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Friday, 3 June 2011

Thoughts on the current state of Action films

As promised in my review for The Expendables, here are a few thoughts on the current state of Action films.

There is a problem that seems to plague all recent action films (by this I mean those of the last 10-15 years).
They just aren't good action films any more, by this I mean they cannot hope to rival such old school action films of the same breed as Die Hard (perhaps the greatest of them all?) Predator, Mad Max, Terminator 1&2, Rambo: First Blood, Point Break, Robocop etc.
The more recent ones may be good films in their own right, but I feel that when looked at as action films, they often fall short.

Of course there are the modern, supposedly "intelligent action films" such as Inception as well as the ultra slick and stylish new James Bonds, the Guy Ritchie films, the list goes on.
But I find these on the whole much less satisfying, they get to caught up trying to be a great film and lose much of their entertainment factor in the process. In the case of Inception (and other Nolan films for that matter) the writing lets it down, the new James Bonds are let down by over-predictability combined with a yearning to be something new but never really daring to be, the Guy Ritchie's are brought down by the fact that Ritchie is such an untalented director with poor writing skills. But this post isn't so much about these kinds of films, it is rather about two different kinds of action films, the new hyper gritty and realistic ones, and the nostalgic over the top 80's style ones.

However his does not mean all modern actions films are disappointments in all ways, some succeed in creating excellent action scenes with great directing and better performances than the classic films, but while they often tick all these boxes and they are still mediocre and bland, an interesting example would be Mann's Public Enemy, with was certainly well acted, well shot etc, but still wasn't a good action film.
This may seem strange, but it seems to me that most modern action films lack something extremely important that prevents them from being part of the "great action films".
Whether it's the fact that they are to caught up in the "old days", or are to modernised, perhaps to pretentious, top predictable or just incredibly forgettable. There just always seems to be something wrong and to be honest only a handful of the action films released over the last few years have proved to be anything other than forgettable.
Some, like Taken for example, come close to being very good, but in that's film case it's sheer predictability held it back.

Now I'll share a few of my thoughts on why I am often disappointed with modern action films and why I think they cannot rival the classic ones.

For one thing, the characters are less interesting or perhaps I should say they are too interesting, as the various attempts to make them into conflicted, flawed and thus relatable characters ultimately bring them down. Naturally this makes them more interesting in a way, but it also removes the whole larger than life aura that had surrounded old school heroes such as Rambo.
There is little superhuman feats of strength and endurance while thwarting the world domination plans of psychotic villains, instead there are no more heroes, mostly anti heroes, which leads to one of my least favourite action cliches of all time, which occurs whenever the villain approaches the hero and says something along the lines of "we're not so different as you may think, you and me..." ect...
But anyway I digress slightly, I was saying that.... what makes this even more ridiculous is the fact that many action character still retain their extreme strength and supposedly awesome luck which means they are never hit by bullets etc. and yet they are also supposed to have a human side and worry about their petty problems while saving the world, this strikes me as even more unrealistic than an all out hero.
Thus in an effort to make the heroes relatable to the audience, they have been made mundane and completely forgettable. Seriously, how many action hero's from the last few years or so spring to mind before the classic figures?

The Expendables is a perfect example of this, Jason Statham's character's subplot involving his girlfriend who leaves him and such, was completely unnecessary, it could have been cut out of the film entirely and the film would have been better off for it.

There are exceptions, John Mclane in Die hard for example is a heavily flawed character in many ways, and always takes much damage over the course of the films. But despite this he never comes close to modern action characters, he may be an alcoholic and have issues, but at the end of the day he's still a hero who saves the day each time with no ulterior motives. Also the fact that he sustains much damage may seem like an attempt to make him more of a realistic character, but it isn't really it's just an emphasis on how tough he is, as most of the injuries he tales would kill or incapacitate a "lesser man".

A reason for this void of great action heroes, just might be the penchant towards realism that seems to have invaded modern action films. This "gritty" trend, that has been making the violence more realistic, thus more uncomfortable to watch, the plots grimmer and more depressing, the characters more flawed and has generally been destroying the old school of actions films. There are no more real hero's and the action is no longer over the top and entertaining.
This grittiness and realism, tends to put mush more emphasis on the emotional side of the story, which in my opinion makes the films wander to often into drama territory. We simply do not need to see the characters complex relationship with his wife or whatever, unless it serves real purpose in the plotline, all we need is the barest of storylines, with some interesting ideas, but mostly a lot of fun action scenes and witty (or not so witty) one-liners.
That's the problem with these action films, they are too serious. No more one-liners, ridiculously big explosions and leering, psychotic villains. Some may prefer it this way, but I do like the old style better.
I'm not entirely against realism in films, but I feel it has little place in a really good action film, or even in a great action sequence, such as the more recent ones of Hot Fuzz and Kill Bill more example.

But then, opposite these realistic action films, we have the nostalgic ones trying to recreate the magic that was once there.
These films not only fail to bring anything new to the table, by simply rehashing ideas that had been done in a better fashion several decades ago. But they also fail to go all the way in this direction, they seem to try to be 8à's style action films, but are never prepared to go the full way instead utilising many modern trends and techniques to film.
Thus they are torn between two times and ultimately fail in both respects.
I will take a modern, realistic, gritty action film over one of these strange hybrids, torn between nostalgia and making films pre-teens will enjoy, any day.
These films are basically attempts to revive the films that had been successful with previous generations and make them popular with the new generations, but they almost always fail.
Not financially of course, because teenagers all go and watch them. But what I find deplorable is that studio's feel the need to revive these films every few years to keep the newer audiences interested, for otherwise they would not see the originals. I'm not talking about film buffs here, just average film viewers. This constant need to live in the present, and deride films (or any other works whether it be music or whatever) for being "old" mystifies me. But the studio's understand this and act accordingly, and thus we have films like The A-Team, The Expendables, Die Hard or Live Free, Terminator Salvation and Predators.
I could go on for hours about how each of these films is inferior to the originals, but I'd probably bore you, I'll just say that it was thinking about how disappointing these films were, combined with reviewing the Expendables not long ago, tat lead to me writing this post. 

So at the end of the day, the action genre has changed almost beyond recognition over the past few years. Now it is filled with large budget, soulless productions that are entirely forgettable.  

Finally, I might add that most of the best action sequences put to film these days are technically not in action films in the normal sense. We have Tarantino creating some very impressive fights in Kill Bill, the amazing District 9, the bloody and entertaining Centurion etc... It seems one has to look in different place for some great action scenes these days. Such as international cinema, notably Takeshi Miike's recent films such as 13 Assassins or Sukiyaki Western Django.
But nothing can really replace the amount of entertainment, violence, muscles (as can be seen in the various pics above), explosions and one liners that the good old films provided.
Also I find it strange to be kind of nostalgic for a time I never even knew....

As always feel free to comment, this is a subject that could provide some interesting discussion, so don't hold back, especially if you disagree!

In my next post I'll be sharing my thoughts on Pulp Fiction.

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