Usually when I hear talk of justice being served, I am not convinced that the concept is being used in the way that I think of it—In the way that it should be. Most often, it seems to me, “justice” is exercised as a practicality, as a tool, a public policy. Did Martha Stewart get justice? No, she got ego-“justice.” The nation-state pays lip service to “justice,” but what it is really doing is taking practical measures to keep challenges to its authority and preeminence in check.
Justice is the principle that everyone gets what they deserve. No exceptions. No mercy. Harsh, but in a world where justice really existed, it would be a whole lot easier to separate the good from the bad.
My wife dragged me out to see the new Denzel Washington film, Man on Fire, last evening. It’s the story of an ex-soldier, Creasy (played by Denzel), who drinks too much but is nonetheless hired to protect a prominent family in Mexico City against a rash of kidnappings. Creasy becomes attached to Pita (played by Dakota Fanning), the 10-yr old girl he is charged to protect. She adores him too, and the bond becomes more important to Creasy than his need of drink.
Then one day she is kidnapped, and Creasy takes two bullets trying to prevent it. While he’s laid up, the ransom drop goes wrong and the kidnappers kill Pita. And this is where Creasy becomes a particularly interesting character. Rather than wallowing in self-pity (of the “it’s all my fault” genre that drives me nuts whenever I see it), he coolly resolves to kill everyone that had the slightest little thing to do with the deed. It’s not the GWB style of justice where you say you’re going to hold the leadership of nation-states that support terrorism accountable, and then invite them to your Texas ranch for a weekend retreat and gab session at the “negotiating” table. No, this is real justice, of the objective and principled sort, meted out by one man with courage and the conviction that a world without his style of justice is just not worth living in, even if it costs him his life.
Let the carnage begin. Again, throughout the whole ordeal, Creasy does not give off the slightest hint that he’s enjoying any of this. He’d just as soon be coaching Pita in her swimming competitions. But he is determined in a detached sort of way. He purposefully tortures each person until they tell him what he needs to know to go after the next scumbag in line (dirty cops, corrupt officials, and all of that). Then, ignoring their pleas of mercy and expressions of sorrow, he kills them. It’s called justice. In this regard, the film would have better been named “Man of Ice.”
The best line of the film comes when Rayburn (played by Christopher Walken), an old soldier buddy of Creasy’s, and the one who landed him the job, says “Creasy will hand down more justice in a weekend that all your courts and tribunals will hand down in ten years.”
Unfortunately, Hollywood just can’t leave us with the recognition that justice has been effectively and carefully handed down, “unofficially,” by a good man—by a man you can trust with your daughter without reservation. Oh, no. After all that, Creasy has to go and do something to prove to us that he’s really good. As it turns out, Pita was never killed. He finds this out when he gets all the way up to the scumbag at the top of the retched heap of homo-sapiens flesh that plotted and executed this crime. And how to resolve this spectacle and have Creasy atone for his sin of taking justice “into his own hands?” Well, of course, he sacrifices his own life in trade for the girl’s, which had it been unavoidable would have been a rational choice within the context of the film. But it was not unavoidable by any mans, and so a hero is sacrificed in order to earn his heroism.