5. My Take On…Action Films

:OR, My formula-less approach at the finer art of critiquing artless films

Time for part two of the “My Take On…” series.  (You can read part one here). I think this is a good topic to address next, because better understanding action films can open up doors to fantastic movies.  For the casual movie-goer, action films are bread and butter.  Movie theaters (though this is a historically inaccurate statement) seemingly were made for action movies—all others are mere superfluity.  I do not disagree with the fact that action movies must be seen on the big screen with surround sound in a dark room.  Many movies do not require that environment to be effective.   Action films do. I’ll never forget the way I felt when I first saw City Lights, and that was something I watched in clips on YouTube with my laptop.  But I will also never forget the way I felt when I saw the tower scene in Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol or the Chinese skyline in The Dark Knight.   Those, I watched on giant projector screens in packed auditoriums with a large Coke and some popcorn.  I will never forget as a child going to see Disney’s Dinosaur with my grandparents, or going with my parents to see Jurassic Park III.  No matter what my opinions on those movies are now, I have a special place in my heart for them; the rumbling bass in the surround sound of their action scenes still shake inside me.  There is something magical about the movie theater, and in today’s age of digital magnificence, that magic is most potently experienced through the medium of action scenes and suspense.

My take on suspense has already been stated.  I suggest it be read to better understand my take on action films.  This is an incredibly fragile genre, a make-or-break endeavor for any director, from Steven Spielberg to John Woo to Dan Bradley.  Sometimes, it makes (Woo), sometimes it breaks (Bradley), and rarely does a director dodge the praise or the bullet that will inevitably result from releasing a film like this.

But what makes a good action film?  In essence, I don’t know.  One thing I have learned to recognize is that it depends–as do most films–on character, innovation, and proper expression of director’s intent.  The first two criteria make an action film inherently good or bad, while the third is somewhat of the unfortunate-but-required cop-out that must be taken into consideration.  This may all seem rather vague and it is.  While I feel I can make a decision on whether or not an action film is good, I can’t decide completely on how it compares with those of other genres.  The three aforementioned criteria are a good springboard, no matter how vague they may turn out to be.

There is one certainty, though, in determining the quality of an action film: it has nothing to do with the action scenes.  Is Star Wars II better than Star Wars IV?  Absolutely, utterly and entirely not, despite the quality of action in both.  The only exception to that rule that I can possibly find is in martial art films, but that’s because they use their fight scenes just as Tarkovsky used wind and Buñuél used meows: they are accessory images and stimuli to compliment the art of the greater whole.   In other cases, an action scene is good to provide amazement, excitement or fear.  Those are important feelings, but they are feelings that the most base of artists can portray.  What I want in an action movie is exactly what I want in every other film I chose to watch.  I want to have my imagination sparked as I am brought into a new world of thought and expression.

The face of the action genre is Sylvester Stallone.  Somewhere between Rhinestone and D-TOX, Hollywood decided they didn’t like Stallone, despite the fact that in 1976, Stallone became only the third man to be nominated for best writer and best actor in the same Academy Awards season…a club that was at the time exclusive only to Charlie Chaplin and Orson Welles.  Now, that club has grown in size, but is still quite exclusive, consisting of Hollywood favorites Woody Allen, Warren Beatty, Matt Damon, and Roberto Benigni.  Despite that, and the recent flop of Bullet in the Head, Stallone still personifies all that is lovable in the action genre: corny one-liners, lots of explosions and tons of muscle.  But is that really the formula people are looking for?  All Stallone films–Rocky included–keep to those basic ingredients, but only a few–Rocky included–have succeeded in the arena of critical review.  This is done only by adding ingredients to the aforementioned recipe; particularly, a film has to add character, innovation and proper expression of director’s intent.   When these base ingredients are blended in and accentuated, they are able to turn out the best slice of cake movie theaters can provide.

Here is a solid example, I think, of proper use of character: Total Recall, both the original and the remake.  While most Schwarzenegger films are complete flops in the character department, Total Recall is not.  Here, unlike the shallow vengeance of Commando or the fake confusion of Kindergarten Cop, Schwarzenegger “opens the way for Total Recall to be more than simply an action, violence and special effects extravaganza….He could have stalked and glowered through this movie and become a figure of fun, but instead, by allowing himself to seem confused and vulnerable, he provides a sympathetic center for all of the high-tech spectacle.” (Roger Ebert).  Then, however, you have the remake.  Not only is the film devoid of character strictly by virtue of its being a remake and therefore a copy–only a Jeff Buckley album can provide good remakes and give character to clones–it is also a flat out stale representation of empty characters.  (For fairness, I will say Kate Beckinsale may have done okay at adding some depth and flavor to her role; but only okay.)

Another great example is the two most recent Batman films by Christopher Nolan.  Both are epic, both are made for IMAX, both involve complex plots of downright villainy and both depend on Hans Zimmer’s precise scoring for life breath.  The difference lies in the fact that one used that life-breath to provide a tempo and dynamic by which they could build and display character, and the other was stale and bland.   Comparing an Oscar-winning portrayal of madness and obsession with a face-less and rotund portrayal of a talking slug is a simple enough task here; just fill in the blanks.  Who were the two-and-only saving graces behind The Dark Knight Rises?  Not Christian Bale, not Morgan Freeman, unfortunately not (and disappointingly-so) Marion Cottilard, and certainly not Tom Hardy.  Even the battle-proven genius Gary Oldman was just as good in a coma then he was elsewhere on the screen.  No; the only presentations of character in the film were Anne Hathaway and Michael Caine–whose screen time was either unwisely taken from them or robbed by placing them behind a mask.  Suffice it to say, Anne Hathaway deserved her Best Supporting Actress award for Lés Miserablés, if only because she did it while in the same year saving Batman from the critical shredder.

For more on character, take these comparisons: John Rambo or Barney Ross?  It is no coincidence, I think, to say that First Blood is therefore better than The Expendables.  Jason Bourne or Jack Reacher?  Yeah, no question there.  Ethan Edwards or Dan Evans?  This is a much tougher one, since Dan Evans was certainly a fine character, but it should go without saying that Ethan Edwards was the deepest, most moving and tragic characters ever played by the great DUKE, John Wayne.  It is no question, therefore, that The Searchers should be considered a better movie than the 3:10 to Yuma remake.  One more thing….Daniel Craig or Pierce Brosnan?  I think we get the idea.  Skyfall over Die Another Day any day.

What about innovation as the second of the important ingredients?  Queue Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings, Alien, Blade Runner, Indiana Jones and Total Recall.  It also helps my case to say that character plays its role in these as well…and sometimes not even in the characters themselves, but rather in the very action the movie tries to provide.  Dr. Jones with his whip and gun, his screaming mine cars and fallen bridges, give credence to his fun-ness as an individual piece of the puzzle that is the Indiana Jones movies.  Innovation is very important in any action film.  Otherwise, why watch them?  If one wants to watch action, turn on some sports.  But to watch a movie to get action is to seek after clever innovations of an old genre.  That’s why the Western is a dying breed.  You’ll notice that the only recent Westerns to have real clout (Unforgiven being the best example) star old Western icons or utilize old Western concepts as homage to the now-extinct species.  That’s because it still feels innovative that way, or at least nostalgic.  Everything else is a desperate attempt, a copy.

Innovation is demonstrated by avoiding the “cop-out.”  It is providing a bold ending or conclusion or climax despite the cookie-cutter archetypes of storyboards today.  Let’s go back to my first “My Take On…” entry:

While the inclusion of an action-scene ending can be unnecessary and sometimes even detrimental to a film, it contributes to the problem of ruining our perception of good suspense.  Once the fight scene starts, the suspense ends.  If, therefore, you can somehow reach a climax without a scene with which the suspense can be dissipated (i.e. a fight scene), you have prolonged and increased the suspense and, in essence, sacked Nassau Port.

If that line makes little sense to you, you need to read my other page on suspense.  This page was written with that one in mind.  I mentioned Jack Reacher earlier.  I recently went and watched that one with my wife in the dollar theater.  I knew it was going to happen.  And it did; almost as if the screenwriters themselves jumped into the future, read my blog and then decided to spit on it.  At the key moment of the film’s climax, the summation of all the suspense led up to by hyping up two opposing parties–evil vs. not-evil-but-not-quite-good–Tom Cruise’s Jack Reacher tosses his SIG P556 SWAT / SG 550 hybrid to the side so as to engage his enemy in a fist fight.  It would have been better if he just shot him.  It would have been the unique, sensible thing to do.  Christopher McQuarrie would have done well to take a page from Robert Frost and take the road less traveled.  Adding the cop-out fist fight turned an adequately good action sequence into a desperate attempt to top the un-top-able Bourne.  It changed from innovative to sophomoric in less than a second.

While these two criteria–innovation and character–are probably substantial enough, I’ll give a quick shout-out to my third element: director’s intent.  It was never the intent of George Lucas to give us Shakespeare, so while it’s timely and necessary to discuss the dialogue issues in the prequel trilogy for Star Wars, it is not entirely appropriate to base all opinions on that singular facet.  It was, however, Ridley Scott’s intent to do something at least literary, if not Shakespearean, in the filming of most of his movies.  And he did just that.  A word of warning, however, in determining to what degree you give this whole “intent” thing credence–the more bold the intent, and the more that intent was properly realized, the more credit you should give it.  Don’t go saying Spy Kids is a good movie because the director never intended it to be good.  Sure, it filled the director’s intent.  But the director’s intent sucked.

Anyway, that’s my take on action films.  It’s a tough call, but I encourage all casual movie goers to give it a chance.  The Bourne movies are a great springboard (the real Bourne movies, not the fake fourth one).  From there, give Bullit a try.  As you play with your Bond movies, give older spy films a shot, like The 39 Steps or Charade.  If you liked Star Wars, try the original Planet of the Apes.  Pretty soon, you’ll find yourself exposed to the likes of Scorsese, then Ford, and then the strange approach to action that of artists like Godard.  Then, you’re in.

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