Every Monday morning, InsidePulse Movies Czar Scott “Kubryk” Sawitz brings an irreverent and oftentimes hilarious look at pop culture, politics, sports and whatever else comes to mind. And sometimes he writes about movies.
My buddy Hunter of many web sites, most notably his own, posted this article on the Facebook this past week and I read it because Hunter’s postings on film are always entertaining. That’s one of the awesome things about being a film geek in the 21st century; the internet has allowed us to connect with one another and discuss all things cinema in ways never thought possible 40 years ago. Then you’d need to find people in your area and be lucky if you could find a theatre that had old movies on 35mm. Now you can go online and discover film, et al, from all sorts of folks from across the world. But sometimes it takes something close to home to give you inspiration. Thus the New York Times and my movie buddy pointing out something interesting: the death of the modern American action film.
Which is as insanely overrated as this year’s action darling the article sites, The Raid: Redemption.
The Raid: Redemption is a fun little action film but calling it the greatest action film of anything is a disservice. It’s a good film, don’t get me wrong, but it doesn’t do anything new or unique. It is 90 minutes or so of raw violence and action that’s enjoyable on a visceral level. Once you start to really analyze its merits,(not just nit-picking little things) things like the fact that there’s no major character development or that there’s barely any plot to it at all take away from the film’s overall quality level.
It’s what people are forgetting in major doses; the reason why Hard Boiled holds up is because Tequila is a well written character with a good story. The Raid: Redemption is merely a lot of crazy action sequences seamlessly integrated. It essentially tones down the bat-shit craziness of a Crank film but keeps all the brutally intense action, nothing more, and to say it’s better than something that has characters and an engaging storyline like Hard Boiled (for example) is far-fetched at best. It’s the Indonesian District B13, nothing more, but the larger argument remains.
What happened to American action films?
What has always bugged me is when I read all about how American studios can’t make good action films anymore, etc, and there’s always some flavor of the month being pointed to as the next wave. The Raid: Redemption is just that and nothing more. People are going to look at their proclamations about this film six months from now like the guy that spent $100 on different versions of the Macarena. Yeah it was cool for a minute to have the Christmas Macarena, as well as both versions of the remix of it, but then you realize that you spent actual money on this.
There are all sorts of reasons why the traditional American action has gone downhill, if you want to call it that, but let’s be honest when discussing the genre as a whole: It’s always kind of sucked. No one wanted to admit it, though. I realize it’s a bit amusing considering I’m a big action film fan but there never was this grand era where there were tons of great action films. There were plenty of memorable ones, and ones I genuinely love, but let’s be honest about something. There weren’t too many you could argue as great films as opposed to entertaining genre pictures.
When you look at the ‘80s in action films you can’t argue that Commando, Action Jackson, Red Scorpion, Bloodsport or any number of films aren’t anything but purely guilty pleasures. Red Heat is a fun film but not what I’d call a great film. Part of it is rooted in nostalgia; action films have changed over the years and you can’t get away with the sort of rampant misogyny, racism, homophobia and foul language that marked a lot of the genre’s high marks. Like watch 48 Hours again sometime and I guarantee you will cringe at how Nick Nolte treats Eddie Murphy at least a dozen times. Society has changed drastically since the heyday of the American action film and that’s a good thing; if society as a whole has an attitude adjustment then everything else must follow suit.
A good parallel would be with comic book and superhero films, which have replaced the pure action film in a way. You can get away with R-rated violence in a PG-13 film if you have a superhero in it like Batman instead of an ordinary guy fighting terrorists or criminals or whatever. If you had The Dark Knight but with Jason Statham fighting off a crazy John Travolta it’s an R just on the violence alone. Tights do that to the MPAA, I guess, and another parallel comes through: quality.
There are few that are genuinely great films but most are fun but disposable films. It’s the difference between something like Green Lantern and Batman Begins; one’s a perfectly acceptable if deeply flawed origin film and the other is a remarkable opening act to an operatic trilogy about the rise of a hero and the sacrifices therein. One’s something you eat with popcorn and then do something after; the other is a film you can write deeply about in a Philosophy course.
To go back to this era of action that people are waxing nostalgia about it’s the difference between Die Hard and Under Siege.
That’s why most comic book films are disposable popcorn fluff and it’s truly difficult to craft a grand masterpiece about people in tights. It’s easy to point to the Marvel variety but let’s be honest; it’s rare when ANY comic book film goes beyond the purely enjoyable and moves into something grander. It’s the difference between Christopher Nolan’s Batman and Tim Burton’s; one is an operatic character that Shakespeare would’ve had fun with while the other is perfectly acceptable genre material.
There’s nothing wrong with Michael Keaton as Batman, or as Bruce Wayne, but there’s nothing memorable about it either. He’s just another hero with a tragic back story. Christian Bale’s Batman/Bruce Wayne is a hero in a tragedy of his own making. He wants to do what’s good and right for purely altruistic purposes; he doesn’t get the happy ending afforded to others. To be the hero means to have the lonely existence and Nolan gets that.
It’s the difference between nearly every character Bruce Willis has ever played and John McClane, to harken back to the “glory days” of action films gone past. McClane’s the embodiment of the everyman whereas the rest are just generic stand-ins for the Bruce Willis character that he plays in nearly every action film. He may be continually in the wrong place at the right time but McClane is the sort of hero we all wish we had in ourselves if we were in that spot. That’s what makes him the hero, that he saves the day not for personal glory but because he’s that guy. Every other character he plays is just some guy saving something, a piece of celluloid candy that tastes sweet going down but ultimately leaves us hollow.
To be more apt, McClane is iconic and everyone else Bruce Willis has portrayed is fairly disposable.
As much as I enjoyed plenty of films from the genre the very best hits that point where it stops being a great comic book film and just becomes a great film like in any genre. It’s why even those who aren’t action film buffs love Die Hard because it’s a great film, not a great action film. I think we’ve lost that distinction over the years; the ability for something to be a good genre representation does not necessarily mean it’ll also translate into the ability to be a great film.
A Movie A Week – The Challenge
This Week’s DVD – Midnight Run
Every time I see Robert De Niro in some dreck like Little Fockers I remember that for all the crappy films he makes now, because he’s got two Oscars and more money & fame than he knows what to do with, that there are an armful of good films he’s done over the years that make up for it. For every New Year’s Eve and Hide and Seek out there, with De Niro sleepwalking through the film to cash what I imagine to be a well deserved and well proportioned paycheck, in the wings are DVDs of good films he’s been in over the years. This is one of them.
De Niro, historically, was at a weird place in his career. Goodfellas, and the end of his near two decade run as one of the best actors in cinema, was about to close. He had earned his two Oscars already and was almost a decade removed from perhaps his greatest performance in Raging Bull. De Niro still had his acting fastball, though, and was still at least a decade from outright mailing it in on occasion. Here he still cared because a potential third Oscar might be in his near future; you could argue that he should’ve won one for either Goodfellas or Casino.
There was still some brilliance left in him and Midnight Run is a curious pick for him in many ways. De Niro was always the badass, of course, but in a sort of buddy comedy it would feel out of place if you watched it then. De Niro was the dramatic actor’s dramatic actor; seeing him as the tough guy part of a buddy comedy would’ve been a bit out of place back in the day. He wanted to do something different and, after Robin Williams and Cher were both voted down as sidekicks, cinematic gold was struck when lightly regarded Grodin auditioned with De Niro.
Now it doesn’t look so bad, considering De Niro has done his fair share of good and bad comedies over the years. De Niro is Jack Walsh, a bounty hunter who used to be a Chicago cop. Making a living by taking down criminals running from the law, he now has one that could set him up with enough cash to make his dream of a coffee house come true: An accountant (Charles Grodin) called The Duke” who ripped off the mob. Dealing with mob hitters tracking him, as well as the FBI (who want him in custody as well), Walsh has five days to get him across the country to collect his cash.
In terms of buddy comedies the film is fairly standard, especially in the ‘80s when the genre was arguably at its peak, but there’s a reason why when you mention the best buddy comedies of that era: chemistry. It’s also the same reason why people have been talking about a sequel to this film ever since it came out originally, with Brett Ratner being discussed to try and make his own Another 48 Hours.
Grodin and De Niro have sensational chemistry on the screen.
It’s why I’d genuinely enjoy seeing another Midnight Run on the screen, even though it’d be nearly three decades since the original was on the screen. There’s potentially something there but the thought of it being a shoddy sequel that’d take away from the original makes me shudder as well. This is such a good film that a sequel would be kind of shoddy no matter what because the original hasn’t aged at all outside of the cursory ways.
What Looks Good This Weekend, and I Don’t Mean the $2 Pints of Bass Ale and community college co-eds with low standards at the Alumni Club
The Raven – Edgar Allen Poe (John Cusack) solves murder mysteries like a Hardy Boy with McNulty.
See It – Cusack rarely is in a bad film; outside of 2012 and maybe Tapeheads there isn’t one I haven’t liked on at least a cursory level. Plus the historical fiction aspect has become popular as of late and it could be an interesting action film.
Safe (2012) – Jason Statham has to save a little girl from the mob or something.
See It – If you need asses kicked, you call Statham. You might not get brilliance but you get perfectly entertaining, usually.
The Pirates! Band of Misfits – The guys behind Wallace & Gromit are back with a new stop motion film about pirates that’s intentionally funny, unlike At World’s End.
See It – Aardman is just money, like a stop motion Pixar. Go, take the kids and you will be entertained.
The Five-Year Engagement – Emily Blunt and Jason Segel get engaged and then life keeps happening.
See It – Anytime a trailer shows a woman getting involved in physical humor, instead of just the man, then you know a film is going to be funny. Plus Emily Blunt is always excellent and Jason Segel’s shelf life hasn’t quite expired yet.
Scott “Kubryk” Sawitz brings his trademarked irreverence and offensive hilarity to Twitter in 140 characters or less. Follow him @ScottSawitz .