-Steele Justice: America’s founding fathers distsrusted governments and yet were in charge of creating a government themselves. It’s a set up that lends itself to a lot of cognitive dissonance, and we can still see the dysfunction caused by that DNA today, where a lot of people on the right think that the U.S. government is capable of working miracles when we intervene in foreign countries but completely unable to do anything right at home.
That schism was probably at it’s height in the 80’s. That was the era where there was the biggest discrepancy between how we talked about the Soviet Union and what it was actually capable of doing, and when the main cultural narrative about the Vietnam War began to shift from being dominated by the World War 2 generation (who would have been in charge of the media during the war) to the Boomers (who had a more complicated view of the war.) It’s also the heyday of the cop movie, and the cop movie is the ultimate version of this sort of doublethink.
Your classic cop movie has two poles: cynically it assumes that the police force is at worst corrupt and at best inefficient, but optimistically it also assumes that there’s always one cop who is honest and unendingly tough. These poles tend to be presented without much commentary; the corrupt cops are morally weak and have forfeited their good qualities the instant they got on the take, while the good cop is always good, even when he’s gunning down suspects or destroying huge chunks of his city. These movies always take place in front of a backdrop of total incompetence but the focus is always on a cop with perfect confidence – one whose every hunch is right and who always gets his man.
Steele Justice is not a great movie, but it is a great example of this doublethink for two reasons. One, it starts in Vietnam, where our honest soldier is betrayed by a South Vietnamese mercenary – a mercenary who will later move to America and cause problems for our hero in Los Angeles. Because the movie’s end is largely staged to look like jungle warfare – there’s a big shoot out in a skyscraper’s lobby with an inexplicable number of plants for people to hide behind so that their face is always obscured by leaves as if they were in Vietnam – the film explicitly makes the Vietnam War / cop movie connection of incompetent government letting noble soldiers down.
But the bigger reason why this film embodies that double standard concerns the way that Steele Justice’s protagonist John Steele works with the police force. In between the Vietnam War opening and the time jump to when the movie actually takes place Steele was a cop and then got fired. He’s never actually a cop in the movie, but because the police chief knows that he’s honest and willing to try to take down the sort of bad guys that other cops are afraid to touch the police chief keeps trying to goad Steele into taking action that he legally has no right to take. The police force here is the most impotent police force imaginable; they can’t protect anyone, have no power to stop the bad guys, and they don’t even really try. They just entrust those duties to an ex-cop with a drinking problem who isn’t getting paid for any of this. In all my years of watching cop movies I have never seen a greater dichotomy between the hero cop and the rest of the force because the rest of the force isn’t even trying to be cops in this movie.
It’s weird to watch movies like these now because while they reflect parts of the American character that we can still see today, they do so in a way that’s also a little incomprehensible now. Vietnam is so far behind us that it doesn’t mark how we think of the army today as much as it used to, and post 9/11 the police force isn’t treated with the same sense of disgust. But if you dig a little deeper past the cliches you can see the parts that still say something about us now. A lot of Americans still believe that America is the greatest nation on earth, but it’s also run by fascist tyrants who are all powerful and yet also impotent to change anything. Steele Justice is a movie for those people. Winner: The Cat