Homefront [2013]

We tend to think about Sylvester Stallone as an actor but he has 30 screenplay credits under his belt. These are mostly vehicles for his acting and some are actually fairly good. The original Rocky screenplay is one of the great underdog stories, not least because it recognises the primacy of the struggle over the outcome – it’s main flaw was that it led to sequels which conformed more closely to genre expectations. Stallone’s involvement in a Jason Statham vehicle reads to me like a passing of the torch – but Statham is already a huge star within his genre, the genre’s just a bit smaller than the mid 1970s when Stallone and Arnie were the big stars. By the time Stallone was in his mid-40s, I think his career highlights were already behind him, while it feels like Statham may still have his best work ahead of him. Watching Homefront I couldn’t help but imagine how Stallone would have played the scenes 20 years ago – I think I prefer “The Staithe”.

Homefront is a middle-of-the-road vigilante story, about a retired DEA agent whose past intersects with the petty ambitions of a local meth cook to create an explosion of violence – more of a plot summary than that is probably just wasting digital ink. I probably wouldn’t have anything to say about it at all if I hadn’t just watched a very similar film with similarly limited ambitions, The Equalizer. I characterised The Equalizer as a failure to implement an Iconic Identity for its central character, by trying to make it into an origin story for a longer sequence and by coming up with poor-quality iconography. It attempted to defy or invert genre conventions, and it failed in those ambitions. In some ways, the problem with it was ultimately that it tried to tell-and-show. Homefront instead simply shows us what we need to know. We get a preface scene in which the main criminal mastermind is introduced, and the terms of the feud established- and then we’re into the story. There is almost none of the straight exposition that loads down the Equalizer.

In your usual revenge narrative, the hero embarks on a vengeance quest after an initial act of violence by the central villain. In Conan the Barbarian, Conan’s quest is motivated by Thulsa Doom slaughtering his family, in Kill Bill the Bride is revenging her own murder from before the film starts, in Payback, Porter is chasing money stolen from him and in the king of the genre, the vilely misogynist Taken, Bryan Mills’ rampage is prompted by the kidnapping of his daughter. In these narratives, the main character is also the story protagonist – if Porter decides just to be a “nice guy” in his terms, there is no story. The big genre side-step that The Equalizer and Homefront both employ is that there is a kind of dialogue of escalation between the villain and the hero, so that there is not such a clear-cut idea of who is driving the story. McCall interferes with the Russian mob, who then begin reprisals. In some senses this is a more satisfying story, as a battle of potentially equal forces. Obviously, in both films the hero has the upper hand – another possible perspective on the inferiority of the Equalizer is that it creates a back-and-forth expectation that doesn’t quite play out that way, since McCall is totally dominant. Broker, in Homefront, instead admits to being afraid, and while he participates in escalating in early stages, once he recognises the stakes of the conflict he does attempt to flee to safety.

Re-imagining the role of Broker being played twenty years ago by Stallone highlighted a few shifts in the genre. The closest relative to Homefront in Stallone’s back catalogue is probably Cobra [1986], a charming little tale about a super-cop tasked with bringing down a strange murder-cult. Tango and Cash [1989] also isn’t a million miles away. What strikes me about those earlier movies is that the protagonist was a cop. In the 1980s, the extra-legal resolution of criminal gangs was done by policemen – think about Die HardHardboiledLethal Weapon and so on. Of course, there were films like Commando and Rambo, but they were the exception. The proportion has now inverted, so that I can only think of a tiny handful of cinematic vigilante-cops this century, the likes of Blitz [2011] and Welcome to the Punch [2013]. The modern vigilante/revenge hero is former special-ops of some kind or another. In the 1980s, a cop prepared to go further than the law would allow was something we could contemplate, but no longer. Our new heroes are resolutely normal-looking these days. Their special-forces training is a historical artefact that emerges only when needed and to the complete surprise of those who strike at them. The main exception to this is Justified, which is something of an exception in many ways and needs further elaboration elsewhere.

As slender as the research I’ve done on this is, it is suggestive of a change in “our” relationship to law enforcement, isn’t it? In the 1980s, we could basically trust the police to be on “our” side, an argument which reaches its absolute apotheosis in Robocop [1987], where the policeman explicitly created to be primarily the servant of corporate forces instead comes back over to “our” side and saves us from corporate control. The world of Robocop may be a dystopia, but its fundamental message is one of hope. Can’t we even see this shift operational in the shift from Miami Vice and Wiseguy to Breaking Bad, perhaps via the utterly bleak vision of The Wire? What it also suggests is that protection from crime must emerge from within the citizen body, rather than from authority. Films like The EqualizerSafe [2012]Homefront posit a hidden stratum of specially trained vigilante heroes that can’t be detected in advance and hence can’t be circumvented the way someone with a badge can be, and all of these recent spate of films show that the police are corrupt to an extent anyway. A common thread of cop-heroes was an order from their superiors to leave the case alone – you, as a villain, could apply political pressure to a cop as serving political masters. No such pressure can be applied to a lone vigilante – doesn’t that rather suggest too a change in our relationship with the powers-that-be generally?

In some ways, this change represents a reversion to a far earlier form of crime storytelling. Amongst the earliest crime narratives is the so-called “Newgate Calendar”, which was a late-medieval collection of criminal stories regarded by some [1] as a precursor to modern detective stories. In these stories, there are no detectives as such – crime is stopped by spirited individual citizens taking action, supported essentially by mob action. There is also almost no “due process” in these stories – apprehension is equivalent to guilt, and the stories relate incredulity at those who don’t confess. The central idea is that as a whole, the Civic body is self-mediating, with individual spirited citizens being something akin to antibodies ready to attack crime. It’s a simplistic notion, that basically society is self-regulating and self-healing. It is only over the course of the late 1800s that the idea begins to alter, and I think you can point to the massive psychological trauma of World War 1 as ushering in the notion that society needed to be externally moderated. The emergence of professional detectives, at least in fictional terms, is the emergence of the idea that only someone outside the system of society can properly diagnose and fix its ills. The foreignness and otherness of all the Golden Age detectives is nothing short of a crisis of confidence in unofficial systems and unofficial processes to resolve the problems of society.

In our vigilante fantasies, we are thus returning to an earlier notion of organic and natural justice, mediated and executed by representatives of the civic body rather than by external agents whether official or unofficial. Homefront does not perfectly match these trends, as Broker is himself not from the area – his wife was, and hence is daughter has a right to abide there by heritage.

So much for the origin of the hero: where does the threat come from? In the Golden Age, the threat and the resolution of threat were both from outside society. In The Equalizer and Safe, the threat remains resolutely external – Russians in both films, supplemented by the Chinese in Safe. Even The Wire ascribes the ultimate source of the problem as external (the Greeks), while showing how local conditions allow that problem to thrive. In Homefront (and Justified) the enemy is specifically home-grown in the USA. The major antagonist played by James Franco is a bona fide local, with a long family history in the area. It is made clear, furthermore, that Broker’s expectations that the feud can be forestalled are wrong – three separate characters tell him that it’s “feuding country” and that the initiating fist-fight between his daughter and a local kid will escalate irrespective of what he does. Feuds in this paradigm only seem to disappear when one side is completely extinguished. The vigilante mechanism for justice that worked so well for the society of the Newgate Calendar has become unhinged here because there is not the official stamp of approval represented by the nominal justice of so-called trials.

This, in turn, shows a failure to adhere to the basic premise of the oldest revenge narrative, and the first to have a peaceful ending: Aeschylus’ Oresteia. Orestes must take vengeance on his mother for the murder of his father, thus invoking the Furies, and peace can only be achieved through the moderation of a trial, and the re-purposing of the Furies. The absence of any such mediation fundamentally leaves the events of Homefront unresolved – the organising villain remains alive and well at the end of the film, the central motivation remains intact. In that sense, Homefront is a story with no conclusion.

When we watch simple action films, intended as mindless diversions, we are nonetheless engaging in a cultural preoccupation extending back to the birth of our civilization, whose different implementations and interpretations reveals a lot about the state of society against a kind of universal benchmark. Homefront to me speaks of an anxiety about the role of the police in law-enforcement, and its construction of a hero returning to what are essentially the forgotten ancestral lands to destroy the local corruption that has begun there speaks volumes about the anxieties of the modern world. The threat has moved from outside to inside, and it is the duty of the citizen to enact the corrective measures rather than passively wait for the authorities to resolve. Homefront further makes it clear that this is a risky and costly strategy, but a necessary one.


[1] Knight, Stephen Thomas. Crime Fiction Since 1800: Detection, Death, Diversity. Basingstoke [England]; New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010.

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