An awful lot of fuss is being made about the innocuous, Indonesian import, The Raid: Redemption, a brutal, freight train of an action film dismissed by seminal critic Roger Ebert as simply “wall-to-wall violence” but lauded by a number of action buffs heralding The Raid as the dethroning, or more precisely the MacBeth-ing, of The Great American Action Film by foreign invaders. Why so? Because The Raid serves tons of prolonged bone-crunching, face-smashing blood sport in the way only a very hard R-rated action flick can deliver. And apart from replacing squibs with computer effects to simulate the excessive blood splatters, The Raid is almost entirely practical in its thrilling stunt work.
The experience caused Adam Sternbergh to write his New York Times lament, “How the American Action Movie Went Kablooey”, kick-starting a lively discussion across the internet. In his piece, Sternbergh first laid down the three crucial elements to any action film (the loner hero, a fetishization of firearms, and, obviously, explosions) before proceeding to reminisce about the Golden Years of hard-hitting action flicks, such as Commando, Rambo, and Robocop, prior to the genre’s lapse into self-parody:
You may laugh — in fact, one sign of the genre’s decay is how completely it has devolved into a universal joke. (It’s now just as easy, and twice as pleasurable, to quote McBain from “The Simpsons” mocking Arnold Schwarzenegger as it is to quote Arnold Schwarzenegger.) But as a genre, the American action film featured hallmark stars (Schwarzenegger! Stallone! Willis!) and identifiable tropes (kill villain; make pun about method in which you killed villain), and it produced at least one bona fide masterpiece, “Die Hard.” (If you can’t get behind “Die Hard” as a great American movie, then I’d argue that you hate greatness, movies and America.) And the action movie carried, briefly, as all good genre movies do, the cultural weight of metaphorical significance. Action films meant something.
Sternbergh hit the nail on the head—action films and Reagan-era America were peas in a pod and, at their best, reflected a zeitgeisty attitude of jingoistic, ass-kicking defiance during the last years of the Cold War. But sometime around the collapse of the Berlin Wall, or the release of Last Action Hero, American action films lost their way. The genre’s subsequent degradation in quality (inundated by lame puns, meaningless plots, and Steven Seagal) paralleled(?) the rise of the glossy sheen and unreality of the unstoppable CGI machine until at last arriving at the action genre’s event horizon in last year’s abominably stupid Transformers: Dark of the Moon.
Sternbergh’s sentiment was met with a unanimous agreement by numerous critics, each with their own bone to pick with the once great American action film. Simon Brew at Den of Geek argued the action genre’s plot mechanics had become overly complex and unrelatable:
Transformers: Dark Of The Moon, unlike much earlier Michael Bay action flicks, came down to a dull global threat. The same could be said for Battle: Los Angeles, the increasingly baffling Matrix sequels, the weaker Bond movies: they’re unified by unrelateable plots that it’s hard to give two hoots about.
Matt Singer of Indiewire agreed, elegantly summarizing the action flick’s compounding escalation problems, surmising “American action films got too big for their own good and choked on their own gigantism”. Impeaching the old and coronating the new was the order of the day but all this “Long live the king!” hoopla about a movie that’s admittedly “just OK” felt unjustly dismissive.
True, there’s a disproportionate number of action films sporting spandex and weightless pixels, the studio tactic du jour for raking in piles of cash, and Phil Hoad calls Hollywood out in The Guardian on their “too big to fail”, throw-money-at-the-problem-until-it’s-fixed mentality regarding creative problem solving (coincidentally, or not, Hoad’s piece indirectly butts heads with Sternbergh & Co.’s idolatry and sarcastically bemoans the ”return of the meathead” golden age they seem to want so badly), but for every Transformers: Dark of the Moon, Sucker Punch, or Green Lantern to see release last year (these three being the biggest offenders to action classicist sensibilities), there were marvelous films like Source Code and Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol, two old school, edge-of-your-seat thrill rides, both of which were critically acclaimed performers at the box office. And if we look back just a few years, Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker ranks among the best the genre has to offer—period—going so far as to garner Best Picture at the Oscars.
Where Sternbergh and Brew and Singer’s editorials go to lengths to commiserate and point at the most symptomatic films, Hoad is the only one to get at the heart of things and put Hollywood’s problems in plain English—it isn’t any real or perceived exoticism making these films “better”, it’s the monetary restrictions placed on the production that results in more creative decision making. To construct a thesis around Hoad’s principle is simple: when there’s less cash, you have to be judicious about where you spend it. ”Can this stunt/explosion/effect be done practically? If not, can we afford to use CGI?” For a prime example of studio econimics at play we need only travel back to 2009 and contrast South African sensation District 9 with James Cameron’s Avatar. Similar plots (white guy turns into alien, sympathizes with “the other”, leads rebellion against “the man”) from two incredibly different filmmakers half the world apart but District 9 had a $30 million budget where Avatar had an unprecendented budget nearly 10 times that amount—it’s not hard to guess which feels more grounded in reality. It’s true that District 9 sports some incredible CGI in the Prawn aliens but director Neill Blomkamp didn’t just slap his actors on a green screen and have them play make believe. They were reacting to real props and real effects, all with their own weight and dimension based in reality. When a Thanator rips through a virtual tree trunk chasing a blue and felined Sam Worthington in Avatar, yeah we “ooh!” and “aah!” but never does the audience suspend their disbelief. Even for all those hundreds of millions, it’s obvious what is seen in Avatar is animation, not illusion.
Director Christopher Nolan makes the same argument in an interview in DGA Quarterly titled The Traditionalist where he addresses topics like shooting with film instead of digital, 3D (or as he calls it, stereoscopic imaging), and practial effects vs. CGI; namely all the issues plaguing modern cinema and, in particular, American action. Speaking on the latter, Nolan explains:
However sophisticated your computer-generated imagery is, if it’s been created from no physical elements and you haven’t shot anything, it’s going to feel like animation. There are usually two different goals in a visual effects movie. One is to fool the audience into seeing something seamless, and that’s how I try to use it. The other is to impress the audience with the amount of money spent on the spectacle of the visual effect, and that, I have no interest in. We try to enhance our stunt work and floor effects with extraordinary CGI tools like wire and rig removals. If you put a lot of time and effort into matching your original film elements, the kind of enhancements you can put into the frames can really trick the eye, offering results far beyond what was possible 20 years ago. The problem for me is if you don’t first shoot something with the camera on which to base the shot, the visual effect is going to stick out if the film you’re making has a realistic style or patina.
And that, in a nutshell, is what critics and audiences have been griping about in American action films for more than a decade. Transformers. The Matrix Reloaded & The Matrix Revolutions. Superman Returns. The Star Wars prequels. Each one embraced Hollywood’s misguided “too big to fail” philosophy and chanted the “More! Bigger! Better!” mantra. Now, the novelty has worn off. Boasting the latest visual effects is barely enough to get a shrug out of an audience; for evidence look no further than debacles like Green Lantern & John Carter, the latter likely being the biggest flop of all time.
Meanwhile, Christopher Nolan, a “holdout” from a bygone era, has a track record of 100% “Fresh” on Rotten Tomatoes bringing in over $1 billion dollars in box office receipts with blockbuster hits like Batman Begins, Inception, & The Dark Knight (and let’s not forget The Dark Knight is the third highest grossing film of all time). And Nolan’s stamped some iconic images onto our mind’s eye with his spell-binding stunts. Who can forget the scene where Batman, in a game of chicken with the Joker, flips Joker’s semi-truck to send it sailing into the air in the heart of Gotham’s cavernous financial district? Or Joseph-Gordon Levitt’s acrobatic run across a hotel ceiling to fight off the henchman of the subconscious? These aren’t only some of the best choreographed and executed action bits in the last few years but of all time and, forgiving minor computer-aided corrections to maintain the illusion, entirely practical.
The problem with the modern Hollywood product, not just the American action film, is magic has been replaced by gimmick. Even the most ludicrous action films (Predator, anyone?) still had a solid foundation in reality, even if it could only be said of the make up and stunt work and not so much the plot. Hollywood’s problem isn’t even original or unique (go figure): what are they to do in an era of digital escalation? Technology is ubiquitous and exponentially expanding in its scope and capability but it’s just a tool. The mistake being made again and again is this incredible tool is being branded as the product. To paraphrase Christopher Nolan from his interview, if the reason to change isn’t obvious, then why do it?
After all, a gimmick gets old; magic doesn’t.