Monday, June 27, 2011

The Art in the Action Movie

To most people, action movies are about muscle-bound lunks solving the world’s problems with guns, knives and their bare hands (and booted feet).

Ok, so that’s a pretty accurate description. The problem is, most people who espouse that view do so as an insult. They refuse to see beyond the face-punches and bullet-dances to the artistic expression of man’s violent nature, and the often visually striking ways that action can be presented, not to mention how an action movie can also hit your every sense and strike at every emotional level.

Most action movie aficionados who agree with me will probably point to the films of John Woo, among other Hong Kong directors. And while I am in total agreement on that point, I would like to point out a few Hollywood films that fit the bill as well, in my opinion.

Streets of Fire (1984) – This film personifies the type of film I am discussing here. Walter Hill’s brilliant “Rock & Roll Fairy Tale” is chock-full of everything one could want from an action movie. From the setting, a fictitious city that is reminiscent of both the 1950’s and the 1980’s, to the ass-kickin’ music, brutal action scenes, and brilliantly subtle acting of a wonderful cast, this movie has it all. There’s humor and romance as well, along with a “buddy-film” element that is a bit different than what we’re used to seeing. Add all of that to wonderful color-schemes, extensive use of mood-lighting, and break-neck filming techniques and foley work, and you have a treat that will delight anyone who loves action movies.

The Crow (1994) – Based on the indie comic book of the same name, this movie is tragic on many levels, not the least of which is the fact that the film’s star, Brandon Lee (son of Bruce Lee) died during the filming of it. But beyond that is the film’s story. It’s about death and second chances, and the difference between revenge and justice. The soundtrack is still one of my all-time favorites with moody tunes by such bands as The Cure and Stone Temple Pilots. As an action movie, it is top-notch. Though Brandon was an accomplished martial artist, very little of this makes its way onto the screen. Rather, Eric Draven is a force of nature, plowing through his targets with brutality, and a decided lack of finesse. Lighting, sound, the weather; these are all used with utmost effectiveness to convey a very dark and morbid tale of revenge and justice, and the pain of love lost. If this movie doesn’t hit you on an emotional level, you need to see a shrink.

Boondock Saints (1999) - I was turned on to this one by my wife.  There is just something so cool about this film.  It's slick, brutal, funny and surprising.  The acting was amazing, and for me, Willem DeFoe almost steals the movie.  The action is excellent, with film techniques that would be later duplicated and over-used in bigger budget films.  The characters are so likable, you really feel like "Hey, I could do that, if I had to."  This is one that inspired an almost-equally great sequel, with the promise of a third installment on the horizon.

When I started this blog entry, I had a vague notion of a few ideas, and figured more films would come to me as I wrote. But, sadly, not much did. I'm sure there are more that would fit, but I am disheartened by the fact that the list is so short.  And I wonder why that is. I think it’s due in part to the fact that most action movies are made with an eye towards cheap entertainment. Something akin to a Harelquin® romance novel for guys. But also the fact that most films that might fit the bill actually fall under other genres, with a couple of action scenes. Take, for instance, Blade Runner (1982). That film is definitely high-art. But when you watch it, it is clear that it is a sci fi/noir crime-drama with some action scenes where necessary. It’s not really an action movie.

Nowadays, action movies are becoming artsy again, but not necessarily in a good way. With the proliferation of CGI and other expensive special effects, action movies now are becoming caricatures of their predecessors. There’s no more substance, no more artistic value.

That’s not to say that today’s action movies are bad. Most of them are pretty good. They deliver on action, danger, some pithy dialogue and good, wholesome, family fun! But, in the end, they are just slick PhotoShop manipulations compared to the oil paintings of yesteryear.

Am I wrong? Am I missing something in my blind nostalgia?


Paul R. McNamee said...


I first saw that movie when it was shown in a screenwriting class. The action scenes are very much like dances between the opponents.

Even in the action, there are elements of fairy tales. For instance, el Mariachi calling on his two friends near the end. They are the hero in triplicate.

And, a simple but deeply accurate bit of dialogue;

"You know, it's easier to pull the trigger than play guitar. Easier to destroy than to create."

Tom Doolan said...

Good one, Paul!

Charles Gramlich said...

Streets of fire is an excellent choice. It's been years since I've seen it but I really liked the heart of that movie. Desperado is a personal favorite. great choreography. the first Dusk till Dawn had some good stuff in it too, some good characters.