It's summertime, and the killing is easy -- or looks that way, in the suspended reality of movies THE VIOLENT ONES

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Fourteen, if you count the guy who gets electrocuted. He may have just been stunned, of course, but from the sparks and the way he squirmed, I think he was totaled.

Ten, but one or two of them may have survived what appeared to be mortal gunshot wounds, though with frontier medicine (that is, no medicine) this is unlikely.

Those are the body counts in two American movies that sit like bookends at both ends of the summer. Fourteen deaths in "Lethal Weapon 3" and 10 in the just-opened "Unforgiven" -- it's summer, bloody summer, at the movies.

Here's some others, by my crude calculus: "Batman Returns," dozens, most in weird costumes. "Unlawful Entry," three, including a cop shot by his own partner. "Whispers in the Dark," four, including a psychiatrist played by a lovable character actor who gets a gaff in the head and floats in the surf like Moby Shrink. "Mo' Money," a "comedy," three, one getting his neck snapped, one being stabbed repeatedly and one hanged. "A Stranger Among Us," a movie set among the orthodox Hasidic community of Brooklyn, four, including a young woman shot by the rebbe's son in a synagogue. "Death Becomes Us," two, though the joke is they don't really die. I couldn't begin to count the number in "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," though again there's some question as to whether they're really dead.

But it's a pretty average summer. No film approaches the pagan abandon of "Total Recall" in its wholesale wastage (often for comedy) of human life. There's no hard horror or misogyny, with some demented pervert chasing down and slashing women to ribbons. There's no macho battle movie with dozens of extras perishing in the anonymous explosions. No giant spaceship collapses into another, taking thousands along with it.

It's just like reality: the usual prosaic run of death by 9 millimeter or kitchen paring knife in a few by-now familiar and squalid scenarios, nothing really remarkable or outstanding. In fact, no critic has raised the usual hue and cry about "What is this doing to us?" and "Why do we love violence so much?" It's strictly a business-as-usual summer, violence-wise.

But "Lethal Weapon 3" and "Unforgiven" are interesting in contrast because they seem to represent the two attitudes toward violence that have wound about each other like the strands of a double helix on American screens since a cowpoke fired a six-gun directly at the camera in "The Great Train Robbery" in 1903.

Slapstick violence

"Lethal Weapon 3" represents what might be called the "goof" approach, although it's true that each of the "Lethal Weapons" films has worn a fig leaf of seriousness -- in the first, it was the Vietnam syndrome; in the second, the issue of South Africa, and in this current one, concern over the proliferation of guns in the inner city. But in each case (and particularly and most nauseatingly in the third), the attempt is so half-hearted it's clearly cynical.

Instead violence, particularly gun violence, is represented as a sort of elaborate slapstick without real-world consequences. There's a secret sense of the universe being completely elastic, as if the laws of physics have been suspended. No particular sense of danger fills the air; what blood we see is entirely cosmetic, employed in dabs to give the actors the suggestion of wearing war paint. The movies themselves kid about this; they frequently make references to "The Three Stooges." If you look carefully in "Lethal Weapon 3," you'll note a sign in a garage in the first sequence that reads: "No Parking. Violators will be terminated."

Most children know the rules of this universe, and Mad magazine has parodied it enough times. The first rule is: The heroes can't get shot. Or, if they do get shot, they're not really hurt. They can run through blizzards of machine gun fire while the earth around them spatters under the impact of the many, many bullets, while they miraculously escape unscathed. (Mel Gibson, in fact, frequently looks like Gene Kelly in "Singin' in the Rain," except that the rain is lead.)

In the "Lethal Weapon" series the two actors are conceived of and characterized by their firearms: Gibson, reckless and wild and sexy, is a Beretta 16-shot semi-automatic. He doesn't even have a holster for it but merely sticks it in his belt; at odd moments he fondles it. He pulls it to scare a pedestrian (the most ludicrous scene in "Lethal Weapon 3"). He fires it rapidly, without any commitment to aiming, and, by the laws of Hollywood, always hits his man. Danny Glover, on the other hand, carries a six-shot Smith & Wesson, a gun designed at the turn of the century. It's a slow-loader that bespeaks a traditionalist's approach to such things. No spray and pray for Sergeant Murtaugh: He's got to aim.

But of course, no goof movie has a sense of the reality of the firearm. As anyone who shoots them knows, they are very, very loud; and everybody who shoots them properly does so with ear and eye protection. In the movies, of course, no one blinks, the guns never kick or get hot or jam, all of which happens in the real world all the time. No one in the movies is aware of elementary safety precautions or how intimidating a loaded firearm can be -- or how volatile. No one ever shows the respect for the firearm that the firearm demands and that is the center of the elaborate ritual of safety that underpins all shooting sports.

The most appalling aspect of the goof movies, like "Lethal Weapon 3," is that they teach a lesson both the NRA and Handgun Control Inc. would agree is horrible: that guns are toys.

"Unforgiven" takes the other approach. Its violence is real, at least in the sense that it draws blood, it has consequences and it hurts. In what is surely its most astonishing scene, killer William .. Munny (Clint Eastwood, who also directs) snipes a wounded cowboy who is the object of his manhunt, even as the cowboy begs and cries for mercy. This is certainly the ugliest scene of violence Eastwood has ever filmed, and it moves this movie from the goof violence tradition of his "Man With No Name" films and his "Dirty Harry" movies.

To die by the gun

The most shocking "real" violence scene in American movies hails from Arthur Penn's examination of the life and times of two 1930s bandits, "Bonnie and Clyde" (1967). But even "Bonnie and Clyde" had antecedents: Its famous image of a banker recoiling behind a bullet-shattered windshield after a bullet had pulped his eye was a direct quote from Eisenstein's great "Ten Days That Shook the World" (1928), in which a student gets a Cossack saber slash across the face, shattering his glasses' lens and the eye behind it. There was a far more explicit tradition of violence in European movies, at least until the early 1960s. But the climax of "Bonnie and Clyde" was pure Americana: the two self-styled Robin Hoods caught in a Texas Ranger ambush on a Louisiana dirt road, blown hither and yon by four streams of .45 slugs. Penn showed this in slow-motion; one understood that to live by the gun was to die by the gun.

Sam Peckinpah just two years later took the nihilism of violence and its dark attractiveness to the ultimate level. His "Wild Bunch" (1969) remains perhaps the most violent American movie ever made: a western about a bunch of used-up train robbers who -- that is, when they can stay on their horses -- take on a Mexican army battalion whose general has just slain one of their own. The sequence has been called a "blood ballet" and "the most grotesque sequence in American films"; whatever, to see the last few minutes of "The Wild Bunch" is to enter a world where mayhem is reality, where bullets have that random cruelty so similar to our streets today.

Indeed, I think "Unforgiven" might have been a great movie instead of merely a good one if it had followed Peckinpah's uncompromising honesty. Instead, it cops out, conjuring up a last gun battle that undercuts the savagery and unsentimentality of what has come before.

But the movie at leasts asks the question that goof movies so blithely ignore: What is the impact of watching so many people die for so little?

In fact, when we confront our popular entertainment, we are stricken by the reality that, unlike any popular entertainment this side of the Roman gladiatorial games, mostly it's about people dying. A film like "Unforgiven" rubs our noses in it; it wonders, in the final analysis, who can be forgiven?

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