Tuesday, 15 July 2008

Cinemaniacal: Action! Action! Action!

Conservative film blogger Dirty Harry just reminded me of something that makes me feel old.

Die Hard has turned 20 years old.

The film was fresh in my mind because I had watched it recently on A&E during a rainy afternoon and found it as entertaining as when I first saw it. It's not a perfect film, but it doesn't make any atte
mpt to be, it is what it is, a simple action film.

And while the film was very successful at its time, and spawned a parade of pale imitators, it's the kind of film Hollywood doesn't seem to make anymore:
The Modest Action Film.

Once upon a time action films used to be semi-reasonable.
Die Hard had an $18 million budget, which was modest, even for the innocent salad days of 80s Hollywood, and didn't involve the world ending every 15 minutes, and the hero didn't bring down the government, defeat an army singlehanded, or expose a massive international conspiracy, and it didn't involve mutant powers or sci-fi technology. It was the simple story of a Christmas time marital reconciliation gone bad when Baader-Meinhoff type Eurotrash terrorists arrive, planning to supplement their pension plan with the contents of the Nakatomi Corporation vault.

It was done in the same vein as the classic action film
Bullitt, and even the first Lethal Weapon movie where the action is more street-level, even when it's done on top of a skyscraper. It's done on a scale that might actually fit within the realm of possibility, even the unbelievable stuff.

Ironically, the commercial success of these mid-budget action films pretty much killed what made them special.

The original films squeezed every dollar in their budget until the dead-presidents cried for mercy to provide top of the line production values. This gave the films a bit more spectacle than the average B-Grade action flick, and the studios thought that the key to their success weren't the stories, the characters, or the charm of their stars, it was the spectacle.

So they started tossing money at these movies.

Lots of money.

Of course when you're spending big money for action, you need big action. Where the more modest action films took their heroes to the limits of human endurance, these new films went beyond them into the realms of a live action comic book.

And bigger action also demanded bigger plots.

So now the hero has to deal with more than just the immediate threat of terrorists, gangsters, drug-smugglers, mercenaries, and ill tempered ninjas to massive conspiracies that could bring down governments, start or end international wars, or threaten the survival of the entire human race.

Small scale, street level threats weren't good enough anymore, you needed to take on at least an entire army before a studio would even look at you. Even the latest Die Hard instalment required the entire country going to hell just to get its hero out of bed.

Which is a shame, because some of the best action films were modest in their ambitions and budgets, and used a little thing called film-making to provide the thrills.

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