The question that adventure fiction of all kinds brings up most often, yet has never to my knowledge been answered in a truly satisfactory fashion is this: Why do the good guys almost always win?
Many answers have been given in the past, but they all tend to founder for one reason or another. There is, of course, the obvious, classic psychological explanation: We want the hero to win because we identify with him (or her), and hence watching our champion win makes us feel happy, as if we were winning ourselves. That is surely one reason we respond as we do to adventure tales, but it seems unlikely that this appeal to the emotions could fully overcome our rational faculties. Therefore, there must be some more rational reason that we appreciate stories in which we know from the beginning that the hero is almost certain to win.
Both supporters and detractors of this form of story telling, however, agree that the convention of the happy ending is unrealistic, and then go on to use this ambiguity as something of a test of faith. Certainly it is correct to say that in real life, the persons most of us would agree are good often fail in their efforts, and that decidedly wicked types of people often succeed. Hence, it is reasonable to suggest that adventure fiction presents a distorted view of life and, far from preparing people to thrive in the real world, ties them up in illusions.
This gives any rational person a very good reason to dismiss adventure fiction as at best worthless and at worst downright dangerous. Filling one’s head with illusions can hardly be a good way of finding real answers to the hard questions life presents.
Adventure fiction, however, as a form of romance, does not pretend to be true, only true to life. By true to life, I mean that romances posit that if things were a certain way, other things would follow. We don’t have to accept the premises of a science-fiction story or crime drama as true; we need only understand the motives of the persons involved and observe the consequences of their actions in the frankly imaginary world they inhabit. Romances deliberately take us out of our quotidian reality so that we can see fundamental human motives at work.
Cradle 2 the Grave, produced by Joel Silver and directed by Andrzej Bartkowiak, is about as far from everyday reality as you would ever want to be. It tells the story of a criminal gang led by a tough young crook named Tony Fait (played by DMX), who rob a bank vault and get away with a large amount of jewels, including some “very rare” black diamonds. It turns out that the latter stones have been smuggled into the United States from Taiwan and are by no means what they seem to be. They are, in fact, worth much more than mere diamonds and indeed threaten mankind’s continued existence.
At this point, all literal-minded persons may safely leave the theater. Those who remain, however, will see a story of truly astonishing violence, mayhem, sleaziness, madness, disorder, and, ultimately, goodness and reason. Fait’s eight-year-old daughter, whom he loves deeply and sincerely, has been kidnapped by a vicious Taiwanese criminal, and the latter miscreant is holding her hostage to ensure that Fait will bring him the black diamonds. Unfortunately, Fait lost the stones almost immediately after stealing them, while escaping from the police, and must recover them if he is to rescue his daughter. In this quest he is aided by Su (Jet Li), a Taiwanese agent sent to America to recover the stones, and a gunrunner played by Tom Arnold.
What is real, interesting, and moving about all this is Fait’s motives. First off, the filmmakers attempt to create audience sympathy for him and his four-person gang by pointing out that the jewels they steal are in fact the ill-gotten gains of drug dealers and other unsavory persons. (This is a frequent motif in modern crime fiction, perhaps best exemplified by several of Erle Stanley Gardner’s pulp-fiction heroes, such as Ed Jenkins, Paul Pry, and Lester Leith.) Immediately after the initial robbery sequence, we see Fait at home with his daughter, whom, as I noted earlier, he loves dearly. (Why he lives the life he does, one that must surely endanger her, is a question answered at the end of the film.) The other female he loves is an intelligent, devoted, and resourceful young woman whom he has rescued from forced prostitution. That is certainly another point in his favor.
In addition to all this, the film stresses the fact that Fait is a man of apparently sincere religious faith. Near the beginning of the story, he prays with his daughter, asking that the angels of the North, East, South, and West protect her while she sleeps. This prayer is repeated several times throughout the film. Obviously, the filmmakers mean something by this.
Here, of course, many religious types will leave the theater grumbling. Understandably. However, those still in tune with the story will recognize that we are in the midst of a tale of redemption, a narrative about a man who has many complex motives and a disreputable and indeed unjustifiable record of bad behavior, but one who is surely good at heart. (The end of the film makes this unmistakably clear.) And it is here that we receive answer number one to why the heroes win in our favorite adventure stories.
They win because God is on their side, and God is on their side because they love Him, whatever their personal failings. From ancient Arthurian sagas to swashbuckling historical fiction to Westerns to Kung Fu films and modern action thrillers, it is a strikingly frequent occurrence that the hero is a man of God (and almost always quite flawed in his ability to live out his faith, as are we all). He wins because he must: it is God’s will.
Of course, the idea that a Supreme Being cares who wins a swordfight, battle of fisticuffs, or shoot-out is perfectly ridiculous and indeed repulsive to people who do not believe that there is an Almighty who intervenes in human affairs. They have every right to think that way, of course, but it certainly cramps their ability to understand or appreciate romances. If, however, one believes in a God who cares about what happens in the world He created, it is not only logical but in fact necessary that one accept the notion that He makes sure that His children ultimately succeed so that His plans may be fulfilled.
There is, however, another and more immediate and, yes, realistic reason that the good guys win in adventure stories. This one, too, has something to do with religion, but works just as well without it. It is the hero’s fundamental decency that makes him a winner. Regardless of what wrongs he may do, the hero does not cheat, and a life of refusing to cheat prepares him to be a winner. The villains, by contrast, cheat all the time, for that is what bad people do. They will use unethical means to obtain the things they want.
That is why it is a convention of adventure fiction for the villain to be conquered only after trying one last time to cheat, this time in the heat of battle. In Cradle 2 the Grave, one thug is killed after attempting to use Fait’s daughter as a human shield (a common no-no in modern adventure fiction). Another is killed after pulling a gun during a bout of hand-to-hand combat. This convention runs throughout the romance and adventure forms. In the classic film swashbuckler Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), Sir Guy is killed in the climactic swordfight with Robin Hood only after pulling a knife on our hero during one of the clinches. In the masterly Bogart film The Big Sleep (1946), the villain is slain by the very hail of bullets with which he had planned to kill the detective-hero Philip Marlowe.
Cheating ultimately does the villain in by enabling him to think that he is better than he really is, and it sets his destiny in place long before the narrative begins. His immorality gives him an extraordinary ability to get away with misdeeds, and that very capacity ensures that he will never practice as hard as the hero, for the latter can count on nothing but his skills. Hence, the hero must hone his expertise to the highest level possible. The villain will always stop a bit short in his practice work, to provide more free time in which to indulge his lusts. That is why he will always lose.
If this phenomenon also plays out in real life to any appreciable extent — which is certainly an immensely plausible supposition — then there is definitely something of value to be had in adventure fiction. The vast majority of such tales are surely not worthy of ranking beside even Shakespeare’s worst, but the morality and philosophy to be found in stories even as wild and unruly as Cradle 2 the Grave is much more sophisticated and salubrious than most critics seem to think. Perhaps, then, the audiences that watch these movies are not as perverse and nihilistic as the films’ detractors often like to claim — and their critics not so wise as they seem to think themselves.
— S. T. Karnick is editor-in-chief of American Outlook magazine, published by the Hudson Institute.