Welcome to “Cinematic Soapbox!” Much like the AV Club’s Scenic Routes, I will discuss a movie, scene, series of movies, series of scenes, genre or some other cinematic element, why I think it works and what it means to me. I am obviously not the level of writer that Mike D’Angelo is so don’t expect the same quality and thoughtfulness he brings to his column.
Almost universally, modern action heros are boring and that is because modern action heros don’t bleed.
Sure, they have blood on them but that blood is typically the blood of their enemies or for pure, aesthetic reasons to make them look badass. The best heroes (in my opinion) don’t only bleed their own blood, they need to almost be comedically unprepared for whatever conflict they are about to face over the course of the next two hours.
Before I delve too deep into this: this isn’t a critique of super hero movies. Those exist within their own genre and rules at this point with the sheer amount that now exist and the frequency at which they are being released. Kung fu movies are also exempt here as they generally operate outside of different rules than most Western action movies. There is a reason Jackie Chan is my favorite action star out of that genre however. Spoilers: That guy gets the shit beat out of him in his best movies.
Recently, director/screenwriter Max Landis spoke the state of the modern action hero…
To a lesser extent, I agree with Landis’ sentiments.
I think subconsciously, yes, 9/11 certainly had something to do with a push towards quasi-invulnerability in our action heroes. After that horrible event there was a rise in movies like xXx, The Fast and the Furious, Taken and Bad Boys. Movies with cool action heroes doing cool stuff and always knowing exactly what to do with no tension or consequence. In reactionary terms, it makes complete sense. We want to be the cool guy who knows what to do when faced with impossible and sometimes horrible events. In other ways, it completely opened action heroes up in a new way (James Bond, Jason Bourne and even Batman being perhaps the most notable examples), particularly in the emotional sense. We even get to see these guys cry at points. Unfortunately, we see far too little of that in our current crop of action movies and if it does, it comes off as worse overly sentimental, fake and forced. This relates back to good or at least competent screen writing. Director Roland Emmerich likes to use the unconventional hero in his movies (Godzilla = NRC biologist, Independence Day AND The Day After Tomorrow = scientists (those are ensembles so there are some obvious military guys thrown in), 2012 = scientists and a fucking limo driver). The problem is the scripts he choose aren’t so much as filled with characters as avatars with elements you could only technically consider characterization. He overloads the movie with so many characters, none of them really stick. Now take a well-written dumb, everyday hero in a movie like Rocky Balboa. It’s no coincidence he is the best character Sylvester Stallone will ever play. He grows. He gets beat. He gets back up. He’s dumb, but he’s likably dumb. He has flaws. He has strengths. When those flaws are exploited, he falls back to his strengths. He is an actual character with pathos that extend over the course 7 movies and several decades. In the first film, he is the hapless student. In Creed, he is now the wise teacher and it is believable and ultimately satisfying growth for that character. You don’t get to that jump without having earned it.
One person armies can be fun, but they lack tension because they don’t earn it. At no point in movies like Furious 7 or John Wick do I feel worried about the well-being of the protagonists. (Editors Note: I love both of those movies. I even love John Wick unironically.) Like Landis said, even Chris Pratt’s raptor trainer Owen Grady in Jurassic World is so good at his job that there is never a moment of tension regarding whether or not he is going to lead Claire and the kids to safety. He isn’t just a raptor trainer. He is a former Navy seal. Compare that to game warden Robert Muldoon in the first Jurassic Park film, who is set up as the end-all be-all big game hunter. He knows how the raptors act. He has studied them. He knows how dangerous they are. Surely he will be a vital asset to our merry band of hapless paleontologists, children, botanists, old men, and mathematicians, right?
Muldoon’s death not only plays with audience expectations, it also serves to significantly raise the stakes for our surviving characters, none of which you’d really consider an action hero. Dr. Grant comes the closest but even he isn’t in the same league as an Indiana Jones or a Jack Colton in terms of adventure experience. He has the sort of basic survival skills that may help him live a couple of nights on an island filled with dinosaurs.
What about the most recent Godzilla film? Can you imagine how much more compelling had Bryan Cranston’s well-written scientist character had been the lead instead of his son, the bomb expert who happens to always be at the right time and has no characteristics outside of being a bomb expert and having a family? Cranston’s scenes are some of the best in the movie, but he is written off fairly early and we are given a fairly boring character that is, as I said before, just cool and knows what to do all the time. Maybe the one thing the Emmerich movie had over the recent film (other than that “sweet” sample of Led Zepplin’s Kashmir by Puff Daddy, of course) is that the military wasn’t the focus. If it had followed the Jurassic Park model or better yet the same sort of model employed by The Martian recently and had a cast of smart, interesting yet physically unremarkable characters, it may have made for a much more engaging movie on the human front at the very least.
Let’s look back at some of the most iconic action and adventure movies. Movies like Terminator (1 & 2), Indiana Jones (the original trilogy) Die Hard, Jurassic Park, the Rocky films, Aliens, Predator, Independence Day, Karate Kid, The Road Warrior, Lethal Weapon, etc. Think back to the action scenes in those movies. Were any of the heroes in those movies on top during ANY of the major action scenes they were in? And if they were, was it because their muscles or did they have to use their brains and/or luck to survive? Think about how vulnerable heroes used to be. Hell, you don’t get much more vulnerable that dealing with a bomb in the most sacred and safe locations.
Heroes work best, again, in MY opinion, when they are completely in over their head and generally only survive by the skin of their teeth. Even outside of action movies. Think of genre movies like Ghostbusters, Halloween, Back to the Future, Alien, Shaun of the Dead and the like. These weren’t former Navy seals. They weren’t bomb experts. They also almost never worked alone. I find movies that have heroes working as a team are ultimately a lot more exciting.
The main hero of the Terminator franchise (of which I am only including the two good films) is Sarah Conner. Even in the second film in which the titular machine takes on a more heroic role, Sarah is the character with the main arc. She goes from scared and helpless to paranoid and cynical and ultimately fearless and hopeful. She goes through a journey. She goes a long way from cowering behind Kyle Reese to one armed shot gun pumping badass.
This also relates back to the way action is presented. Modern action aims to showoff which can be utterly spectacle but this can also come at the expense of tension. Let’s look at the iconic hallway fight from Oldboy and a recreation of said fight scene from the 2013 Spike Lee remake back-to-back.
I don’t want to get into the specifics of the camerawork or how the action is shot specifically (better writers have already done that). I just want to highlight how these two scenes exemplify the difference between an everyman action hero and a one-man army, someone I feel no connection to whatsoever outside “Oh cool, he sure can beat up a lotta guys I guess.” The original feels improvised. It was choreographed of course, but director made these guys do this extended take MULTIPLE times. The fact that they come off as truly worn down by the end is no accident. The remake is too clean and show-offy. By the end of the original scene, you feel just as exhausted as Oh Dae-su. When that elevator opens, it’s an “Oh shit” moment. In the remake, Joe is a fucking tank. The bit of having more guys come out of the elevator is completely blundered because Spike Lee either A) missed the point of the original joke or B)gave no fucks but felt the need to include it anyway for whatever reason. It’s far too concerned with wowing the audience, and instead is numbing. It’s fucking white noise. I’m not invested in what’s happening.
There are always going to exceptions to the rule. Modern examples that spring to mind are Katniss Everdeen, Neo, Samwise Gamgee, the Driver, Emmet from The Lego Movie, and, as previously mentioned, Daniel Craig’s James Bond.
Now there is a reason Craig stands heads and shoulders above the rest with his interpretation of super spy James Bond, at least as the character is presented in Casino Royale. His Bond has weaknesses. His Bond actually has nuanced characteristics. His Bond is a guy that gets hurt outside of just taking a couple of punches to the face…and shots to the balls.
In Casino Royale, he opens his heart to a woman. He “takes his armor off” and gives her his mind, body and soul and she betrays him. He tries to brush it off, but it’s clearly take a chunk of his trust. After the reveal of her betrayal, he still tries to save her, and when he fails, it is devastating.
She was his one shot at a normal life. With her betrayal and death, James Bond becomes James Bond; the detached, misogynistic and semi-psychopathic secret agent we see in the Connery and Moore films. By adding a weaknesses, the filmmakers made James Bond something other than a wish fulfillment fantasy; and actual character. We see James Bond at his weakest, and get a peek behind the facade and see the wounded man he truly is. When he says his signature catch phrase, it serves to tasks: fan service and it informs that audience that Bond is wearing his armor again and chances are he is never going to take off again after this. (He would, but to lesser, almost ham-fisted effect. Damn you, Spectre.) The closest we’d seen him come to being vulnerable before was at the end of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and that was never dealt with in a meaningful way.
When heroes go through the ringer – I mean the literal ringer either physically, emotionally or both – we, as an audience, earn a payoff that actually feels earned. It’s narratively rewarding to take the journey WITH the hero. Vice versa? Not as much. Seeing the Rock flex out of a cast or using a rail gun to shoot down a drone in Furious 7 is cool but it isn’t a truly stand up and fucking cheer moment because it is completely expected of said character because he is a Hulk. We’ve seen him fall out of a two story building, land on a car, and have just a couple of strains. I’m pretty sure the Rock is going to be just fine by the time the credits roll…unless he is in The Other Guys. However if you have a protagonist in an action or adventure movie that you actually feel for and has suffered a serious beating over the last two hours (or more) you earn moments like this…
And perhaps one of the greatest heroic turns in cinematic history…
Supermen are all fine and well. They provide us with something to strive for or at the very least an escape, but an unremarkable, powerless, mortal average joe? They give us a mirror. We root for the underdog because we are the underdog and that’s what we need! We grow. We change. We fucking struggle and when we watch a good, well-written character struggle, we are granted empathy through our imagination. That’s why we have stories!
So I guess if I had any request from Hollywood (in some bizarro world where my opinion has weight) in regards to action heroes, it would simply be…