Television Review

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The Independent Culture
"I had this dream of going to America to be a bounty hunter," said Ted Oliver at the beginning of Cutting Edge (C4). "I didn't know whether it still existed, but I wanted to be somebody who tracked armed people." Is this the sort of man you would want to meet socially? I think not. But this is partly why television exists - as a one-way mirror through which we can safely gaze at the weirder fringes of society. They see only themselves, reflected in that glamorising rectangle, which does raise the question of whether the more dangerous forms of narcissism should be encouraged. It was a point driven home by the twist at the opening of James Marsh's film. Ted first appeared in a British prison cell, having briefly returned from the fulfilment of his dream in America, only to end up in jail for stabbing his estranged wife; at the time of filming, he was limbering up for his release, practising gun skills in front of the cell mirror (quite why the Prison Service allowed a man convicted of a violent offence to be filmed acting out such fantasies is another question entirely).

The cell scene looked unnervingly like a low-budget remake of Taxi Driver, with Ted as a pony-tailed De Niro, readying himself to clean the streets. Frightening enough as a recreational lawman, the idea that Ted might think he was doing all this for some higher good was even more alarming. But when the film followed him back to America, where he hoped to re-establish his career, it was clear that some demented idea of social purpose also flickered through his colleagues' minds. "Why I do it is an issue of the heart. I do it because I care about people," said Ron, one of the American bounty hunters with whom Ted linked up. Some of his clients, tracked down and manacled because they had failed to turn up for court appearances, might have taken issue with Ron's interpretation of social charity. So too, presumably, would the bail-jumper he shot dead after trying to arrest him in a motel carpark. By all accounts, this event had tamed some of Ron's wilder fantasies about gun play; a video taken at the time showed him weeping in the aftermath, and his voice thickened and halted when the director took him back to the scene for an interview.

His colleagues, though, have preserved their fascination with the exercise of power in all its childish innocence, dressing in quasi-official uniforms and openly confessing to the real attraction of the game. They talk of "playing at soldiers" and "going out to play". "I'm looking forward to it," said Don, one of Ted's American friends drafted in for a bit of amateur assistance, "You get to slam people. Lot of fun". (As it happened, Don turned out to be short of the right stuff, expressing pity for the minor offender whom he caught up with just after the man had begun an honest job - all for the sake of Don's $50 fee. A triumph for rehabilitation, you thought.) Another bounty hunter did the job during his vacations, suddenly converted from an overweight ordinary joe into a gun-toting lawman who was allowed to kick people's doors down.

On camera they all behaved with a slightly unconvincing politesse ("Keep your hands on your head, maam"), but there were little betrayals in the overheard speech. "Obviously he'll be tipped off by the many, many baboons that run around here," said one of the bounty hunters sourly, after just missing a suspect, a line that you imagined more accurately reflected his ideas of the public he was notionally serving.

Marsh's film couldn't quite make it to the end without twiddling its thumbs rather conspicuously - when you have to resort to plangent electric guitar and a long-watches- of-the-night montage, it is fairly clear that you have run out of new things to show. Similarly, the recurring images of Ron's illusion-shattering encounter didn't feel like artistic circularity so much as slightly desperate padding. But he did manage to convey the gap between these men's fantasies and the reality of their lives - small people sent out for small money to bring in small-time criminals.