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Empty Vengeance 

The Count of Monte Cristo (PG-13)
Touchstone Pictures

Bully (R)
Lions Gate Films

Isn't a Monte Cristo a sandwich?

I couldn't stop thinking about that while watching director Kevin Reynolds' adequately vapid adaptation of Alexandre Dumas' The Count of Monte Cristo. The story is simple: Good guy gets wrongly accused of treason, spends 13 years in prison, meets master and learns good hitting tricks, then seeks vengeance.

Aside from noting that I expected a great deal more from a film with both Guy Pearce (the man behind the brilliantly acted chronic-amnesia case in Memento) and James Caviezel (the introspective and nature-loving philosophical naf in Terence Mallick's war epic The Thin Red Line), I really don't have much to say on the film itself other than it's entertaining, and you may want to wait for it to come out on video.

But whether you hit the multiplex or wait for video to see this timeless tale of love, betrayal and revenge (aren't they all?), let me make a double feature recommendation (inspired by an unintentional pairing this past weekend). Rent Larry Clark's Bully (recently released on video), and then go see Monte Cristo or vice versa.

Bully, like Clark's Kids before it, is a voyeuristic peep into the troubled lives of the young and unsupervised. Set in Hollywood, Florida, Bully recasts the true story of the events and entanglements leading up to Bobby Kent's murder in 1993.

Though Clark unblinkingly indicts the hollow moral veneer of suburban culture and all the empty shells who inhabit it, there is no lesson. Like William Golding's The Lord of the Flies, Bully examines the kind of savage, primordial group psychology that can evolve in a world devoid of consequences as a loose-knit gaggle of friends casually plots and executes the murder of Bobby, their mutual bully. (The film played briefly at Kimball's this past September. Read Cole Smithey's full review from September 13, 2001 at www.csindy.com.)

What was fascinating to me about seeing these two films back to back was watching the same revenge-driven plot lines unfold in such completely divergent moral and legal realities. In the Count of Monte Cristo (set in the early 19th century), revenge is a matter of honor and Old Testament justice unfettered by any doubt about the line between good and evil, right and wrong. Justice prevails and God is in his house.

In Bully, on the other hand, revenge is a motive for relief from seemingly petty suburban indignities and humiliation in a morally bankrupt society devoid of honor or any vague distinction between right and wrong. Culpability is impossible to place since everyone is implicated by the film's intimations that justice cannot exist in a society with empty values. The law, then, is equally bankrupt -- little more than a set of rules and consequences holding the whole mess together.

In a time when both our country and our "terrorist" adversaries are seeking their respective vengeances, these two films together will leave you with plenty to think about.

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