5 Ways Hollywood Action Movies Are Changing (For The Worse)
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.
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.
Something something ice something whatever.
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.
"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 ...
Every Actor Can (And Has To) Become An Action Star
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:
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 ...
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 ...
No One Cares (Or Notices) When American Actors Do Their Own Stunts
Remember that impossibly shaky, million-shots-a-second action-scene editing technique we've been talking about? It all kind of started with The Bourne Identity, which is spectacularly ironic considering that Matt Damon trained for a freaking year to play Jason Bourne. Besides weapon training, he spent six months learning martial arts and another six learning to box. He took movement training to put himself in the mind of a man trained to kill. All for scenes that look like this:
Yep, Damon spent one whole year of precious, irrecoverable life practicing for fight scenes that we can barely see, when he could've been out getting drunk with Casey Affleck or something. It makes you wonder why an actor would bother honing their "wailing on other dudes" skills if the editors are just going to pave it over with high-octane bullshit later. Or if the audience even cares about actors doing stunts in the first place. Let's look at two recent examples of the elegant art of Russian-punching: The Equalizer and John Wick:
These films killed more Russians than World War II.
I audibly enjoyed both of these films in theaters. Coming out within a month of each other, both plots were generally the same: An aging ex-killer gets thrown back into the game after violently insane Russians wrong an innocent friend. In The Equalizer it's the beating of a teenage Chloe Grace Moretz, and in John Wick it's the murder of his adorable puppy. If I had to graph a moral ratio, one beaten teenager seems more or less on par with a tiny dog skeleton.
There's only two major differences in terms of how these films were made. One is that while both actors did their own stunts, only Keanu Reeves is the kind of scruffy maniac to push his body through 16 hours of arduous fight choreography for John Wick. The man is famously relentless when it comes to doing his own stunts.
Despite the fact that Keanu put way more effort into his role, the second difference between the two films is that John Wick made half as much money as The Equalizer, even though it carries a better rating than The Equalizer on Rotten Tomatoes.
Obviously there are a million reasons a movie might do better than another. However, the effort an actor puts in to make the action look believable is apparently not one of them.
There's No Such Thing As An Underdog Anymore
In 2014, the top-grossing action films were Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Transformers 4, X-Men: Days Of Future Past, Amazing Spider-Man 2, Godzilla, Lucy, Lone Survivor, 300: Rise Of An Empire, The Equalizer, Edge Of Tomorrow, Non-Stop, Hercules, RoboCop, Dracula Untold, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, and John Wick. Out of these 16, 11 of them involve mystical and/or superhuman figures -- leaving behind Lone Survivor, The Equalizer, Non-Stop, Jack Ryan, and John Wick. That's five films featuring mortal fucking protagonists ... two of which (John Wick and The Equalizer) are so unkillable that it's comical.
"You're not taking me, God."
In fact, aside from Lone Survivor (which is based on true events), not one of the biggest action films of last year featured anything less than a deified hyper-slayer of men who is never once in any real danger. The ending fight in John Wick was two minutes of Keanu Reeves beating the few remaining years of life out of some rickety old crime boss. Non-Stop features a catastrophic plane explosion that every good guy survives. Edge Of Tomorrow is about a guy in a mech-suit who literally cannot die, and even Jack "I'm just an analyst" Ryan went from a shaky newcomer to murder-chimp stuntman in a matter of minutes.
"Analyze this! Get it? Like the movie? Oh, I broke your arm."
Maybe it's the CGI stunt doubles or superhero films, or perhaps it's the midlife violence crisis of the Taken series -- but with few exceptions, American action heroes have been reduced to unshakable killdozers mowing the opposition like they're in a Jack Slater sequel. No longer are we required to feel tension or connect with an "everyman" like John McClane or Sarah Connor. Every recent character resume has had "retired murderer" scrawled across the top with a bone pencil. Action movies like Taken are essentially slasher films where we root for the immortal masked killer as he lumbers from sequel to sequel, destroying helpless people in hilarious ways as we delight in their inability to stop him.
And yes, I'm well aware that we've had unkillable action heroes since the '70s -- but it would be nice for them to at least keep pretending that's not the case.
Dave once punched a guy so hard he turned into a gravestone. Send him your affection on Twitter.
Be sure to also check out 5 Badass Real Fugitives Who Put Action Movies To Shame and The 6 Most Inexplicable Skills Displayed In Action Movies.