10 things going wrong with action cinema

Action cinema appears to have lost its way a bit. Here are our suggestions for setting it back on the right course...

Heading into UK cinemas right now are a pair of action films that have managed to misfire in very different ways. Killer Elite (review here) should have been a shoo-in, but it relegates the action to the sidelines for long periods, replacing explosive spectacle with ponderous, dull conversations.

Abduction, meanwhile (review here), seems to believe that Taylor Lautner is the future of action cinema, when he very clearly isn’t. Both films, though, are the tip of a proverbial iceberg. Because action cinema has a bit of an identity crisis. What trend should it follow? What kind of action movies should be made? What kind of action do people want to see?

Here are some of our answers to those questions…

The Editing

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A massive, massive bugbear, although hopefully, we’ve seen the worst excesses of action movie editing by now. Back at the end of 2008, I wrote an open letter to action movie editors and directors, practically begging them to edit their films in a manner that allowed me to see what was going on. The worst, for me, was the opening of Quantum Of Solace, and it still is.

Appreciating that a director wants to get across mayhem, franticness and intensity in their editing, what Quantum Of Solace gave us was a car chase that we weren’t allowed to see.

It was choppy to the point of making it unwatchable. Contrast that with how Paul Greengrass put his Bourne movies together. He used such editing to effect, just about (but not always) balancing it, so that we got the rawness of the sequences, without stopping us seeing what was going on. 

In recent times, things seem to have relaxed a little, although the problem is still there. And this remains a major challenge for action cinema. The genre, more often than not, relies on quick, interspersed cuts, but more than ever, it needs a fresh pair of eyes in the editing suite, willing to call bullshit when something doesn’t work. 

Following The Leader

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We’ve just touched on the Bourne franchise, and it seems appropriate to chat about it again here. The problem, which isn’t unique to the action genre, is that when something succeeds, everyone rushes to follow. As such, the current trend in Hollywood remains to try and recapture the style and approach of the Bourne movies.

So, that involves a slightly unconventional leading man, handheld cameras, and throw in a bit of amnesia if you want.  The pitch meetings for the past few years appear to have been some variant of ‘Bourne meets…’, and you can really tell. Just look at John Singleton’s Abduction. This follows a similar template, and the problem is, it never generates an identity of its own as a result. 

Even the next Mission: Impossible movie, from what we’ve seen so far, looks like it’s been prepared with some Jason Bourne DNA on board.

Remember, too, the impact of The Matrix, and the explosion of wire-fu that followed? Yet the action movies that really break through, the ones that come out of nowhere, are the ones with something of their own in the tank. Think back to Speed. It was high concept, certainly, but well made, didn’t have a major star (Keanu Reeves wasn’t at the time), and broke through because it was exciting.

Now? If it didn’t have a conflicted central character in it, who was struggling to find his identity, I wonder if it would be made at all.

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The thing about action cinema is that it doesn’t have to be expensive to be impressive. Two blokes having a fight costs next to nothing to film, and even modestly-budgeted television shows are showing real strength in cutting together an interesting action sequence.

Blockbuster movies, though, seem to have too much money to spend on action sequences, and I can’t help but feel that many such scenes are being made with the trailer in mind, rather than the finished film itself. I blame The Perfect Storm, amongst others, for this. That’s not an action movie, but it was a film sold around just one single special effect, that of a boat riding up a massive wave. I fell for it. I bought a ticket off the back of that.

By the time that moment appeared in the film, I’d gone beyond boredom, and was 500 words into a thesis on just how long arm hair could grow, if properly cultivated. Even Independence Day sold us more than one shot in its trailer, even if that’s not how many people remember it.

The thing is, a good action sequence should just work, and fit the film. It’s a simple, idealistic approach, certainly. It doesn’t always require the need for posh computers, for massive stunts, and for inappropriate camerawork.

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And when there is money to spend, have a look at the train crash sequence in Super 8, which proves it’s possible to do genuine spectacle, and retain human beings at the heart of it. Again, Super 8 isn’t an action movie per se, but it’s teaching a couple of lessons that action cinema as a whole could be reminded of.

Straight To DVD Isn’t As Good As Straight To VHS

The straight-to-video boom of the 80s led to an explosion in cheap, often gleefully enjoyable action movies, that wore their hearts on their proverbial sleeves. Sleeves that were bursting under the pressure of the ripping muscles underneath, of course. I’d argue that this was massively helpful for the genre, too.

Granted, the level of dross was quite extraordinary at times. But straight to video releases also explored ideas, gave people breaks, and relied on an ingenuity that should be applauded. Do we get that, though, with straight to DVD? Because there really seems to be something a gulf there.

On the one hand, we’re getting premium straight-to-DVD releases, such as the Death Race sequel, which bring in better than expected production values, names you recognise, and a decent marketing push. But where’s the next level down? Where are the video store shelves creaking under the weight of two or three new straight-to-DVD action movies every week?

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They’re just not there, or as obvious and it’s because DVD appears, ironically, to have taken away a major distribution channel. It’s one that’s not being comfortably filled by digital downloads, either, which is the obvious place to plug the gap.

And while there are some smashing shorts appearing on YouTube, where’s the kind of film that would have attracted Brian ‘The Boz’ Bosworth? Where’s the market that can find us the next Cynthia Rothrock? Where’s the place to find an action film that’s been made in a cheap and cheerful manner, partly for the sheer fun of it?

Straight to DVD has presented unexpected barriers to entry, with arguably too much cash spent on the wrong films. Heck, even the days of the crappy VHS cover appear to have been consigned to the graveyard, too. And that, friends, is a tragedy,

Not Enough New Heroes

One of the reasons behind the enthusiasm for The Expendables sequel casting announcements is it harks back to a different time. In the 80s and early 90s, we had Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bruce Willis, Dolph Lundgren, Jean Claude Van Damme, Steven Seagal, Mel Gibson and Jackie Chan, all primed and ready to lead a movie.

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Even on their off days, they were believable where it mattered. They looked like they could win a fight, and while some of them struggled with acting, they regularly turned up in roles tailored very well to them. Furthermore, there was a subset of further, less high profile talent, but nonetheless a collection of individuals who could happily kick ass. Step forward Carl Weathers, Cynthia Rothrock, Christopher Lambert, Chuck Norris and Michael Dudikoff.

We then had splutters of a resurgence in the later 90s, when it looked like Nicolas Cage, Keanu Reeves, Will Smith and John Travolta might be picking up the mantle to varying degrees. But modern action cinema, nonetheless, has a real shortage of bona fide, proper action heroes. Who is there? Matt Damon is more an actor in action movies than anything else. The same too for Daniel Craig, and for Jeremy Renner. In fact, for most headliners in action movies.

The Rock seemed to turn his back on action for a while, although Fast Five was promising in that regard. Vin Diesel? It depends what decisions he makes. But when it boils down to it, there are perhaps two solid action stars right now, who are committed to the genre: Jason Statham and Milla Jovovich. The case for Statham is obvious. He’s a magnetic action force, whose films consistently entertain. Jovovich? Her film choices are regularly geared towards action, and she’s an underrated force in the genre. She could use some better films, though.

We might, actually, squeeze Liam Neeson in here, too, as a possible torch-bearer for modern action cinema. But few others spring to mind. The absence of new heroes in the mould of the 80s stars, and even before them the likes of Clint Eastwood, Steve McQueen, Bruce Lee and Charles Bronson, means that actors who shouldn’t be let anywhere near the genre are being encouraged to give it a try.

Abduction is a film that might just about hang together with a younger Jason Statham at the core. But Taylor Lautner? Sheesh. No.

The Lack Of On-Set Action

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You’ll find this argument in many guises across this site, so I’ll keep it as succinct as possible here. In action cinema, CG is no substitute for a stunt or effect caught in the lens of a camera.

You want proof? Whether you like the film or not, how about the audacity of some of the work in Fast Five? What about those Batman Begins and The Dark Knight action sequences where the CG is kept to a bare minimum? How about the old-fashioned vehicle chase in Terminator 3 (again, not a great film)? Those are all sequences that, whilst bonkers in some cases, at least feel tangible.

Throw in some of the work in Crank and Shoot ‘Em Up, too, if you want further examples.

Now contrast that with an action sequence put together primarily on a computer, where it’s CG effects that are presenting you with much of the spectacle. Occasionally, they work. More often than not, it simply feels like there’s something missing.

Few things in action movies beat a well-executed, planned on-set sequence, and the temptation to let the computer do the heavy lifting surely should be avoided at all costs. Go and watch a Transformers movie if you don’t believe us.

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Where’s The Fun Gone?

One further ramification of the Bourne movies is that they were major contributors in turning action cinema so serious. That they had to be fused by a tragedy, or something deep, or something that means the leading star has to do some earnest acting. This isn’t a bad thing, of course. But surely it doesn’t mean that we can’t have some fun, too?

The A-Team movie was much maligned in certain quarters, and I’d happily argue that it takes 30 to 40 minutes to get anywhere near shifting into gear. But there’s a wonderful sense of the over-the-top in its action work, that realism has long since gone out of the window in favour of entertainment.

I’ll happily take that trade off far more than it’s offered, and while The A-Team let itself down with some CG problems, the core of the action was an absolute blast. It was also willing to construct a bit of action around comedy, too. The 3D cinema moment caused the audience I was with to erupt with laughter, and rightly so.

Action movies are often switch-off fun, and The A-Team played right to the heart of that ethos. And while it’s tempting to be snobby about that, and seek out something more substantive instead, there’s a lot to be said for two hours of good, solid entertainment. That used to be okay with people in the 80s. Can we start telling Hollywood film executives that it’s okay again now, please?

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Too Much Worrying About The Sequel, Too Early

The action movie template for a sequel used to be that you got one when you’d earned it, and not before. The action movie template now has to have the sequel built in before the cameras roll for the first time. I don’t have a massive problem with the mapping out of a franchise, and it’s often helpful to do that work early. But when it’s overt, and obvious that this is the master plan, then the alarm bells start to sound.

Certainly, in superhero-driven action movies, there’s been a tangible, fair accusation that a first film is holding back, and getting things set up for the second. But it shouldn’t be like that. The first film should throw as much as is appropriate and necessary at the screen. If it works, then you can worry about doing a follow-up. 

Where Have The Bad Guys Gone?

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We’ve talked about the heroes, but we can’t neglect the fact that the villains appear to be disappearing, too. At one stage, you could choose from a carousel of British thesps for your villain of choice. The beauty of this was that action movies were tempered, so that you had a beefcake protagonist, and a villain who could act. It always seemed like a winning combination.

But now? When was the last time you saw an action movie that had a villain worthy of the fuss? The last one I can remember was Phillip Seymour Hoffman in Mission: Impossible III, a massively promising foe, who was utterly pissed away by the end of the film. Yet at the start of that film? I bought the fact that he was a nasty character, wanting to do wrong. I could understand why Tom Cruise’s character would not warm to him.

Remember Castor Troy in Face/Off, too. That’s the standard we’re after.

We used to celebrate actors such as Alan Rickman, Dennis Hopper, assorted Bond stars, Robert Patrick, Gary Busey, Ronny Cox, Michael Ironside, Gary Oldman, John Lithgow, Kurtwood Smith and Paul Reiser, who lent a believability to a villain role. Sitting through the last Die Hard movie, though, did you feel that Timothy Olyphant could hold a torch to Bruce Willis’ John McClane (Maggie Q was arguably the far worthier foe in that film)?

In fact, when can you remember the last action movie villain who made any kind of impression on you?  Right now, I’d happily take Art Malik in True Lies, and let’s face it, that’s not a role you see in many top ten lists. For action movies to rediscover themselves, they need to find foes, rather than circumstances or events, to fight against. That present a challenge. That’s not really happening right now, sadly.

The Expendables

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I hate to say it, as I’m one of those who really enjoyed the film, but The Expendables might just be part of the problem. As much fun as it was to bring together a who’s who of action cinema, and put it together in a gloriously old-fashioned way, it makes it all something of a sideshow. That it makes a novelty out of going back to something that’s got more to it than it’s given credit for.

It allows for a snobbishness towards the action genre, and for it to be treated as a guilty pleasure. It’s interesting looking down the cast list for the film, too, as the names there encapsulate much of what’s gone wrong. Schwarzenegger and Stallone, for starters, broke out into one-joke comedies, sending up their action persona. To do that once works. To repeat the formula? Just criminal.

All of a sudden, action cinema started to feel like the thing they fell back on when their other career ideas weren’t working out as planned (see also: Vin Diesel). That it was a last, rather than first, resort. And that can’t be healthy. The Expendables, ultimately, is an important step for old school action movies, but it shouldn’t be the new bandwagon for Hollywood to hop on. Let it prove that action is a broad church, certainly. But, rather than hunt down new mash-ups, what I’d prefer Hollywood to do is hunt down, and give a chance to, new and interesting action movie actors and directors.

A New Hope?

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I want to end on a positive note, as there are real signs of life again in the action genre. Justin Lin, for instance, is now a major movie director, who’s made his mark off the back of fun action movies. Fast Five blasted to the top of the box office off the back of its not-serious-but-bloody-good-fun marriage of stunts and testosterone, proving that there’s space and appetite for that in the market.

Furthermore, the dedication of Jason Statham is to be applauded, and the innovations that the likes of Brian Taylor and Mark Neveldine fused into the Crank movies should be applauded (appreciating that there are all sorts of problems with the Crank movies). My hope is that the snobbishness towards action films dissipates, as more and more talented people get drawn back to the genre. And I hope that The Expendables 2 is both a massive success, and a strong film.

Appreciating what I’ve said above about it being part of the problem, it’s also, conversely, part of the answer, too. I love, too, the intelligence that pervades action cinema, and would hate the pendulum to swing one way or the other completely. The Bourne movies are great, and the ideal is that there’s space for a dumb, fun actioner alongside something deeper. 

Action cinema always needs to evolve, and move on. But it should never be afraid of re-exploring its many, many roots.