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A FIELD DAY FOR VENGEANCE

Put Charles Bronson into a nice Chanel pantsuit, then apply the right shade of lipstick, and he'd seem an awful lot like the avenging angel Sally Field plays in Eye for an Eye. Gee, maybe that is good ol' Charlie up there.

In any event, director John Schlesinger has given Bronson's 22-year-old masterpiece of audience manipulation, Death Wish (and its four dreary sequels), a minor makeover to reflect life in Newt Gingrich's America. Some things never change, of course: Whenever your local serial rapist, personified in Eye by a swaggering, odious Kiefer Sutherland, feels like busting into a Los Angeles teenager's well-appointed kitchen and brutally murdering her, he can do so without any fear of retribution from a bumbling police department or a spineless criminal court system. If the monster then feels like terrorizing the victim's plucky mother, he can get away with that, too. Listen: John Wayne is dead, and Clint Eastwood is still working up in San Francisco.

And out Hollywood way, there is still no law except the law of the vigilante.
This is 1996, however. So Schlesinger and his screenwriters, Amanda Silver and Rick Jaffa, working from a novel by Erika Holzer, have thrown in a couple of new wrinkles. There are now support groups for the relatives of murder victims, so we get a look at the weekly meetings. In light of the O.J. case, the moviemakers work in a little DNA testing, along with an actual Marcia Clark TV clip. Cellular phones have become a standard yuppie accessory, so Field's heroine, a nice, prosperous white woman from the suburbs called Karen McCann, must listen to the fatal attack on her daughter as she sits in a Los Angeles traffic jam with the phone to her ear.

And because these are the Nineties, it's the mother of the murder victim who becomes obsessed with vengeance. Actually, that's not such a new idea, either: Staunch gunslingers like Jodie Foster and Annabella Sciorra (in Silver and Jaffa's own The Hand That Rocks the Cradle) have been filling the cemeteries with bad guys for more than a decade. Schlesinger and company might have dispensed with Eye's father altogether. Except there wouldn't have been anyone to stay home and babysit the surviving younger child while Karen sneaks away to judo classes and the pistol range. In any case, Ed Harris's Mack McCann is only the dead girl's stepfather, and with that distinction the movie contentedly shoves him aside.

Meanwhile, Karen McCann takes action. When the open-and-shut killer, a sneering psychopath with the depth of a cowpie, walks out of court on a technicality and police sergeant Joe Mantegna throws up his hands, Our Heroine decides to stalk the perpetrator herself. Down to the grimy Tenderloin she goes in her silver Volvo, with predictable results. The cornered animal strikes back, in predictably devious fashion. You can be sure that everyone on this set has seen Cape Fear a couple of times.

In fact, almost everything about Eye for an Eye is predictable--from its familiar take on lawlessness amok in the big city to its ringing endorsement of vigilante justice. That the instrument of vengeance is no longer an iron-jawed Bronson or a Dirty Harry overdosed on testosterone matters little in the end. Because it's a very short step from the besieged (but ever more militant) union organizer Field portrayed in Norma Rae, or her dirt-poor (but increasingly plucky) Depression widow from Places in the Heart, to a gentle suburban mother who takes to toting a .38 special around in her purse.

If anything, the character progression in Eye for an Eye is virtually identical to Field's earlier Mavis-and-Goliath roles. In an early scene, we see Karen McCann gently release a trapped moth from her six-year-old's bedroom window. Mid-movie, she wears a smile of empowerment after leveling a perfectly innocent bystander in a parking garage with a swift kick to the groin. In the last reel, even the hamstrung cops are on her side after the inevitable showdown with her daughter's killer.

Fine. But no matter what your politics are, or your view of the death penalty, or your level of urban fear, there's no mistaking that Eye for an Eye plays with a stacked deck. No bothersome subtleties or moral shadings for this movie: The squeaky-clean, lily-white avenger has a middle-class second thought here and there about doing in her tormentor, but not for long. The killer is such a rat that we can't wait to see him go. The cops are so ineffectual that they may as well be meter maids.

That leaves Sally Field's patented lonely heroism--and her newfound marksmanship--on which to hang the movie's well-worn hat, and Schlesinger doesn't hesitate to do it. The man who once gave us Midnight Cowboy and Sunday, Bloody Sunday has thus been reduced to remaking old Charlie Bronson revenge movies with the "hero" in drag, for the edification of a rightward-leaning America.

 
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