Uwe Boll is a German writer-director maverick who until recently financed his films, many of them video game adaptations, through a tax loophole in his home country. He’s also infamous for once taking on his critics in the boxing ring, as documented in Jamie Kennedy’s documentary Heckler, and for having a Nazi fixation. Boll is one of the most outside-inside creators currently working in film, driven by conflicting simultaneous desires to work within and tear down America and the Hollywood system. In this way his defining work is Postal, a bad taste comedy that goes beyond politically incorrect to just being incorrect; Boll doesn’t really understand or know what he’s satirizing, but at least (the film opens with 9/11 hijackers debating how many virgins they’re getting in heaven and closes with George W. Bush and Osama bin Laden skipping through a field hand in hand with an atomic mushroom cloud behind them, along the way shooting as many kids as possible; a Kickstarter to fund a sequel was unsuccessful).
But perhaps an even more fitting, and more watchable, defining film of the Boll canon is Attack on Wall Street, previously known as Bailout: The Age of Greed, about a former soldier, current security guard who goes on a shooting spree after losing everything in 2007 financial crisis. Prison Break’s Dominic Purcell is front and centre on the poster as Jim Braxford, brandishing his huge guns (both kinds), but the shooting itself actually occupies the third act of the film, with the rest a contained drama about a couple slowly running out of options. Jim’s wife Rosie (Erin Karpluk) has just recovered from cancer and they’re having trouble with their health insurance and mortgage payments, but Jim’s military pension has disappeared due to bad investments, which have also landed him as a defendant in a lawsuit. Hiring a lawyer to sue his financial advisor goes nowhere (apart from landing him further in debt) and the district attorney is not interested. His financial problems lose him his job as he can no longer be trusted to transport money.
Appropriately Attack on Wall Street was shot partly guerilla style in New York City and partly in Vancouver, the stand-in for American cities in so many TV shows its taken on its own kind of iconic and ironic genericness. Jim could be described as a modern-day Travis Bickle, only he’s less unhinged, less easy to compartmentalise as crazy, and his New York is radically different. Rudy Guiliani cleaned up the city partly by literally cleaning it up - through the broken windows theory, a crackdown on small crimes like vandalism and anti-social behaviour helps reduce more major crimes. This is also the rationale behind controversial programs like stop-and-frisk, which enabled racial profiling and is perhaps a violation of the 4th Amendment. Whereas once the authorities might be seen as useless against criminals hiding behind the constitution (Dirty Harry), or irrelevant to the point of not even being present or a consideration for the characters (Taxi Driver), they’ve mostly won the argument for increased police power. The criminals Jim targets are white collar, so much a part of the system that the authorities can’t or won’t pursue them because so many of their crimes aren’t actually illegal.
Jim’s problems would be farcical if we had not heard endless similar recession-era stories of big financial institutions screwing their customers out of money. The endless debt spiral is Kafkaesque at times, only Kafka’s characters never had semi-automatic weapons to sort their problems out, and it’s here that the film’s relationship to its own rhetoric becomes ambiguous. There is no way to approach this film in terms of Red and Blue, America’s favourite false dichotomy. If his anger were aimed towards corrupt government or lazy poor people instead of corporations he could be a right-wing folk hero. If only he was a vigilante like Dirty Harry or Batman instead of a murderer we could cheer him on. If only he were less sympathetic or crazier or a religious fundamentalist we could label him a monster and move on. In real life the media helps us in simplifying events like these but here we’re on our own.
If characters are established sympathetic enough, or the film goes to great lengths to justify them, we can excuse their bad actions - due process means nothing when we have an omniscient view of who’s a criminal and who isn’t. (Sidebar: I used to watch NCIS as a guilty pleasure until they introduced a scheming civil rights lawyer who was in association with an evil terrorist. It reminded me too much of how 24’s straw men situations increased support for the use of torture. By contrast I thought Zero Dark Thirty’s portrayal of torture was perfect as long as you read the film as wholly ambivalent on whether killing Osama bin Laden was a worthy counter-terrorism goal or mostly petty revenge. Many people couldn’t or wouldn’t read the film that way, perhaps because they had already formed their opinions of torture and the film before seeing it.) Film is powerful propaganda but after an hour or so of putting Jim through the wringer and thirty minutes of him unrelentingly murdering the people he believes responsible, we’re left with no way to process how to feel about his fate.
Attack on Wall Street is not perfect, and perhaps another director could have brought out more in the material. But fittingly this is another Uwe Boll film that leaves you unsure of what to think, only this time that’s an accomplishment.