…But as you have fun ruining your hero’s life, please stop once in a while and remind yourself of one thing: the villain’s plan must be bad for the hero…and good for the villain.
We’ve seen this plot in thrillers so many times, I’ve almost lost count, the innocent blackmailed into committing a crime: Nick of Time, Reindeer Games, Training Day, Collateral, Flightplan, Vantage Point, The Lookout, Eagle Eye, Salt, etc… And it will re-appear in upcoming movies like The Driver and Autobahn, but the concept is nonsensical in oh so many ways:
- Why would you want someone doing the job who wants the whole thing to fail and for you to go to jail? How hard is it to just hire a willing accomplice? America is filled with desperately-poor people, who do horrible things in return for just a few bucks. Some of these people are longtime gang members, or underpaid cops, or ex-military, or survivalists… They’re gonna have the skills you need. Just hire one.
- So often in these movies (see: The Lookout, Reindeer Games, etc.) a big part of the villain’s plan is to have his girlfriend offer lots of great sex to our unsuspecting hero, as a way to lure him into the world of crime. But that’s just not the way a man’s mind works. Guys use money to get a girlfriend, they don’t use their girlfriend to get money (Maybe if the guy’s a pimp with a stable of girls that he doesn’t care about, but that’s never the case in these movies…the crook always has one girlfriend and he’s burning with jealousy the whole time!)
- The only conceivable reason to blackmail someone into committing a crime is if they’re the only person with the access to do it. Maybe this person has the code to the vault, or watches over the state’s witness as he sleeps, or is the only one the president trusts… And yet, the biggest problem with these movies is the person being blackmailed is always given an impossibly hard task that they have no idea how to accomplish!
- Even worse, there’s often another person who does have the required access and we can see that they’re the one who should have been blackmailed:
- In Salt, they blackmail the one person at the CIA who isn’t on the detail protecting their target. She has to fight every other agent in order to get to him. Why not blackmail one of those guys? In fact, it later turns out that one of those protectors has been helping the bad guys all along. Why not simply have him kill the target?
- Likewise in Vantage Point, they blackmail a random guy into killing the president, despite the fact that someone on the president’s detail is working for them! Have him do it!
- In The Lookout, the bad guy uses his girlfriend to coerce the brain-damaged janitor into helping him break into the vault…even though the janitor has no vault access! Meanwhile, we see that there’s a sad sack female teller who’s so lovelorn that she’s pining for the janitor…Why doesn’t the bad guy just seduce her?? She actually has access! And that way the bad guy is the one who gets to sleep around, instead of watching his girlfriend do it!
The appeal of these movies is very cynical. We like to live vicariously through characters who pull off spectacular crimes, but we feel morally alienated from them…unless the perpetrators are being blackmailed, in which case we can sympathize with their predicament and enjoy their transgressions. This person literally gets to be “criminal for a day”, and who wouldn’t want to try that?
But these movies made no damn sense, as audiences tend to realize two hours after they’ve left the movie theater. They’re just empty calories, and it’s time we abandoned this worn-out cliché.
(And before you can ask, “Hey, what about your beloved Red Eye?”, allow me to point out that it’s a clear exception: she is the only one with the required access, they’re asking her to do something that is easy for her to do, and they’re not seducing her into it, but rather confronting her directly, so there’s no vicarious thrill, just a painful dilemma… Red Eye is how you do it right.)