When I was a kid I decided I wanted to be a counterfeiter. I’ll just get your next thought out of the way and let you know that, no; I am not currently perusing job boards looking for my way into the secretive business of currency forgery. I left that dream behind around the time I entered the lair of the mid-teen years. But let’s go back to that time anyway. Back to the days of watching movies until sunrise, back to the days of arranging my basement couch cushions into a movie worshiping throne, and back to the days of giving my heart and soul and mind to the idols on the fat CRT in front of me. Young Dom watched a lot of movies and he dreamed and he day dreamed and he dreamed dreamed and he found himself living in the (he supposed) coolest place that ever was – late 1980s Hong Kong.
It was much later when I came to the realization my affinity for the gangsters in 1980s cinematic Hong Kong wasn’t an incredibly unique phenomenon. My New Jersey classmates may not have been watching the same movies and daydreaming about wearing long trench coats and chewing matchsticks in the rain, but on the other side of the world, these films inspired a cultural youth renaissance. Before John Woo came to the United States and made a series of ludicrous big budget action films ranging from the terrible (Hard Target with Jean Claude-Van Damme) to the entertaining (Broken Arrow with John Travolta) to the brilliant (Face/Off with Nicolas Cage and again with Travolta), he was at the forefront of the Hong Kong cinema resurgence. 1986’s A Better Tomorrow launched the careers of both Woo and new action superstar Chow Yung-fat. Yung-fat and his character Mark (his Anglicized name) became overnight sensations and his full length trench coats, designer suits, and Ray-Ban sunglasses inspired a similar wardrobe change in youth across Asia. As I walked through my high school pretending to shake the rain from my coat and flick the unlit cigarette from my mouth, I unknowingly was repeating the previous actions of millions of infatuated Asian teenagers and young adults.
Mark is a criminal, sure, but he is also incredibly likable, stubbornly honest in the way only movie criminals are, and, well, cool (Queue up the mental image of Mark lighting his cigarette with a burning counterfeit one hundred dollar bill… damnnn).Yung-fat and his friends are living the high life as counterfeiters in Hong Kong, and everything proceeds in the glossy, happily care-free manner that signifies they will soon be right in the middle of a whole lot of bad shit. We know everything will change for them. We know some of them will probably die or go to prison. There is no escape. These are criminals, but we don’t care. We want them to succeed anyway.
There have been antiheroes nearly as long as there have been creative productions of any kind, but generally they still fall firmly upon the “hero” side of the spectrum. Harry Callahan (Dirty Harry) and Rooster Cogburn (True Grit) might break a few rules and a few bones and a few social norms, but there is no doubting their own senses of dignity and justice. We, the audience, accept the flaws in our heroes and even celebrate them. They become more realistic. They become more like us. The hero who goes outside of the established protocol to bring down the crime lord is first reprimanded, then lauded, and then perhaps even promoted.
Chow Yung-fat’s Mark is undoubtedly a career felon, but we still want him to succeed. He may be a criminal, but his sense of honor and extreme likability endears him to the audience to a greater extent than the policemen in the story. And, of course, there is a “villain” criminal who we are encouraged to root against and who offers the true counter to the protagonist antiheroes.
It’s difficult to find antiheroes with whom the audience completely refuses to empathize. The audience needs and wants a force to support and a force standing in opposition. This is Creative Creation 101. Take that away and the audience will generally revolt. Breaking Bad is an oft-quoted example of the descent of one man into abhorrent criminality, but at the end of day, Walter White is still an empathetic character. The audience can accept his justifications for his actions and after following him for years they refuse to let him become the villain of the story. Also, there are always other villainous crows circling around and waiting for their chance to strike, and Walter stands in opposition to their assaults.
Recently, I revisited two excellent short-lived television programs whose protagonists are among the very worst people to ever be portrayed in a creative format. All or Nothing At All was a 1993 British miniseries starring Dr. House himself, Hugh Laurie, and Profit, starring Heroes’ Adrian Pasdar, was a 1996 Fox drama that lasted all of half a season before being canceled.
Dr. House plays a charmingly loquacious conman and compulsive gambler who systematically destroys the lives and livelihoods of everyone around him. Obsessed with getting everyone to like him, he spends money lavishly: throwing extravagant parties with his wife’s family’s money, buying gifts for anyone who crosses his path, and making absurd investment promises to anyone who wants to invest with his firm. His reputation and standing in the community causes complete strangers to throw enormous sums of money at him, and he takes it all while smiling through his teeth. Sometimes, he even matter-of-factly tells his “client” the truth – that there is no investment trick and he simply takes the money and wastes it gambling on horse races – and the “client” pauses for a moment, unsure of himself, before laughing and congratulating Dr. House on such a hilarious joke. And so it continues onward.
We watch Dr. House lie and steal the money of his business associates, wife, and even his parents and we wait for the train wreck that is unquestionably coming. The lies and questions and debts pile up and eventually the entire farce crashes down around him. He is able to convince his wife that his mysterious behavior is not due to infidelity (which is true), only to have her answer the door one day and bear witness to her entire world crashing to pieces . Her friends and family accuse her of knowing about his thievery, and she is too shocked to even coherently defend herself. We watch Dr. House ruin his life and those of countless others and we scream at him, “Stop! Stop betting! Walk away!” But he won’t listen. He can’t. And yet we still kind of like him. He may be a terrible person, but he looks at us with those big sad eyes and espouses on the benefits of whatever false investment he is espousing on that day, and we really believe him. We want to believe him. We want to believe he isn’t a crook.
It’s so easy to watch something like All or Nothing at All and see how a pyramid scheme works. To a normal person, it is inconceivable to simply give tens of thousands of dollars to a random person based only on an acquaintance’s recommendation. But, and as Dr. House says to one “client”, it’s because of greed. These are incredibly rich people who simply want more. More money, more money, more money. And at the first whiff of a good deal they run to Dr. House and throw their money at him.
Throughout the tale, Dr. House takes efforts to make it seem as though he is controlling the money and the money is not controlling him. He reasons he is addicted to people liking him, and he doesn’t actually care about the money. So he destroys the money. He bets insane amounts knowing the horse track will not even pay out the full amount. It’s a waste. It’s crazy. It’s stupid. “It’s anarchy,” says Dr. House’s preferred racetrack employee to her colleague. He’s simply throwing the money into the wind. He’s simply burning it.
In the end, Dr. House does indeed go to jail. As he lounges in his bed he flippantly remarks to his cellmate about the potential for greater wealth. The cellmate appears interested, but Dr. House turns back to writing in his notebook as he reminds his cellmate he is imprisoned for fraud. For a second, that’s the end of it, but after a moment of thought, the dimwitted prisoner pries Dr. House’s hand open and hands him a crumpled five pound note. The prisoner leaves and a bemused Dr. House immediately walks to the window and lights the note on fire. Some men just want to watch the world burn.
The vast majority of fictional antiheroes are easily likable people who happen to have a few character flaws or happen to be on the wrong side of the law. Then there is Jim Profit from 1996’s Profit; a cruel and cunning man who will use any means necessary to move up the corporate ladder. Profit is one of my all-time favorite television shows because every time I watch it I am reminded about how fucking bizarre it is. The closest cinematic personality to Profit may be Scarface’s Tony Montana. Both are driven by a blinding desire for power, but while Tony operates like a brute in the open, Profit exists in the shadows, goading his chess pieces forward to achieve specific goals. Murder, theft, deception, and violence are all tools for Profit’s rise to the top of the scrum, and he always seems to stay one step ahead of the pack pursuing him.
There really isn’t any good reason to like Profit. Unlike Hugh Laurie in All or Nothing at All, Profit is a loner without emotional ties to friends or family. This is a man who has crafted an elaborate fantasy world in order to eliminate his rivals and obtain power. There is nothing redeeming about him. Why do we like him? Do we even like him? Apparently audiences didn’t, because the show was canceled almost immediately after premiering, but now it seems like a precursor to the antihero-centric shows of today. Breaking Bad, Mad Men, Dexter, The Sopranos, and The Shield all contain antiheroes with criminal or borderline criminal tendencies. And yet audiences can identify with and enjoy the company of these antiheroes. Jim Profit offers no such comfort, and it is also why I found the show to be so compelling. It didn’t work because, sure, it was perhaps ahead of its time, but even now it seems like an unlikely success. It’s a bizarre show that forces its viewers to support an incredibly terrible, power-craved person. As a standalone film, maybe it could have worked, but as a weekly series, audiences responded with an overwhelming lack of interest. Regardless, Profit is a mesmerizing look into the mind of a sociopathic, ruthless criminal.
At the end of A Better Tomorrow, as per the course for most gangster films, our protagonists are either dead or in jail. That seems like reason enough to avoid the counterfeiter career track for now. I also own neither a single trench coat nor a cigarette, so I simply don’t have the correct fashion attire anyway. No matter, the antiheroes of my favorite film and television shows supply sufficient entertainment during their brief visits. The enjoyment derived from watching these devious characters onscreen evaporates when you realize people like these actually exist. As much as I like watching the shows, I would never want to be friends with a swindler like Hugh Laurie’s character, work in an office with the sociopathic Jim Profit, or even be taught high school Chemistry by the unstable Walter White. Let’s leave the antiheroes to their universes and try to avoid winding up in jail for dealing meth or dead after a gunfight. I know it will be difficult for those of you out there who thrive on the adrenaline rush a near-death experience provides, but, please, keep me out of it. My own brain generates too much excitement already; another day of exhilaration might push me back into my first career path as a Hong Kongese Superstar Counterfeiter. You’ve been warned.