The Philosophy of Violence: Wagner – Cronenberg – Kanakaraj

This is not a review for Leo. This article aims at understanding what possibly did work or didn’t work for the Lokesh Kanakaraj directorial with reference to “A History of Violence“. It would seem impossible to analyze these movies without spoilers. So, if you haven’t watched Leo/A History of Violence or have read the comic, and if you intend to watch it any time soon, save this article for later.

Lokesh Kanakaraj’s Leo is already breaking records. Thalapathy fans waited impatiently for months to get a response to their question. Is Leo part of the LCU??

And finally, we got the answer. But my focus here is rather on the inspiration. It’s absolutely pointless to talk about David Croenberg’s History of Violence without talking about the Comic written by John Wagner and Illustrated by Vince Locke. 

John Wagner is an American-born British comic writer. While he has significantly contributed to the likes of Marvel, DC and Dark House comics, he is best known for creating Judge Dredd comics for British weekly anthology comic publishers,2000 AD.

Wagner is considered to be a very influential comic writer among the British writers. His interest lies more in plot developments and dialogues than visual appeal, which perfectly fits into History of Violence‘s tone, accomplished visually by Vince Locke.

A History of Violence isn’t the first comic from Wagner to be adapted into a film. While the 1992 TV film for Wagner’s Bogie Man was not well received, a Judge Dredd adaptation on a significantly large budget became the first adaptation of a Wagner comic to receive a theatrical release. The film was directed by Danny Cannon (I Still Know What You Did Last Summer, Goal! The Dream Begins) and led by Sylvester Stallone. Wagner was reportedly unhappy with the film, feeling that Stallone was badly advised about the character. However, in 2012, Dredd was adapted for the second time, directed by Pete Travis (Vantage Point) and written by Alex Garland, the director of Ex Machina and Annihilation and the writer of Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later and Sunshine. Karl Urban (Billy Butcher from The Boys) was cast as the lead. Wagner was reportedly consulted with the script. Dredd, even though a moderate performer at the box office, is widely regarded as a cult classic for its unique visual style. 

The adaptation of History of Violence in 2005 was backed by Wagner as the names involved with the production excited him. 

The comic follows the story of a local coffee shop owner named Tom McKenna, who lives with his family. An unexpected event turns things around for the McKenna family. Tom’s identity is in question here. Is Tom McKenna actually just a regular coffee shop owner? Or is he something more? What does John Torrino, a New York City mafia leader, want from a coffee shop owner?

The story extends to Tom’s past, or more precisely, his past life as Joey. Joey and his childhood friend  Richie execute a well-planned heist, killing a crime boss, Lou Manzi, as revenge for the death of Richie’s brother. But in the process, he loses Richie, who is presumed to be dead. 

Only time will reveal the truth. Lou Manzi’s son, Little Lou, has held him hostage for all these years. It’s now up to Joey to rescue him and get this done once and for all. 

For those who are unaware of David Croenberg’s filmography, the most brief description you can give for the director would be, “one of the weirdest geniuses to work in the industry”. The Canadian director holds a reputation for his body horror films and is very often considered a principal originator of the genre with films like Videodrome (1983), The Fly (1986), Scanners (1981), etc. 

However, Cronenberg has also directed a couple of dramas, psychological thrillers and gangster films such as Spider (2002) and The Dead Zone (1983). So, it was not the first experience for the director to approach a genre different to the genre, which gained him a cult following. 

There are key changes that writer Josh Olson makes in the story.  Viggo Mortensen, who plays the protagonist Tom Stall (McKenna in the comic), was initially reluctant after being disappointed with Olsen’s original script. However, Croenberg’s involvement in reworking the script, in addition to directing, convinced Mortensen to take the role. Ever since A History of Violence, the Lord of the Rings star has frequently collaborated with Cronenberg, even in the director’s latest feature, Crimes of the Future. 

Cronenberg expands the scope of the source material by simultaneously limiting it. The movie lacks a flashback sequence. Tom Stall’s past is confined to a few dialogues exchanged between him and Joey’s nemeses. Instead, Cronenberg focuses on the Stall family. Edie Stall (played by Maria Bello), contrary to Edie McKenna, is given much more depth as a character, while Cronenberg adds a contradiction between the father and the son in terms of their approach to violence. 

Lokesh Kanakaraj’s Leo, on the other hand, is an interesting experiment. An experiment that raises a question: Are we ready to go beyond the usual mass masala gimmicks? Or are we still looking for the larger-than-life celebration of the stars?

Is there an answer to this? Well, I’m not sure either. Perhaps these were the thoughts that went through Lokesh’s mind while writing Leo. It’s a movie of two entirely different halves. The first half tries to live up to the reputation of Croenberg’s Philosophical drama. However, the second half sees Lokesh attempting more to satisfy the fans. 

But is that a bad thing? Definitely not. But in the process, the movie loses its charm, especially when the flashback comes up.

The biggest setback this film had was the association with History of Violence. While Leo leans more to the source material, Croenberg’s Palme D’or competitor is more popular than the comic itself. Therefore, people mistake Leo for being a remake of the film, while it’s more of an adaptation of the remake. People familiar with Croenberg’s History of Violence would be disappointed.

The idea of it being the extension of a pre-existing narrative also contradicts Croenberg’s ending. 

Neither Wagner nor Cronenberg were the first ones to follow the template of a man trying to escape the horrors of the past. The template has earned even more popularity in recent years. 

Peter Chan’s Wu Xia (alternative titles, Dragon/Swordsman) starring Donnie Yen (IP Man, John Wick 4), Takeshi Kaneshiro (Fallen Angels, Chungking Express) and Tang Wei (Decision to Leave, Long Day’s Journey into Night), Keishi Ohtomo’s Rurouni Kenshin movies adapted from the Manga of the same name and Chad Stahelski’s John Wick series are a few of popular movies that followed this template in recent years. 

Yet the rumour that Leo was going to the remake of A History of Violence just worked against the film, in my opinion. One cannot look away from Lokesh’s efforts to give Vijay an arc devoid of the usual antics. Because he finds Tom Stall interesting, to say the least. There are genuine efforts at developing the character in the first half of the film. 

But Lokesh’s approach to violence is closer to Wagner’s approach than to Cronenberg. Cronenberg stays away from violence. He makes a distinction between Joey and Tom, almost as if they are two people in a body. 

Lokesh, on the other hand, embraces violence. Like Anurag Kashyap said, “I want to die in Lokesh’s film; he gives glorious deaths to his actors.”

But one might think embracing violence should still work in a mainstream film. It sure does. John Wick does it well, Rurouni Kenshin does it well, and even Wu Xia does it well. 

But Lokesh fails to find the momentum in later portions of the film. Indian movies and their love for camera robots continue. Lokesh used it in Vikram, but here, he uses it a tad bit too much. I just don’t think the high-speed motion that camera robots offer could work well within a film unless it is stylistically absurd, like Khalid Rahman’s Thallumaala.

On that note, Leo is still the most innovative Indian film I’ve seen when it comes to action since Thallumaala. But unlike Thallumaala, the sequences are roughly patched together. Starting with the coffee shop fight to the very end, every fight sequence is unique but incoherent.  The lack of a fixed style waters down the impact these fights could have offered on the film’s coherence. 

But all these are things that wouldn’t matter to someone who wants to kill their time. As long as the writing does enough work to get the audience excited (Jailer, for example), it doesn’t really matter much. And this is where, essentially, Lokesh should have put more effort. The flashback. 

Among Wagner’s Joey, Croenberg’s Joey Cusack and Lokesh’s Leo Das, Joey Cusack is the most ambiguous. You never really see his past. For someone who is unaware of the comic’s existence, it would make sense to bring in a flashback entirely new. But Lokesh could have just worked on the flashback in the comic and maybe changed it a little bit. It would have worked well for a commercial film. The problem here is that flashback does a disservice to the antagonists. Neither Arjun nor Sanjay Dutt are at their best in the movie because the screen time doesn’t let them do so. It’s too short and too absurd to fit into the narrative. It’s crazy to think how Surya’s Rolex in his 10-minute appearance in Vikram genuinely feels menacing while Harold and Anthony Das fail to live up to their potential.

Given the track record of directors and their films with Vijay compared to their other works in recent years, one might beg to ask the question: Is the Vijay factor a thing?

Whatever it might be, Leo is an exception. Lokesh tries to live up to the source material. He wishes to make a very disciplined action drama. And he has done it with Vikram, Kaithi and Maanagaram.

But unlike these films, Lokesh has to think about the stardom involved. It’s not very surprising if the thought process involved the question,” Will this work, or will it be too much to digest?”. Cronenberg’s philosophy in History of Violence is definitely too much to digest for a usual action film. So willingly or unwillingly, Lokesh still makes it star-driven. The subtle becomes obvious, the obvious becomes more obvious, and contradictions become more contradicting. 

And the difference in philosophy becomes evident…

Leo is an interesting film. It’s a confused mess. But a beautiful mess, nevertheless. Still curious to see where the LCU heads in the coming years!

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