Patriarchy has been reinforced through media since before the dawn of western civilization. And as it concerns this Eurocentric world—of which the United States is a major part—the action movie genre serves to deify the heroism of white men when confronted with a world on the brink of collapse. Clint Eastwood’s portrayal of “Dirty Harry” Callahan and Charles Bronson’s Jack Kersey, for example, powered several sequels as evidence that a market for the middle-aged, out-of-touch white man hero was ripe for American moviegoers in the 1970s. Audiences flocked to theaters to see Callahan and Kersey as escapes into worlds where order could be restored amid the chaos that Americans feared following the 1960s, the most tumultuous period of the 20th century.
Now it appears that the 21st century has its own filmic flag bearer for patriarchy: Liam Neeson. Starting with Taken in 2008, Neeson represents the same wise, gritty yet misunderstood hero that Callahan and Kersey did in their era. In the case of Neeson’s character, Bryan Mills, his inability to mesh with the real world comes mainly in the form losing his family to a less macho, yet more stable, provider. But lo and behold, when evil Albanians (no doubt a safe enough ethnicity to vilify in our current sociopolitical climate) abduct his daughter for the purposes of human trafficking, Mills saves the day, thus reasserting his undeniable worth to the powerless that dared devalue him.
Like Dirty Harry and Death Wish, Taken has also spawned sequels, demonstrating that the need for this trope in the market may be both cyclical and indicative of broader societal concerns. With Americans’ dwindling faith in government due to the inhumane politicization of same-sex marriage, affordable healthcare, immigration, the legalization of marijuana, etc., the cinema is a welcome escape into a world in which a hero can prevail despite his inability to understand the changing social climate around him.
Such is the case with Neeson’s new film Non-Stop, where he plays Bill Marks (huh, another B.M. name), an absentee father turned alcoholic Federal Air Marshal. Despite his inability to relate to his endangered charges, and their questionable entitlement to salvation, he sets aside his demons to valiantly uphold his duty. Alas, the passengers impede Marks’s investigation as they view him as the prime suspect to an extortion plot aboard a flight wherein their lives hang in the balance.
The metaphor of a bygone generation being blamed for an imminent threat while claiming to be working tirelessly for solutions should resonate with Millennials, who have lambasted Baby Boomers for how figuratively up-in-the-air the promise of their bright futures has become. And it is to this backlash that French director Jaume Collet-Serra responds with Non-Stop regardless of his intention to do so. Of course, without access to the minds of Collet-Serra, producer Joel Silver, and screenwriters John W. Richardson, Chris Roach, and Ryan Engle, determining whether Non-Stop purported to celebrate an embattled generation burdened with guilt and bemusement about the current state of affairs would be impossible. However, the subtext of the dynamic wherein Baby Boomer Marks’s insistence that “I’m not hijacking this plane. I’m trying to save it,” is pitted against the traumatized Millennial villain who declares that “Security is the country’s biggest lie,” demonstrates that the ability to interpret this generational dissonance in the film supplants the aim to elucidate it.
The marketability of the trope appears to have spread beyond Neeson, just as Bronson followed Eastwood. The recently released 3 Days To Kill stars Kevin Costner as a dying CIA agent whose need to reconnect with his estranged daughter prompts him to take one last assignment in exchange for the drug that will save him. Although the stories are different enough, both 3 Days to Kill and Non-Stop imply that Baby Boomers have not shirked all responsibility for their past shortcomings, and should be trusted to do what they can to make things right. As it concerns the elders of society in real life, this endowment of trust would certainly allay the stress of looming unrest becoming a legitimate threat to the status quo, vis-à-vis Occupy Wall Street.
Because older generations’ attribution of increasing moral bankruptcy younger generations’ music and video games has been dismissed as outlandish, suggesting that Baby Boomers are using movies to combat the ire they have drawn from disenchanted youth might seem like a double standard…if films like Non-Stop made a subliminally compelling enough case for Millennials to cut Baby Boomers some slack. Instead, it is more likely that this wave of middle-aged action heroes will provide catharsis to the generation it represents without successfully appealing to the millions of people who were told that college equaled success. After all, have you seen the price of movie tickets these days? Netflix might not have become a verb so quickly if Millennials could afford to hit the Cineplex.