Thursday, 12 January 2012

Cinemaniacal: A Call To Action

Like anyone who spent their childhood in the 1980s I was big fan of action movies. Lively movies with loads with chases, fights and shoot-outs, each one more elaborate than the last, and plots based around revenge, rescue, good old fashioned evil plot foiling or all of the above.  

Lately I've been thinking about action because the movie channel package I recently got showed a bunch of action movies from the 1970s, and I watched Sam Peckinpah's The Killer Elite (1974), starring James Caan, and Robert Duvall. It's not Peckinpah's best film, it lacks the elegiac emotional impact of his westerns like The Wild Bunch or Pat Garrett & Billy The Kid, and the or the near surreal madness of his hard to classify neo-Western Bring Me The Head Of Alfredo Garcia, but it's not without its charms.

As I watched it I started thinking about how rare it is when I really enjoy, or even sit all the way through, a non-James Bond action movie that's been made in the last 20 years.  The problem I seem to have is that too many modern action movies, especially the ones dribbling out of Hollywood are either overdone, unoriginal, or both.

Here's how I see it...

OVERDONE: I really shouldn't have to explain this, but if I didn't there would be a blog.  This is where the hero is some sort of unstoppable killing machine, many of them musclebound behemoths sweating creatine and human growth hormone, blasting everything and anything in their path with a seemingly infinite amount of ammunition or some sort of near magical martial arts skill.

There's no real sense of suspense coming from these movies, because they establish from scene 1 that the hero is unstoppable, so should anyone bother trying to stop them.  There are no limits to their abilities, and in the desire to top one another, and somehow compete with the superhero franchises, they, and their antics, become often more outlandish than the superheroes.

When you look at the roots of modern action cinema in the 1960s and 1970s they at least tried to create some element of suspense. They gave the hero limitations, either like in The Killer Elite, by having star James Caan overcome a bum leg, and a bad elbow. Or they could just have them being ordinary people who looked tough, instead of cartoonish, who used what skills and tools they have at hand to survive and eventually overcome the bad guys.

The point is they're not superhuman. So you actually get a sense that they're in danger when they're supposed to be in danger.

UNORIGINAL:  I saw the preview for Steven Soderbergh's Haywire, and basically saw a rehash of the plot just about every American espionage / action movie made since the 1990s.  American spy gets betrayed by his own agency, for reasons that really make no logical sense, leaving him/her to kick the ass of every US government employee in the world until they take down the people who turned on them.

Look at this partial list of recent movies that all have the same plot:
The A-Team
Green Zone
The Losers
The Bourne Identity
The Bourne Supremacy
The Bourne Ultimatum
Mission: Impossible 1
The Long Kiss Goodnight

No wonder James Bond is the only secret agent out saving the world, the CIA is too busy hunting down their own people for reasons that make sense only to people who live inside the Axis of Ego.

Since all these movies have the same plot, the filmmakers have to make them stand out by... OVERDOING THEM. They crank up the explosions, the gun-play, and the chop-socky fights to levels that make cartoons look realistic.

I know I've harped on this in the past, but damn it, someone has to do something about this. The lack of interesting stories is why Hollywood is losing its audience.

If the movie industry made action movies with real suspense, they wouldn't have to overload them with expensive digital effects, and overwrought stunt work. That's the lesson of the movie Taken, which cost $26 million to make, had a middle aged hero, who was more grimly determined than invincible, and made over $200 million at the box office.

The average movie has to make between 2X to 3X it's production cost to break even.  That movie made 10X it's production costs.

It should make the folks in Hollywood think.


  1. If we look back to the original Die Hard and Lethal Weapon as an example, the heroes were not the overblown super-types of today. In dialog, Bruce Willis established repeatedly that he was an ordinary schmo trying to take down the supermen (the bad guys). In Lethal Weapon, Mel Gibson is established as a nigh-undefeatable fighter, but it is counterbalanced by the fact that he has serious emotional problems, and by Danny Glover's ordinary-scho persona. There is certainly never any doubt that a bad guy could shoot Mel Gibson, and he could die.

    The trend I hope reached its apogee with the later Steven Seagal movies, in which at least a third of the movie's running time was wasted on other people talking about what a bad-ass Seagal was. Retch.

  2. The "ordinary guy" movies seemed like Lethal Weapon and Die Hard seemed at the time almost a reaction to the "overblown" heroes that Stallone and Schwarzenegger were playing at the time (and still are). That trend seemed to continue a bit with Nicholas Cage (!) becoming an action hero, which then seemed to kill the concept and return herodom into the hands of nigh-unkillable badasses.

  3. Dirty McDingus sezs:

    I've recently watched Peckinpahs' 'The Killer Elite' and found it somewhat lacking in cohesion. I did enjoy that directors' love of portraying the Asians [because I couldn't quite nail down if they where Japanese, Chinese, Taiwanese, ~] as complete Luddites who brag on and on about they Amazing NINJA stealth and killing ways to be in one moment easily captured and later gunned down by the bucket load in every scene they're in!
    A foreign devil pulled a stealth kill on a "kung fu" master to boot!!!
    The thumbing of the nose at them Asians was all the way up to 11 in that movie!

  4. The old time action movies could certainly at times lack in cohesion. But the heroes were still cool. Ever seen Enzio Castellari's original Inglorious Bastards movie? Or the original Walking Tall from the 1970s?

    Aspects of those films may not be as technically proficient as some parts of modern films (heck, Enzio Castellari had to use rubber firearms), but they filmed with gusto and far more testosterone than many a modern equivalent.