Friday, August 30, 2013

Jump Cuts: Exhuming the Hollywood Action Hero

Jump Cuts is the place where I zoom in on a handful of films linked by certain elements (cast, genre, director), discovering recurring motifs, mining important themes, and comparing different approaches to filmmaking.  Next up: the state of the Hollywood action star, circa 2013.

Where have all the action heroes gone?

That’s actually an easy question to answer.  Today's action heroes are typically action superheroes, ripped from the pages of comic books both popular and obscure.  Pumped up with fantastical powers, they do battle with larger-than-life villains, with entire cities and sometimes entire planets watching their every move.  And you could even call these movies fundamentally character-driven, in the sense that you can replace the man behind the mask (Tobey Maguire, meet Andrew Garfield) and still keep the franchise going.

That's a far cry from the halcyon days of star-driven Hollywood action cinema, where the name above the title was the most important element, the person standing for the physical and moral (and almost always masculine) ideal of the times.  Think Sean Connery and Steve McQueen's sophisticated sangfroid in a rapidly globalizing world; Sylvester Stallone's Carter-era American underdog morphing into the steroidal Cold Warrior of Reagan's dreams; Arnold Schwarzenegger going from imposing slab of Austrian beef to playfully self-aware pop culture icon of the go-go '90s.

It's this latter breed of action hero that is on the brink of irrelevance in 2013.  With the summer season dominated by heroes of the super variety, old-school action flicks have sought refuge in the mid-winter dumping ground, where the competition is lighter and the expectations lower.  It's one of the few ways that a meat-and-potatoes thriller like Contraband can become a modest hit.  It's also an increasingly dubious business model, given that medium-size budgets and stars that can reliably open a movie are two more things that are nearly extinct in Hollywood.  But studios keep trying, driven largely by nostalgia and the promise of a quick buck during a traditionally fallow period for new releases.

Schwarzenegger was the first out of the gate in January with The Last Stand, the American debut of cult Korean director Kim Ji-woon.  It's an underrated achievement in which Kim finds a comfy home for his quirky humor in the center of a preposterously dumb and exuberantly violent chase movie that gives equal billing to a grating Johnny Knoxville and a slumming Forrest Whitaker.  But it represents a curious choice for Schwarzenegger, who stars as the sheriff of a tiny Arizona border town that represents the last line of defense against an escaped cartel kingpin speeding to Mexico in a souped-up sports car.

Given the chance to re-establish himself among audiences as the heavily accented quip machine tweaking the macho pretensions of the action genre, Schwarzenegger traps himself in a bland, shapeless role where his only glimmer of individuality comes in telling the drug lord that he's making his fellow immigrants look bad.  Ironically, everything else in The Last Stand is pitched to the memorably goofy, devil-may-care spirit of classic Schwarzenegger heroes, but the star's natural charisma seems dulled by his long political sojourn and his once-sharp onscreen timing rusty from lack of maintenance.

At the opposite end of the spectrum from Schwarzenegger - who, given his age and his detours into politics, is essentially now a part-time actor - is the veritable Iron Horse of action cinema:  Jason Statham.  Hardly a winter passes without Statham scowling at and creatively punching baddies in a straightforward beat-em-up while waiting for the next Expendables summons from Stallone.  The Taylor Hackford-directed Parker, however, is the exception that proves the rule.  It's Statham trying on the clothes of a character who's not just "Jason Statham," but rather the eponymous criminal with a code appearing a series of novels by the author Donald E. Westlake.

While the basic outline of the character resembles Statham's type (there's nobody better at playing the chivalrous crook rattling off his list of "rules"), the movie itself is a wannabe-Elmore Leonard potboiler, a Florida-set heist flick pitting Parker against the thugs who betrayed him on his last job, with grafted-on elements of screwball romance courtesy of an opportunistic realtor played by Jennifer Lopez.  (Except Parker already has a girlfriend, who apparently pops up to do his laundry when he's on the lam.)  Unfortunately, the famously intense Statham just isn't suited to the tonal juggling act that Parker requires, and the way he undersells his reaction to everything doesn't quite work in a film that wants to take itself more seriously than, say, the Transporter series.  It also doesn't help that his adversaries are the less-than-hard bodies of guys like Michael Chiklis and Wendell Pierce.  Statham himself looks unconvinced of the potential danger, and it's easy for the audience to feel the same.

The Sylvester Stallone vehicle Bullet to the Head is about as paint-by-numbers as it gets, but at least it does well to populate the criminal underbelly of New Orleans with actual tough guys.  Stallone, still possessing the solidity of a concrete pillar in his mid-60s, stars as Jimmy Bobo, a hitman who teams up with an out-of-town cop (Sung Kang, the unsung hero of the Fast & Furious ensemble) to seek vengeance against his double-crossing employer.  Along the way, he literally butts heads with the hulking Jason Momoa - best known as Khal Drogo from Game of Thrones - as the reluctant partners gradually reveal the extent of far-reaching economic and political corruption within the Crescent City.

Stallone and Walter Hill, the veteran director of The Warriors and 48 Hrs., do right by their target audience and turn in a lean, propulsive adaptation of Alexis Nolent’s graphic novel.  There’s nothing groundbreaking here - just a couple of old pros reliving the glory days of balsa wood bathroom stalls and remarkably contained explosions.  It would all be rather ho-hum if not for the new blood.  Kang is a welcome presence, although he’s mostly wasted as a goody-goody dartboard for Stallone’s stereotypical barbs.  Momoa, however, delivers a very interesting performance as the film’s main heavy, internalizing the macho codes of ‘80s action cinema and spitting them out in a nightmare inversion of Stallone’s iconic heroes.  He fights simply for the sake of fighting, a blessedly inelegant motivation that stands out amongst Bullet to the Head’s contented mediocrity.  

It's actually a stretch to classify Ric Roman Waugh's Snitch as an "action" film, considering that Dwayne Johnson spends so much of his screentime cowed by the drug smugglers and murderers that he's voluntarily aligned himself with.  It's actually a bold move for the imposing former wrestler, letting his character’s elevated social status and bourgeois mannerisms tell the story: Johnson plays a well-to-do owner of a shipping company who agrees to help the feds arrest dope smugglers in a deal to free his teenage son from prison.  He's extremely vulnerable yet unshakably determined in an action Everyman tradition crystallized in the original Die Hard.

And with Snitch, Johnson takes another step towards claiming Bruce Willis' mantle as America's most bankable seriocomic action hero.  (Though here is where I note that the execrable A Good Day to Die Hard quadrupled the box office take of these four films combined.)  The key here is not being a cut-up - though he can certainly handle humor - but forcing a disconnect between his physical musculature and his mental acuity.  Next to Johnson, bad guys like Michael Kenneth Williams and Benjamin Bratt are positively scrawny, but they're the ones with the cunning and guts to violently remove the obstacles in their paths.  Johnson, meanwhile, mostly relies on his wits to escape his precarious position; when he finally does get the chance to physically dominate his enemies, it's an earned moment of triumph in his character arc.  Snitch is completely unbelievable and wildly compelling...and yes, even a bit funny in the reconciliation of its dad-becomes-drug dealer plot with its heavy-handed message about mandatory minimum drug sentencing.

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