Action! Ah, what a genre. Where are the classics of the '80s and the cheese of the '90s that once defined the action genre as we know it? Well, times change, and they change fast in this industry of constant production we call film. So, what have we actually learned from those unforgettable films, from those hilariously over-the-top movies, from that god-awful era of the 2000s, and what do we see in the present and the future of this beloved genre?
If we go back far enough, one could, with a bit of tinkering, make the case for silent films from the icons of the "Golden Age" of cinema – Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton – to be listed as action films of the era, as the genres were much more muddied and, let’s say plastic. They certainly inspired numerous action directors for the century to follow, 2017’s “John Wick: Chapter 2” even begins with film footage of one of Keaton’s masterpieces of him performing a sensational stunt projected onto the side of a giant building, thus paying homage to history and letting you know what the movie intends to be.
However, they perhaps don’t occupy much of the real estate of popular culture nowadays, and they would justify an entire essay in themselves which would leave no room for the late 20th century, the present day and the future. For this exact same reason, I should leave the Western genre out of this piece, for while they may qualify for the action title, they also require much divergence and an entire article by themselves. So, indulge me for I shall skip to the '80s, and let’s leave the Golden Age(s) for another time.
The “modern” action films had simple beginnings. The plots were simple, the action was simple, the choreography was simple. Of course, simple does not mean easy to execute but rather easy to understand. For this was a time of no computer-generated imagery (CGI), no fancy visual effects, no complex rigs and jigs and cranes that make the shooting action films with a wide range of camera movements and angles possible. This was a simple time. If you want an explosion, you blow something up.
There appears a pattern in cinema history: films that are considered classics in the genre of action usually are films that employ practical effects. Now, this correlation does not immediately mean causation, as practical effects are only one part of the film, but there is a certain feeling that the practical adds to the movie something that CGI will never be able to replicate.
You can truly appreciate it when what you are seeing is the real deal, and the '80s was truly a treasure trove in terms of practical effects (since as we said there was no other way), and in turn, action classics.
Apart from the obvious added sense of realism and danger (you know those stuntpersons could have gotten really injured while shooting those scenes) that the practical effects yielded, simplicity also extended to the characters. Again, simple does not mean shallow or easy to execute.
We had John McClane, who simply wished to spend Christmas with his wife at a party at the now-famous Nakatomi Plaza where she worked. He is a simple New York police officer on vacation, who then has to save his wife when German terrorists seize control of the skyscraper and take her, along with her co-workers, hostage.
It is easy to understand the plot and empathize with the characters, yet it is an unforgettable classic. If you nowadays pitched the same film, I would think that in today’s Hollywood such simplicity would equal shallowness, and two-dimensional, wooden characters (and they actually did pitch it with the deficiencies I listed, see 2018’s “Skyscraper” among others).
Such a film would be brainless action porn, not worth any repeat-watching, unlike “Die Hard,” which is a Christmas tradition, no matter what anyone says. So, why is that so?
Well, first up it has great action. It has action that makes sense. The moves of the characters are in line with their motivations, and motivation should drive the action as it does in “Die Hard.” Secondly, the characters are simple yet empathetic, understandable, logical and likable.
Even the bad guy, the infamous Hans Gruber, played brilliantly by the late Alan Rickman, is one of the most beloved characters in popular culture.
The characters are always cracking one-liners, wise remarks, as is the custom of the '80s and '90s, and it doesn’t come off as cheesy, cringe-worthy, or just plain stupid. On the contrary, it makes them charming. Why? Because their lines actually are funny, actually are intelligent, punchy and make sense.
“Die Hard” has a special place in my heart, so that is why I chose to start there, but as said, the '80s are rich in classics. You have “Predator” of '87, “The Terminator” of '84, “Aliens” of '86, the Indiana Joneses, RoboCops, Rambos, Top Guns, the list goes on and on.
This is a decade of action heroes. From Sylvester Stallone to Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bruce Willis to Harrison Ford, Mel Gibson, Kurt Russell, Sigourney Weaver, Linda Hamilton, or to be accurate their characters. (That distinction should be clear in the '90s).
They all share the common denominators: Gorgeous, practical action, heroes that are easy to get behind, and plots that make sense and are easy to follow. Age of simplicity, age of classics.
It is not easy to forget the '90s, nor should you forget it entirely, after all this is the decade that gave us "Terminator 2: Judgment Day," "Die Hard with a Vengeance," "The Fugitive" and "The Matrix," but after the incredible heights of the '80s it is a letdown in all honesty.
This is when the action heroes, the characters, gave way to action stars, the actors. It was a decade of explosion quite literally. As the action reached new heights, actually it went over the top. Every other sentence that the hero uttered became a one-line, a wisecrack. The action lost motivation, it turned into action for action's sake. Stories lost their simple depths as they leaned more into simple idiocies. Plots stopped making sense.
However, even after all that, there were a couple of saving graces. The heroes were still likable, and the action was still shot with wide-angle lenses on steady cameras, for all to enjoy in its entirety.
Yes, we had "Con-Air," but we also had "Speed." Against the guilty pleasure of "Face-Off," we had "The Rock." Everyone enjoyed "Independence Day" and "Demolition Man" with their dumb plot and characters, and they still do, including me, because you are entitled to indulge yourself now and then. "Point Break," "Mission Impossible," "Blade" and so on and so forth.
The decade also gave us one of the greatest, best shot and best-written action films of all time, 1995's "Heat" directed by Michael Mann with a star-studded ensemble of Al Pacino and Robert De Niro. So, the '90s gets a pass in my books.
However, the same cannot be said for the 2000s. The rise of a new millennium brought with it a plague. It was such a beautifully intentioned plague though. Paul Greengrass, why you must doom us to a decade sickness? The "Bourne" series started in 2002 with "The Bourne Identity" starring Matt Damon as the titular Jason Bourne, a spy who has lost his memory and is now on the run from the CIA.
The trilogy of "Bourne" films, two of which are directed by Greengrass, are for me modern action classics, but they are also the ones who poisoned the genre. Greengrass employed a genius technique (granted some would call it nauseating, it's not everyone's cup of tea), he simply took the camera and shook it. Well, that's all that the following directors understood from it shake it and shoot it. Thus was born the "shaky-camera," or rather popularized.
However, the reason I called Greengrass a genius and the following decade a sickness is because Greengrass didn't just shake the camera, it was much more nuanced, motivated and complex than that. In the hand-to-hand combat scenes, Greengrass would begin with a rather wide shot, then as the action commenced he would edit it in such a way that most shots would be only two or three seconds long. This was done to induce a unique kind of thrill, a feeling as if you were there. It made the action scenes so much more tense and frantic, in a way much more realistic.
However, it was interlaced with wider shots usually from a top-down point of view, that lasted an extra second and showed both characters in the fight and the surroundings. This was one of the most crucial points that the later copy-cats forgot to imitate. This allowed the audience to not lose track of the geometry of the scene. This is such a vital point in the action, the audience needs to know what and who is where, and what is going on. It is not just cut, cut, cut (looking at you "Taken"), it is purposeful, motivated, specially determined and smart editing. If it is not included, the viewer gets lost; more importantly, they get nauseated.
Well, that nuance was lost in the following decade, as "shaky-cam" became the norm, it became the technique to employ not when you wanted to increase tension, but when your choreography sucked, and you needed to hide the fact that it isn't your actors fighting on the screen, but stunt doubles. It reached its peak with 2014's "Taken 3" starring Liam Neeson. When in order to shot Neeson jumping over a fence the director and the editor employ almost 15 cuts in a span of five seconds from a dozen angles, you know reached Nirvana, and there isn't a reaction you can give it other than laughter.
Well, 2014 was the peak of the trend and the beginning of its death as the year also saw the release of "John Wick" and the much-awaited return of Keanu Reeves to action stardom. What a year it was as we finally remembered what an action film should look and feel like. Long, uninterrupted shots with wide angles. Let's not treat unfairly on Tom Cruise as well though, as he too found his renaissance and the renaissance of the "Mission Impossible" series at the start of the decade with 2011's "Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol."
A new age had begun where the stars of our action films actually did their own stunts, they actually knew how to fight. A large part of this victory lies with the audiences, for it was they that finally woke up and stopped buying tickets to messy editing jobs disguised as action flicks, they stopped giving money to it.
After more than a decade of "shaky-cam" sickness, audiences were over the moon with this rebirth, and one should remember, money drives Hollywood trends. As studios saw how successful the likes of "Mission Impossible" and "John Wick" were, they of course greenlit projects that would appeal to the same audiences, meaning they would make more "un-shaky" action films.
Well, now "John Wick" is preparing its fourth entry while "Mission Impossible" and Tom Cruise are on the seventh flick in their reinvigorated series. Now, the age seems firmly fixed on delivering good action. All that is left is delivering good stories as well, but we are edging there day by day.
However, don't forget: It is up to you and me, all of us as the movie-going public to tell the studios when a horrible action flick comes out to say, "No, thanks. We don't want it. Make good action films." Don't buy tickets to bad action films, don't finance action terrorists.
And after all that you might ask, "What about Eastern cinema?" You would be right in asking that but there is simply too much to talk about when it comes to Thai, Chinese, Hong Kong, Japanese and the Eastern action films in general, and this piece is already too long. So, a sequel should be made. Sit tight, it's coming soon to a newspaper near you.
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