeltsermann's novel. These stories all give us characters that we like even when they are criminals, without resorting to have them save puppies.

And I'll say this- Jay Desmarteaux isn't a born outlaw. He was raised by them, mentored by one, but he knows he is not one. He can move in both worlds, the citizen and the outlaw, but he is an outsider in both. There's a scene in Bad Boy Boogie that shows who Jay is, and who the passenger in his car is, when they are racing and send another car into a lake. An outlaw wouldn't do what Jay did. He'd be a liability on a job. Parker wouldn't work with him. Hell, his own mentor Okie wouldn't work with him. 

But he doesn't call himself a contract killer, and then weigh the target's heart like Anubis to see if he deserves to die. Or work for a drug dealer, but have a problem with people who use the product. ("Don't get high on your own supply" is the rule, not "don't get high at all"). So I hope that the next 2 hours of Riot in Cell Block 99 weren't incredible, because I couldn't get there. I'm also not a big fan of the John Wick movies, though I did like Crank and Shoot Em Up because they embraced their ridiculousness. Twenty guys running into a house to be shot like video game thugs doesn't excite me. (At least in John Wick 2 they just blew up his house, which was smarter). We have enough comic book heroes out there. I'd really like to see comic book criminals from Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips's series Criminal on the screen. Those crooks were real as can be.


Dana King said...

Amen. Criminals can be sympathetic characters, but not so much for what it is that makes them criminals. They can love their children or have certain character traits anyone could have--they're people, after all--but weakness in their criminal lives only works if they authors wants them to get caught/killed, or is writing a comedy.

Thomas Pluck said...

Oh yeah. I love Bernie Rhodenbarr and Dortmunder, they wouldn't kill anyone.