Hollywood no longer presents simplistic characters. Villains are often attractive and charming and heroes can have serious character flaws. Movies now cater to a more sophisticated public, but it seems we've lost something by drifting toward a more amoral perspective.
Here it is necessary to warn readers that this column contains spoilers, plot details that potential viewers might not want revealed before seeing a movie, including details regarding a movie that is a fairly recent DVD release - "Lucky Number Slevin."
Since the late 1960s, the distinction between heroes and villains has become increasingly blurred. Being a thief or killer does not prevent a character from sympathetic presentation on the movie screen. Actual criminals as portrayed in the movies "Bonnie and Clyde" and "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" have been presented as likable, if not actually heroic. Those movies had the redeeming social message that crime doesn't pay, at least not for those particular criminals who all died at the end of the movies.
Now such a message is often absent from movies. In the movie "Lucky Number Slevin," the title character of Slevin, played by Josh Hartnett, is a young protégé of Mr. Goodcat, a hitman played by Bruce Willis. Slevin is initially seen as an innocent victim of circumstance, caught up in a struggle between two crime bosses.
After Slevin is revealed to be a cold-blooded killer, we're supposed to continue to like him because he is charming and because his parents were killed by the two clearly evil crime bosses when Slevin was a child.
To get to the two crime bosses for purposes of revenge, Slevin and Goodcat leave a trail of dead bodies, but most of these incidental victims are gangsters, so that's O.K. There is one non-gangster killed but the audience shouldn't feel bad about it because we learn that the victim is a slimeball who once committed rape.
He wasn't killed because he was a slimeball. He was killed because his death was necessary for the plan but finding out that he was a slimeball somehow satisfies whatever minimal ethical expectations we have for the sympathetic characters. A totally innocent woman, Lindsey, played by Lucy Liu, would have been killed by Goodcat because she was a witness but she is saved because Slevin falls in love with her.
So evil gang bosses die horribly and their killers get away. We are supposed to regard this as a happy ending because Goodcat and Slevin are so darned charming and witty and the very attractive Lindsey loves Slevin.
A few years back, good guy and bad guy roles were blurred in the movie "Out of Sight." The character of Jack Foley, played by George Clooney, was a bank robber, and the character of Karen Sisco, played by Jennifer Lopez, was a federal marshal. Naturally the cop and robber fall in love, which is ethically OK since, gosh darn it, they are such charming and witty people.
They are able to pursue their romance during a "time out" which is apparently an accepted police procedure for interviewing and going to bed with criminals.
Sisco subsequently allows Foley to escape from an attempted arrest, which raises the question of why Sisco should not be regarded as a bad cop, the kind who is dismissed in shame, prosecuted and never again allowed to work in law enforcement. The answer, of course, is that she is just so darned attractive and charming.
She does eventually redeem herself by arresting Foley but undoes her redemption by arranging to have Foley transported to prison along with an escape artist, an obvious scheme to provide future "time out" opportunities.
It would be unfair to make a blanket characterization of all contemporary movies based on these examples. There are still movies made where clearly good people behave in an ethical manner in their struggles against bad people. But, it does seem that amoral themes are becoming more common and less recognized for what they are.