Cruelty and Handheld Lo-Fi Filmmaking in Kane & Lynch 2: Dog Days
Videogame violence is often portrayed in the highest fidelity possible with an emphasis on seeing just how grisly it can be, as if we are supposed to relish in it. Whether that is meant to be for the sake of violence being cool or for calling out players’ collective bloodlust, it is usually handled poorly. From the dichotomy of doing violence and observing violence in The Last of Us 2 to violence as a colonialist fantasy in Far Cry 3, AAA games have never really had anything interesting to say or do with violence.
Kane & Lynch 2: Dog Days also does not have anything to say about violence, but it does not try to elevate its violence on thematic posturings and that is the point. It is bleak, disgusting, pointless, cruel, and overwhelmingly miserable because, well, that is just how violence is. Why elevate it? What can we really learn by elevating the doing of violence with hollow meaning? Violence can be a rich thematic verb in filmmaking because we are observing it, but I think using violence to genuinely say anything once that observation becomes interactive loses all of its thematic resonance. At the end of the day, we are once again pressing a button to make bodies leak and scream and fall, never to have motion again, and there is nothing you can really say about that beyond the fact that you are doing that. No one is pressing the button for you. You are the one engaging and you are the one killing. Developers may craft these experiences where killing is the core verb, but it is up to you to interact with it. What will you get from it? Think on that.
Kane & Lynch 2: Dog Days doesn’t even beg that previous question. Violence is just a thing that is and it is all the characters in-game know how to do. And they don’t even do it well. Kane and Lynch stumble into and fuck their way up into bloody encounter after bloody encounter. They are gross, ruinous idiots that are never played up as anything else. They run naked and bleeding (via hundreds of cuts across their blood-slick aged bodies) across Shanghai as they snarl and scream at one another. They hate each other. They hate what they are doing. They hate themselves. If they could point a gun at the camera and shoot it, they’d do so because they hate us too. Everything is cruel. That refrain might repeat itself because Kane & Lynch 2: Dog Days is an exercise in repetition. The entire experience is analogous to watching an ant that has been stuck in a puddle. It constantly moves and tries to escape only to find itself still treading water. The ant eventually drowns. Kane and Lynch always piss someone off or kill the wrong person. They begrudgingly face the repercussions of their choices at the barrel of a gun.
Kane & Lynch 2: Dog Days opens with a phone call—the story is mostly told through various phone calls and voicemails, often only on one end of the call. Lynch is living in Shanghai with his girlfriend. Being the “loose cannon” of the series, his profession is still violence; though he seems to be more subdued. Kane is elsewhere but he needs money for his daughter. So, he calls Lynch looking for some action. They hook up with a cockney-stereotyped gangster named Glazer for a job that would be smuggled weapons to Africa. The money would help them both retire, to live the “better lives” they don’t deserve, or even fully understand. But things go wrong, and from there a central narrative is more or less cast by the wayside. Still, exposition is delivered in cutscenes between missions via phonecall. often garbled and nearly incomprehensible, we get everything we need to know. Kane and Lynch killed the wrong person—Kane killed some gangster’s daughter in a needless shootout—and now they must atone for what they’ve done. How the story and dialogue are delivered understands the needlessness cruelty of the entire experience. Yes, there is a reason to go from point A to B but that reason cannot really be heard or thought about over the sounds of screaming and the incessant gunfire that makes up the game’s soundscape. The entire experience is as garbled and incoherent as Kane and Lynch’s raspy, worn out, and ever-angry voices.
Yes, the gameplay asks players to kill for no reason and to look on at the cruelty of the entire endeavor from the start. The “heroes” have whatever humanity they have left stripped from them by the third mission where they stumble naked and bloody through the streets of Shanghai with cuts all over their bodies like some messengers from Hell who’ve come up from below to tell us that life on Earth isn’t all that different from eternal damnation. But it is in the formal framing of these violent acts and events that further rattles the whole experience into an uncomfortable look at violence, those who do it, and the effects it has on one’s body. The entire game is seen through the lens of some omniscient handheld DV camera. It shakes when Kane and Lynch run and dives into cover when they take cover. Kane & Lynch 2: Dog Days never defines the experience as a faux-documentary and thus the framing is merely aesthetic. But this aesthetic is intimately tied to what the game is doing.
Since the advent of digital cameras and handheld camcorders, the dissemination of real-world violence has only grown, and through this growth, we’ve only become more desensitized to it. News stations air harrowing footage on a near-daily basis, with content warnings, but they are airing it nonetheless. An execution across the world can be seen by any of us in a matter of moments. Police brutality floods social media (as it should, fuck cops, abolish the police and incarceration systems at place in the world), and this footage is often shot by a shaky, nervous hand holding a cellphone or a small camera. This is how we understand violence now. It is not some far off thing but rather just another vertical in great various video content streams of modern existence. Kane & Lynch 2: Dog Days uses this exact framework to show us violence and to show us doing violence in-game. The footage is often grainy and pixelates when the violence becomes even too much for the game’s camera to capture (mainly in a helicopter sequence towards the end), muzzle flashes blow out the camera’s color range, and the handheld nature of it all gives everything an unnervy, confused feeling. There is no order to this, to any of this—even Kane and Lynch know that.
Yet it is in how Kane & Lynch 2: Dog Days uses the handheld, news-footage-like aesthetic to show the most harrowing violence in the game where the disturbing cruelty of it all really comes into a stark light. Headshots and shotgun blasts often lead to victims’ worst injuries being blurred. We have grown so used to seeing vile footage of blurred violence that we do not even need to see what is happening in the game. We know what horror lies behind those pixels. We know because we have seen it before, over and over again. Dead bodies on the news are often further ripped from their humanity by having their faces blurred. If we cannot see the face, then maybe the dead body a world over is truly no longer human so now we do not have to feel for them, their death is their own (as are their problems), and if they died by the hands of the American military (they usually do), then it is the tough hand of jingoism that blurs those faces. American news media does not truly care fro the violence it shows, and often portrays American-done violence as necessary when, in fact, it is almost always an exercise in modern hyperviolent imperialism under the guise of the American Flag and “world policing.” Almost every country America has gotten violently involved in was worse off after that American involvement ended, and oftentimes that American violence and involvement never really ends. If those bodies are devoid of humanity, then they can only be the enemy right? Kane & Lynch 2: Dog Days does not work through this at all, but it knows that we are thinking about it, and thus a blurred image becomes far more unsettling than some digital gore could ever be—especially within the framework of the game as a whole. But the camera also acts as a storyteller, or lack thereof. The cutscenes have no blocking, the cutting does not feel all that deliberate, and there isn’t really a “cinematic” quality to what is going on. The camera just happens to capture what unfolds before its lens. And what is often happening is incomprehensible. How can a camera knowingly (and with forethought) follow two men who flow from area to area with no real purpose? The only deliberate thing these men do is pull a trigger.
They open fire on other men with guns. Their allegiances vary from other gangsters to cops to shady paramilitary forces. Kane and Lynch also murder countless civilians who just end up in the wrong place at the wrong time. The game never fully reckons with this. There is deliberate cruelty in how Kane & Lynch 2: Dog Days never points to or punishes the death of civilians. Hit markers still show up on their bodies. To Kane and Lynch, everyone is a target.
The most abhorrent issue in how Kane & Lynch 2: Dog Days unfolds is that it never reckons with the fact that the entire game sees two white men murdering various non-white characters. In choosing to portray cruelty so matter of factly, so meaninglessly and trying to find a purpose in not Saying Anything at all, the game chooses to not condemn the blatant racism and colonialism in the premise from the very start. Yes, these men are irredeemable, violent, and murderous beyond the definition of the word itself. But maybe choosing to say nothing when there is something clearly being said is fundamentally not the way to go when representation is involved. What does the narrative gain from being set in Shanghai? Are the answers to that question rooted in racist stereotypes of the city, the land, and its people? Yes, a million times over. Something should have been said about that, but nothing was. Dead faces continued to be blurred as Kane and Lynch murdered their way across an entire city.
The narrative does not warrant such cruelty and the cruelty is not informed by the narrative. It all just sort of happens and becomes all the more revolting for it. This game hits its characters, itself, and us. This is best defined in the game’s ending. There is no way Kane and Lynch can find a better life. Instead the game ends in a jarringly anti-climatic manner about 4 hours after the player presses “start.” They find their way to an international airport, kill lots of other people with guns as well as civilians, and seemingly take an international airliner hostage. And then the game ends as the plane’s wheels rise just above the runway. Who knows where Kane and Lynch end up or if the plane even makes it safely somewhere, anywhere. That is not the point. There is no point. And that is exactly the point.