Although the old-school stereotype of a bulletproof lunatic policeman who operates outside the law to bring malevolent foreigners to justice (and/or throw them off of a skyscraper into an exploding pit of exotic animals) is still alive in action films, the act of wantonly murdering henchmen is no longer reserved for genre audiences. These days, virtually all of the top-grossing films are action films, or at least have a healthy amount of detonating punch-violence sprinkled throughout.
And that's great. But like all good seasonings, adding them to every meal dulls our appreciation for them. In the case of this ridiculous food analogy, I'm talking about the concept of the Action Hero, a formerly beloved and indispensable staple of Hollywood filmmaking that has all but disappeared thanks to oversaturation, superheroes, and that god-awful shaky-cam nonsense. Sure, we still have actors whom we refer to as "action stars," but gone are the days when an oily, muscle-bound ogre against a backdrop of flaming Soviet helicopters was enough to get people into a theater.
#5. Action Icons Are No Longer Irreplaceable
There used to be a time when the word "Schwarzenegger" printed atop a movie poster was enough to force 80 percent of the world to buy a ticket. Even Batman & Robin headlined with the promise of everyone's favorite Austrian monolith smothered in blue pixie makeup -- his face and name dominating all promotional material and even the credits, despite the fact that he was by no means the main character.
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That was in no way unusual, because action stars like Schwarzenegger, Stallone, Van Damme, and Steven "Adorable Hair" Seagal used to be some of the biggest stars in the world. But then something happened: The new millennium gave birth to the superhero genre, and suddenly having turbo muscles and a delightful name didn't matter as much anymore.
That sounds counterintuitive, because Marvel Studios' Chris collection is an assortment of enormous dudes, but the most popular character in the Marvel Cinematic Universe is Iron Man, played by Robert Downey Jr. Before Iron Man, the most financially successful superhero films were the Spider-Man trilogy, wherein Spider-Man was played by an in-shape (but by no means cybernetically biceped) Tobey Maguire. We don't need our action stars to look like alien gladiators anymore -- we just care about the character they're playing. To be fair, it certainly didn't hurt Guardians Of The Galaxy when Chris Pratt transformed from a dancing watermelon into Astronaut Freakzilla, but we would've loved him either way.
NBCUniversal Television Distribution
"They're called love handles for a reason."
The point is, audiences aren't paying to see Jackie Chan or Tom Cruise movies -- we're going out to see the new Captain America and Iron Man films. We won't even go see Robert Downey Jr. films, as Hollywood quickly discovered in the wake of Iron Man's success. You could argue that superhero movies are different, because the main characters wear identity-obscuring costumes, and the original Batman films rotated lead actors like a weirdly specific swingers party, but the same thing happened to movies where the main character doesn't wear a mask (incidentally, almost no member of the current slate of Marvel Studios movies wears a mask for longer than three minutes per film). Star recognition is no longer a deal-breaker for audiences. The Bourne Legacy dumped its titular character and lead actor, Matt Damon, and still killed it at the box office.
It's not clear if the tagline is talking about the characters or their plans for the series.
No doubt the same will be said about the upcoming Jason Statham-less Transporter film, starring some random bozo from Game Of Thrones. This isn't something that can be blamed on miserly studio heads not wanting to cough up the coin to keep actors from leaving franchises, either -- we as an audience have spent the past several years teaching them not to give a shit, because we go see the movies anyway. (Did anyone even notice that Shia LaBeouf left the Transformers series?) It's even affected salary and creative control disputes -- when Ed Norton hit a negotiation wall with Marvel about returning to play the Hulk in The Avengers, he was recast without a second thought, because Marvel knew their audience had an attachment to the Hulk and not Edward Norton. The same thing happened to Terrence Howard -- he was replaced by Don Cheadle for Iron Man 2 and 3 after he and Marvel couldn't reach an agreement over money.
There are always exceptions (Robert Downey Jr. and Chris Pratt are balls of charisma that are likely to be difficult to replace without upsetting audiences once their respective contracts run out), but there is an entire industry of professional wrestlers and MMA fighters (and even high school football stars) waiting in the wings to step in and take over The Transporter series for way less than Statham or the Game Of Thrones guy.
This is a big reason why ...
#4. Every Actor Can (And Has To) Become An Action Star
20th Century Fox
Hey, remember when Liam Neeson was a dramatic actor? Ten years ago he was making out with other dudes in a Kinsey biopic and playing the tortured commander of a doomed Soviet submarine. Fast-forward to today and Liam Neeson is pistoling 9/11 victims and beating the shit out of absolutely everyone in the nation of France.
And let's not forget his beloved role as good old Admiral Shane.
We're not saying that Liam Neeson made the wrong decision (it's hard to criticize a man who just made $20 million for Taken 3). Much like the song-and-dance versatility required of actors in the early days of cinema, today's stars need to be able to dive through the air and punch people. It's an easy transition for veteran action heroes like Denzel Washington and Keanu Reeves, but ever since Neeson brought back the "aging baby boomers revenge" genre, we've had an influx of old guys like Kevin Costner and Sean Penn trying their hands at violent heroism, because drama clearly isn't working out for them anymore.
What about getting hugeified (or "swole up," in medical terms)? Surely middle-aged men and women can't be expected to suddenly start a bodybuilding career just to look like believable action stars. To answer that question, take a look at Hugh Jackman in X-Men vs. Hugh Jackman in The Wolverine:
20th Century Fox
Go ahead. Bask in it.
He absolutely went from "burly" to "inhuman Adonis," but Jackman didn't bulk up so much as eliminate almost all of his body fat before building up muscle. It's a trick first popularized during the shooting of Fight Club, when Brad Pitt's trainer realized that instead of building bulk, you could simply eliminate 100 percent of the actor's body fat to achieve the same "space lizard Hercules" look. This is how we went from barrel-chested Mr. Universes to tight-abbed superhumans, a look that is just as impressive yet relatively easy to obtain. Consequently, starving, washboard abs has to be a tool within reach on the resume of every mainstream actor if they want to maximize their career potential. Everyone needs to be able to climb aboard a superhero franchise at a moment's notice, because action-adventure is the biggest genre in the entire world.
This is somewhat ironic, considering that ...
#3. American Editing Has Made Fight Choreography Impossible To See
The average movie shot length went from 12 seconds in the 1930s to 2.5 seconds in 2010. This isn't necessarily a bad thing overall (it could easily be attributed to how we've evolved as an audience), but one nugget of shit we've definitely been forced to eat as a result is the overwrought method currently used in every fight scene in modern Western cinema.
For example, consider Jackie Chan's fight scenes. As was so aptly pointed out by Every Frame A Painting, Jackie Chan's slapsticky punching sprees are objectively more entertaining and get higher praise in his overseas films, whereas his American films tend to underwhelm everyone who watches them. This is because American films have a tendency to over-cut his choreography (remember, there's a cut almost every two seconds nowadays). Instead of letting a fight play out, they cage each piece of the action in separate shots, often cutting over the moments when punches and kicks are actually landed, resulting in a jumbled pile of nonsense that has no impact. Here's an awesome, lingering moment from the China-made Police Story 2:
And here's Jackie in The Spy Next Door (an American film):
See the difference? The result of masking the action over many disorienting and fast-pace cuts ironically makes everything less exciting -- the impressiveness of the choreography is completely overpowered by the editor's seemingly short attention span. The obvious reason for this is that not everyone is Jackie Chan, so the cuts are used to hide stunt shots and boring choreography. But once you notice it, this phenomenon makes every modern action sequence as lackluster and weightless as watching an action sequence in a video game cutscene.
For example, the new Captain America has a great scene where he beats up a whole gaggle of buzzcut motheruckers in an elevator. Right away we know that Brooklyn Blondie will pummel his way to a daring escape (because he's Captain America and he's signed on for three more sequels), so the only relevant question is: How awesome will this be? But instead of witnessing an impressively choreographed elevator fight, we get 70 different editing cuts in the span of 70 seconds of fighting (not an exaggeration, we actually counted), resulting in a different shaky-cam angle for every one second of action. In the end, the scene is still fun, but nowhere near what it could have been.
Now, compare that to the hammer fight in 2003's Oldboy:
That fight sequence is so ass-blastingly off-the-chain that it took three days to get right. That's a boatload of really difficult work, but it ultimately paid off, as it is one of the more iconic modern movie fight scenes, made all the more impressive by the fact that it is a single three-minute shot, which required actor Choi Min-sik to perform all of the choreography without using a stunt double.
Speaking of which ...