Entertainment Geekly is a weekly column that examines pop culture through a geek lens and simultaneously examines contemporary geek culture through a pop lens. So many lenses!
Hollywood only makes action movies now. Hollywood doesn’t really make action movies anymore. Both of those statements can’t be true, and yet, they’re both basically accurate. It is very rare for Hollywood to release a major non-Oscar bait motion picture that doesn’t feature at least one and usually fifteen sequences where our conventional definition of “action” happens. “Action”: Gunfights, swordfights, bow-and-arrow fights, car chases, car crashes, car chases that flip into crashes, fight scenes, rooftop chase scenes, buildings exploding, cities exploding, superheroes punching supervillains.
Most Hollywood comedies have an “action” scene – and even when it’s played for laughs, it usually requires more elaborate special effects than the shark in Jaws. (See: Melissa McCarthy, star of Identity Thief’s car chase and The Heat’s final guns-n’-grenade blowout.) The era of 3D animated movies has heralded an onslaught of eye-popping imagery and final-act chase scenes that make The Little Mermaid look like My Dinner With Andre. Hell, The Lego Movie makes Die Hard look like My Dinner With Andre.
The teen dramas of yesteryear have been replaced by futuristic action dystopias starring acrobatic teens with cool weapons/tattoos. There is the special class of movie that is essentially only action: The 300 franchise, which is really a franchise now, has less in common with Gladiator and more in common with a YouTube compilation of Sweet Fight Scenes From Gladiator Movies. Yeesh, even famously delicate auteur Wes Anderson put a gunfight and a chase scene into The Grand Budapest Hotel.
At the same time, there’s a sense that Hollywood makes lots of movies with action, but doesn’t necessarily make capitalized-for-effect Action Movies. The highest-grossing non-animated films of last year were Iron Man 3, The Hobbit 2, and The Hunger Games 2. All three films have action scenes, or heck, whole segments of the film that are little more than extended elaborate action sequences. (All Hunger Games movies eventually build up to a final act that is basically one long action scene with brief dialogue breaks.) And yet, the films don’t have anything in common with “Action” as a genre that was commonly understood in the ’70s (Eastwood, Bronson, guns) or the ’80s (Schwarzenegger, Stallone, biceps) or even the ’90s (martial arts, explosions, the bus that wouldn’t slow down.)
Of course, referring to those films as “non-animated” is a bit of a stretch. The action in most major Hollywood action movies is created mostly or entirely inside of a computer. Iron Man 3 might end with literally five hundred Iron-People fighting seven hundred Flame-People, but the actual net reality of what happens onscreen is less impressive. Like, the French Connection car chase scene would be the least eventful part of an Iron Man movie, but French Connection carries some residual weight from the proto-filmic fact of a car driving really fast underneath a train track, as opposed to the proto-filmic fact of a million fingers tapping on a million keyboards.
What I’m getting at is that there are lots of action movies now that don’t really feel like action movies – at least not according to the extremely vague definition of “action movie” that heralds from a bygone era. Over at Grantland, Bill Simmons put together an encyclopedic examination of the last 45 years of action movies, and specifically avoided including any of the following: Harrison Ford, Tom Cruise, Will Smith, Keanu Reeves, and any branded character like Batman, Iron Man, James Bond, or Jason Bourne.
On one hand, leaving out these names should seem like a gaping hole: Wasn’t basically every major action movie made in the last decade either a Matrix movie, a Bourne movie, or a superhero film? On the other hand, anyone who grew up watching action movies can fundamentally understand the wisdom in that. Will Smith has never been an action movie star, even though his filmography includes some of the most famous action sequences of the last two decades. Robert Downey Jr. isn’t an action movie star, even though Iron Man has earned billions of dollars while causing trillions’ worth of explosions.
I’ve been thinking about action movies ever since I saw The Raid 2, which is the sequel to one of the greatest action movies ever made. I don’t need to rhapsodize about The Raid: Redemption; my guess is that, if you’re the kind of person who reads about pop culture, you have read at least a million other things about the film. Released Stateside in 2012, the first Raid was an Indonesian film about a group of cops who go into a building populated entirely by criminals. Around the fifteen-minute mark, the cops and criminals all start performing elaborate fight-ballets – the martial art is called pencak silat – and they basically don’t stop fighting the entire movie.
It is easy, when you talk about the death of the Hollywood action movies, to rhapsodize about “Reality” vs. “Digital”: The perception that action movies were better before special effects took over. But “reality” is a hazy word to apply to movies. Nobody is really dying onscreen. The martial artists in The Raid and now The Raid 2 are trained professionals: You could make the argument that their version of “fighting” has as much to do with the real thing as Andrew Garfield strung up on wires pretending to fight Electro or the Green Goblin or whatever.
It seems to me like what really sets the Raid films apart from its much bigger-budgeted Hollywood brethren isn’t just the scrappy real grit – although that helps – nor is it the fact that the people onscreen actually seem capable of executing elaborate feats of athleticism without the aid of stunt doubles wearing greenscreen masks – although that also helps. To me, the central difference is that The Raid has characters and a storyline and maybe even some themes, but all of those things are communicated by action.
This might sound like a weird sort of praise. Aren’t movies that are just about action supposed to be dull, or silly, or insipid? But the truth is, when you look at big-budget Hollywood “action” movies, they often represent an incredible amount of overthinking. That’s true on the genre end, where characters must have arcs that are clearly delineated and often established via exposition.
Star Trek Into Darkness featured looooong scenes of characters expostulating on various important-sounding things – Chris Pine in Into Darkness has more of a legitimate “arc” than William Shatner ever got – but weirdly, all of this careful conception works against the film. There’s a phrase called “ludonarrative dissonance,” a term used in videogames to describe when there’s a disconnect between the story and the gameplay. Replace “gameplay” with “action,” and you have a handy explanation for why most big-budget “action” movies feel somehow empty. All of the deep character work that Into Darkness does on Khan goes out the window when Khan reveals himself as a piledriver-punchin’ rooftop-jumpin’ superman. Likewise, think of the latter Pirates of the Caribbean movies, which constantly try to make the case that Jack Sparrow is a fully-soused slithery maniac who can nevertheless balance himself on various giant spinning wheels while executing elaborate swordplay routines. Or think of Michael Bay’s movies, which nominally should be nothing but wall-to-wall action but are actually overrun with “comedy” and “romance” and “human beings talking to each other,” all terms used loosely. (Somewhere in hell is a room where the first 90 minutes of Pearl Harbor plays on repeat.)
Look, I came of age in the late ’90s and early ’00s, a time when action movies evolved out of their disreputable period. The Matrix combined philosophy and sweet fighting, Lord of the Rings combined epic filmmaking and badass Legolas-surfboard arrow scenes, The Bourne Identity was Parallax View with way more punches. And I love all those films. But I also wonder if they gave everyone the wrong lesson: The idea that what action movies really needed was depth.
The Raid 2 provides a snapshot of this problem in microcosm. The film has a much larger budget and a much larger scope than the first movie, not always to its advantage. There is much more story, many more characters, and many long scenes that set up elaborate power dynamics and hint at a larger world that will probably come into play in The Raid 3. The first hour of the movie has one of the best fight scenes I’ve ever seen, set in a prison yard; it also has impossibly turgid scenes where the lead character goes undercover with one of those movie mobs where everyone seems dead-set on betraying everyone else.
Then midway through the movie, everything changes. A call goes out to assassins, one of them a girl with sunglasses carrying a hammer and one of them a dude carrying a baseball bat. The action begins and doesn’t really let up – all of it filmed impeccably by director Gareth Evans, whose decision to shoot ridiculously elaborate fight scenes in a handheld style creates a beautiful dissonance, as if you’re watching a ballet in a strip mall parking lot. Within minutes, the film stops being a low-rent Donnie Brasco and becomes the best possible version of whatever Game of Death was supposed to be.
The Raid 2 feels like two totally different movies, is what I’m getting at: An incredible action movie and a bland drama. This strikes me as a totally reasonable split for an action movie. (Generally speaking, Schwarzenegger and Stallone movies are better the less they have to emote.) The problem with most big Hollywood action movies, I think, is the opposite. When it comes to drama, to twisty storytelling, to acting, they often overdeliver on thin material. But all of that goes out the window when the animators take over. Is this the final fate of the Hollywood Action Movie: To evolve into a well-acted, sparklingly-dialogued, carefully-plotted out bad cartoon?