Wednesday, July 20, 2011

THE PROBLEM WITH ACTION MOVIES


One is tempted to say the problem is simply Michael Bay, but that’s not entirely fair. (He is a problem but he’s not the problem.) The real culprits, the real villains are actually these three trends that are taking down the action movie:

ACTION MOVIE FOE # 1: A LACK OF BELIEVABILITY

I do not go to the movies to see realism per say, but a little believability in an action flick would go a long way. Unfortunately realism in action pictures today is about as rare as Nic Cage finding himself cast in a good one. Everything is so over-the-top and big that the modern action picture is starting to play more like a live-action cartoon.

I’m referring to films like KICK-ASS (2010) where the Hit Girl character defies gravity and runs up the sides of walls. I’m pointing a scolding finger at the CHARLIE’S ANGELS franchise where the gals leap 50 feet into the air from a standing position and then land upright on their four-inch heels. And I’m thinking of just about any Jason Statham actioner where he fights off hordes of trained killers, barely breaking a sweat or ripping a stitch in his Hugo Boss suit. These films strain credibility to the point where they’re not action movies anymore, they’re abstraction movies. When nothing is real, nothing is at stake. And when nothing is at stake, why should anyone care what’s happening to the people on the screen?

In the TRANSFORMERS movies (Here we go, Mr. Bay!) Shia LaBeouf is tossed around like a rag doll amongst the various Decepticons and Dyspepticons or whatever the hell those surly robots are called. Yet he never gets hurt. Maybe a dusty shirt but that’s about it. In this summer’s FAST FIVE Dwayne Johnson and Vin Diesel go mano a mano for five minutes, pummeling each other with rock ‘em/sock ‘em fisticuffs, and both walk away injury free. And how many Roland Emmerich flicks must we watch where people outrun explosions, speeding aircraft or even tsunamis? A certain suspension of disbelief is fine, but this sort of thing is getting simply absurd. Yes, CGI can make anything look believable but that’s different than it actually seeming believable.

It would be nice if filmmakers studied CASINO ROYALE (2006) rather than the oeuvre of Bay for their template. The re-launch of the James Bond series was such a landmark action picture because Daniel Craig’s version of 007 was so vulnerable. After being poisoned by that nasty cocktail during a high stakes poker game in Montenegro Bond rushes out of the hotel choking and wheezing in an absolute death spiral. He almost dies. Yes, that’s right, 007 comes scarily close to biting the dust and that authenticity made this adventure a startling one. It’s a shame that more action films didn’t follow suit and strive for such plausibility.

ACTION MOVIE FOE # 2: SPECIAL EFFECTS

CGI (computer generated imagery) can create all sorts of marvelous illusions in movies. It can render settings that would otherwise not be affordable, like the Roman Coliseum in GLADIATOR (2000). It can make you believe that Doc Ock has four mechanical arms coming out of his back in  SPIDER-MAN 2 (2004). And it can create movie violence without using a single squib or blood pack as director David Fincher can tell you. He puts all of his blood spatter in during post-production. But sometimes too much CGI can paint box a film into a corner. Case in point, this summer’s mess called THE GREEN LANTERN. Its special effects made it into something wholly artificial.

This comic book adaptation had many problems, not the least of them a terribly glib Ryan Reynolds performance as action hero Hal Jordan. But the biggest mistake was the film’s use and abuse of CGI. The movie drowns in all its manufactured fakery. Half of Reynolds screen time was a computer-generated image of him. His glowing Green Lantern suit, even his mask, were artificial and looked it. The effect of all those post effects took me right out of the movie. How can you invest in a story where everything you see is just bytes of data and code? You can't.

ACTION MOVIE FOE # 3: RELENTLESS PACING

The gaming industry may very well have turned the majority of the younger male audience out there into adrenaline junkies. The relentless pace of video games and their need to jack up the action with every new level of play has now become the template for Hollywood action movies. The studios figure this is what the audiences want or at least are used to, so action picture after action picture follows suit. And they become non-stop action films. And now every one that comes out seems to feel that it has to top any previous entries in relentless pacing and attack.

Look at this trailer for the upcoming SHERLOCK HOLMES sequel due at Christmas. Is Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s intellectual detective anywhere to be found in these frenzied clips? And how many expensive, slow-motion explosions can Holmes and Watson outrun? (Wait a minute, is this a Roland Emmerich film?)
I think any filmmaker contemplating writing or directing an action picture today should do himself a favor and Netflix the movie DIE HARD (1988). It’s one of the all-time great action movies and it succeeds by essentially thwarting every last one of those three foes.

First off, the hero in DIE HARD is entirely credible. Bruce Willis plays cop John McClane as an average Joe, estranged from his executive wife, who’s come to LA to try and reconcile with her during her office Christmas party. The plot kicks in when ruthless Euro-trash terrorists take over the building and hold the office party hostage. McClane is in the wrong place at the wrong time and has only his wits and a handgun to help him. He doesn’t even have shoes as he was changing clothes when the attack started! Those bare feet will be cut to bloody ribbons by the end of it all. And that vulnerability gives the film an aching realism.

And because this was made before the advent of CGI, everything was shot in camera. And virtually every action sequence is performed by a real person: the ever game Willis, the stellar supporting players, and some of the best stuntmen in the history of motion pictures.

Finally, it takes time to build its characters. And the pacing of the action. It doesn't run and gun right out of the gate. It has dozens of wonderful little quiet moments throughout where the audience can breathe. Sure DIE HARD has plenty of tough, tense set pieces but, more importantly, it takes time to carefully craft a clever story. And when its well-defined characters get placed in the charged scenes we really care about what happens to them.

I wish more action movies were as smart and human as DIE HARD or the likes of RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK (1981) or BULLITT (1968) or TELL NO ONE (2006) or the BOURNE movies but too often they are not. So much of today’s action product is made by rote, like a bad recipe ground out by a machine. Just toss in some cardboard characters, bad plotting, routine dialogue and big, expensive effects and mix. And we're all dazzled. Only we're not. The formula is boring and is turning the summer season into a uninspired time. Is there anyone out there who will remember THE GREEN LANTERN affectionately five years from now? Or 25 years from now like DIE HARD? Doubtful. I have high hopes for CAPTAIN AMERICA this weekend and COWBOYS AND ALIENS the following one. But I'm not holding my breath.

Action movies should keep us on the edge of our seats but too often I’m on the edge of mine, inching off of it, planning to sneak into another theater at the Cineplex for something better to watch. A J-Lo romantic comedy has to be better than another mind-numbing, digitalized, formula robo-movie, right? Right?

5 comments:

  1. Thanks, Bart! We'll keep hoping for the best but the truly good ones are few and far in between the glut of mediocrity.

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  2. Two that come to mind for me immediately, in terms of being classic action films entirely lacking your three negative trends are BULLITT (1968) and THE FRENCH CONNECTION (1971).

    I may be biased by the films of my youth. But in no way does real live action caught on film (think famous car chases) and performed by both Steve McQueen and Gene Hackman, as well as their stuntmen, ever seem dated or less impressive than any CGI. Both films won Academy awards for Best Film Editing.

    The fact that...
    • these cars really are driving right in the middle of San Francisco and New York City at speeds of up to 90 – 100 mph
    • the degree of intensity was probably more than the city authorities bargained for
    • real, unplanned collisions were caught on film
    • point of view shots were included to take us along
    ...makes them believable.

    Not to mention that both films also have varied pacing and considerable character development. Live action, real danger and the human element go a long way in keeping us on the edge of our seats. Could it be that the insurance risk is today seen as unacceptable, thereby contributing to the rise in compensating CGI effects?

    One more car chase: remember DUEL (1971), the TV movie starring Dennis Weaver and directed by then little-known Steven Spielberg about a salesman pursued for the entire length of the film by an angry tanker truck driver whose face we never see? Available on Netflix, you’ll remember this one the next time you get on a highway and pass a big rig. No special effects ever scared us like this, because unlike the fantasy in CGI-heavy films, this kind of road rage could REALLY happen to you.

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  3. Nicely said, Fan With No Name, very nice indeed. You know your stuff. All three of those are excellent examples of action done right. Those movies relied on realism and everything they did was captured in camera, not created on a computer. Gotta love "old school" brilliance like those choices of yours. Thanks for posting!

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  4. Jeff,

    Here are my examples of movies that suffer from or avoid the foes you listed above:

    Foe #1 (Believability). The disaster movie "2012" was awful for the way it portrayed John Cusack escaping death at every possible turn while everything around him was obliterated.

    Foe #2 (Special Effects). "Ronin" had the best car chases for me because it was all live action and not CGI. You actually felt like you were in the car.

    Foe #3 (Relentless Pacing). "Crank" was horrible at this and just became absurd before it ever allowed you a reason to care about who Statham's character was.

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