Lights… Camera… You Know the Rest.
Film Admissions is one of ZekeFilm’s favorite columns as it allows each of us, as critics and writers, to be humbled before all as we make public confessions of films that we have not seen, but should have. But while the confession is humbling, the upside is that we get to experience a film we have never seen from an iconic director, actor, genre, etc. For the month of August, my mind immediately went to the broad category of Action.
Summer films naturally lend themselves to action and high adventure as school is out, the weather is warm, and people are looking for movement, escape, and heroism, to name a few. Action is after all the impetus for cinema, as photographs were limiting to fully being immersed in an experience rather than just viewing or reflecting on one.
One of the earliest examples of people being moved by movement, or action, through the medium of film is the 1896 short entitled L’Arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat, or Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat, by the Lumiere Brothers. The next natural progression from a 50 second film documenting an everyday event such as a train pulling into the station was to a film with a narrative. 1903’s The Great Train Robbery, by Edwin S. Porter, was a ten minute silent film that actually told a story, complete with characters, plot, and you guessed it: action.
As technology, and technique advanced, greater stories could be told, all involving movement, energy, and oftentimes a hero seeking to overcome incredible odds to win the day. This sub-genre of “action” has no limits as it can be seen in Westerns, science fiction, thrillers, war, or crime. This idea of movement and a “hero” standing against an enemy has inspired an unending number of films and stories inspiring countless children to emulate these heroes and their actions spawning the whole toy, costumes, and action figures industries which help children dress and play as their heroes.
Action is after all the impetus for cinema, as photographs were limiting to fully being immersed in an experience rather than just viewing or reflecting on one.
It has also been a genre that has been manipulated for the sake of propaganda such as 1915’s The Birth of the Nation where the KKK comes riding in as heroes, seeking to use this notion of “action” to manipulate then recruit people to their evil ways, while making it seem noble. The Nazis were of course masters at manipulating audiences through the way they depicted the actions of their armies and leaders facing off against whatever foe was their intended target, such as the Jews, dissenters, or other nations that stood against them.
Action merged with the idea of spectacle, witnessed in 1959’s Ben-Hur and its iconic chariot race, then subsequently giving birth to the blockbuster with 1975’s Jaws. The notion of the blockbuster continued with a few examples being Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Jurassic Park, and all the way to the modern day Marvel and DC superhero films.
We are here to celebrate the genre of “Action” and to confess to you the films that are known and even loved by many of you, but until now, not individually seen by us, the ZekeFilm critics. They include an iconic martial arts film, a classic “buddy cop” story, a dystopian wasteland, undercover agents trying to break up a bank robbery gang, one of the biggest action stars in history trying to rescue his kidnapped daughter, and more.
So as we wind down the summer, let us have one last hurrah and celebrate Action August!
The Road Warrior
1981, Kennedy Miller Productions, dir. George Miller
by Jim Tudor
Unrelenting drive and persistent fetishism collide at high speeds for director George Miller’s 1981 career-maker, The Road Warrior, aka Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior. It’s a thing that is as glorious as it is unrelentingly odd to behold.
A marvel both then and now, The Road Warrior is commonly recognized as the mother of all post-apocalyptic action vehicles. It’s punk-rock-meets-desert-rat style has been ripped off ad nauseam in everything from copycat films to music videos and the odd TV series or two. Yet, it’s also clear that Mel Gibson’s Max silent drifter with a secret heart of gold, is heavily influenced by Sergio Leone’s “Man With No Name” trilogy – itself influenced by Kurosawa, who was influenced by John Ford.
Following the event of the series’ first film, Miller’s 1979’s low budget programmer Mad Max, there are now zero remnants of recognizable society. That is, apart from the weapons and cars. Cars, trucks, even a whirligig, are everything in this Australian desert world. What’s more fetishized, the black leather they wear or roaring engines, who can say? Keeping the tricked-out vehicles running is essential yet increasingly impossible, due to chronic fuel shortages. (Recent history for real-world 1981). There’s a whole horrid history that we don’t know. Not anyone in this desolate world, nor the voiceover narrator, seems to have a clear understanding of what happened. Therefore, it can’t matter to us. The only thing that can matter is the story before us.
A marvel both then and now, The Road Warrior is commonly recognized as the mother of all post-apocalyptic action vehicles.
There’s a great song called “Driving in England” by The Swirling Eddies that warns, “Don’t you get too cynical/They’ll put you on a cross/Some leaders are tyrannical/And everyone’s a boss”. Ain’t it the truth? Just ask Max, the most unlikely Christ figure on this side of Hellboy. The observation is entirely justified, as the fuel-injected symbolism must be deliberate. Max isn’t crucified per se, but, this being a Mel Gibson movie, he is tortured something fierce, in the name of saving a populace. The gasoline of the makeshift refinery town that is under attack is the lifeblood of the world. Max arrives from out of nowhere, sacrifices what little he has left – his car, his dog, his face – basically everything that triggers John Wick – only to ascend into wherever when it’s all over. But of course, we know he’ll be back again someday.
I come at The Road Warrior having never seen it (nor the scrappy stunt show Mad Max, which I also watched for the first time in preparation for this – two Film Admissions for price of one here!) but an enormous admirer of 2015’s Mad Max: Fury Road. I will go on record saying that I made a mistake in ranking Pixar’s Inside Out just above it in the top spot of my Best Films of 2015 list. Fury Road has much in common with The Road Warrior in terms of vibe, style and Miller’s frame-center visual technique. Although those who’ve grown up on The Road Warrior understandably claim it to be the better of the two, I can more objectively give the edge to Fury Road. It maintains the themes (pursuit through the wasteland, Max the Christ figure, in that case to Furiosa’s Moses) and action of Road Warrior. If only for budget and technological advances alone, the far, far post 9/11 Fury Road stands as Miller’s masterpiece.
In the meantime though, The Road Warrior is just as essential, an accomplished game changer in the action film genre. It’s a definitive stripped-down and straightforward headlong charge seeking to parse redemption to a brutal world gone mad.
1985, 20th Century Fox, dir. Mark L. Lester
by Robert Hornak
I’ve never been the audience for this kind of movie, but this one has it all: flamboyant bad guys, open highway car chases, construction equipment demolishing glass facades of Army surplus retailers, fist fights at local malls, guys getting thrown into electrified grids, other guys plummeting gun-shot from the roofs of two-story buildings, still other guys doing soft-shoe-jazz-hands under a hail of machine gun fire, bathroom porcelain shattering from the force of naked foreheads, former Army colonels looking proudly upon overly-muscled students who have now become the masters, “gunning up” montages of clips getting jammed into rifles/hunting knives getting shoved into holsters/black paint scrawling up cheekbones, abducted children as motivation, hearty post-kill one liners, seats getting ripped out of cars with bare hands, creative escapes from moving airliners, demonstrations of rolling on the ground as effective tactic against oncoming bullets, innocent stewardesses getting swept up into life-changing trauma, etc.
At ninety minutes, it’s like a quick debriefing of what you should expect from the ’80s in terms of high-gloss, low-brow, thinly-plotted, thickly-accented entertainment.
It also has an intro to Arnold that isn’t so much the entrance of the main character as it is an up-close-and-personal meet-and-greet with his photogenic musculature. Before we ever see his face, cut to biceps glistening with sweat, lifting and heaving under plaintive saxophone music to the point that you’re wondering just who these shots are supposed to be for. Finally we see it’s Arnold, chopping logs next to his isolated split-level in a mountainside Shangri-La where he presides over his charge, a young Alyssa Milano, whose chipper doting over her oddly Austrian dad has the creepy implication of baby’s first Stockholm syndrome. When she’s abducted by Arnold’s disgruntled houseguests – he was their commander in the Army and now they’ve decided they don’t like him anymore – the die has been cast and there’s no stopping the propulsive explosion of popcorn in the theater lobby. At ninty minutes, it’s like a quick debriefing of what you should expect from the ’80s in terms of high-gloss, low-brow, thinly-plotted, thickly-accented entertainment.
Really, it’s just a rejiggering of First Blood without the nuisance of having to deal with the fractured morality of Stallone’s Vietnam vet. Instead, it’s a vague line or two about some version of military background as ad-hoc pretext for Arnold knowing how to explode stuff. But the glib charm that animates almost everything Arnold does in any movie keeps the thing from feeling like its sins are sins. When the action is this quick, the set pieces whiz by this frenetically, and the substance of characters is this non-existent, then the pleasure is akin to reading a comic book, or, say, knocking off a pesky henchman or two before bed. Non-thinking, non-threatening pulses radiating out from the heart of the ’80s, so why complain?
1987, Warner Bros., dir. Richard Donner
by Taylor Blake
Some things in Lethal Weapon are hilariously dated, like Mel Gibson’s mullet and Danny Glover’s brick cell phone. Some things, not so much: Deaths by opioid drugs and a black kid who says he heard cops only shoot African-Americans.
Growing up going to the movies with my dad meant that my education in the action genre has been pretty thorough, making it harder to find something to admit to in this month’s Admission. But I’m admitting Lethal Weapon didn’t make the syllabus until now, and I’m convinced it’s a movie that couldn’t be made the same way today.
The mismatched hothead/straitlaced cop duo and the witty Shane Black-isms still prevail, but the pervasive depression and suicide attempts? That’s far too uncomfortable for the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
As for the casual commentary on race relations and the depiction of a current drug crisis? Don’t count on the Avengers to tackle those—we’ll leave them to Murtaugh and Riggs.
Think of Shane Black’s writing/directing gig in Iron Man 3. Like Mel Gibson’s Riggs, Tony Stark is coming to terms with the events of his past. He’s not sleeping, panic attacks interrupt his day, and the possibility of losing his love Pepper Potts is incapacitating. These internal conflicts made Iron Man 3 one of the stronger chapters in the MCU, but his struggles feel half-explored. When you’re marketing to families, you need to squeeze in a convoluted plot, and all storylines must wrap up by the end to prevent inconsistencies in Avengers: Age of Ultron, you can only go so deep into one emotion. Iron Man 3 might be as exciting as Lethal Weapon, but it never feels as painful.
As for the casual commentary on race relations and the depiction of a current drug crisis? Don’t count on the Avengers to tackle those—we’ll leave them to Murtaugh and Riggs.
1988, 20th Century Fox, dir. John McTiernan
by Krystal Lyon
“If you haven’t seen Die Hard, you’re a failure at life!” “It’s the greatest action movie of all time!” “Die Hard completely changed the formula for action films and formed the modern marvels we have today.” Those were some of the statements from critics and friends that made me realize that the action classic, Die Hard, must be watched for this month’s Film Admissions. When Die Hard was released in 1988 I was the innocent age of 11 and the violence, cursing and random boob meant it was off limits to me. I remember Bruce Willis from that time; Moonlighting was a staple of my mom’s TV diet and I though he had the most kissable lips. (Is that weird for an 11 year old?) I was 18 when the third installment, Die Hard With A Vengeance, was released and while I still had a total jones for Mr. Willis I didn’t have the gumption nor the Blockbuster card to get caught up on the franchise.
I’ve always known about Die Hard’s impact on culture; my sister quotes the “Yipee-ka-yay-you-know-the-rest” line all the time and it made Bruce Willis into the “everyman action hero” he is known for. But I had no clue what a big shift Die Hard was from the other action movies of the 80’s. Director John McTiernan used a relatable hero, a charismatic villain with a sprinkle of humor and limited office space to create the tension the film needed. And while this seems commonplace now, it wasn’t back in the 80’s. The “Die Hard formula” helped create some of the biggest blockbusters of the 90’s and 2000’s. “Let’s do Die Hard on a plane.” Air Force One. “How about Die Hard on the road.” Speed! “Can we do Die Hard in a submarine?” U-571! McTiernan had quite a run with Predator, Die Hard and The Hunt For Red October all coming out between 1987 and 1990 and that artistic switch had a lasting impact on the action film landscape.
Director John McTiernan used a relatable hero, a charismatic villain with a sprinkle of humor and limited office space to create the tension the film needed.
But now let us talk about John McClane and Hans Gruber. The names Bruce Willis and Alan Rickman are known, they are film giants. I know I take their skill and talent for granted because they are just that good. Willis was perfection in The Fifth Element and The Sixth Sense and I can’t imagine the Harry Potter films without Rickman as Severus Snape. But back in 1988 Willis and Rickman were basically nobodies. Sure they had been on TV and Moonlighting was a hit but both men were a gamble for McTiernan. To say he hit the jackpot is a massive understatement. Willis’ funny and smart aleck New York cop McClane is the perfect balance to Rickman’s melancholy and arrogant Gruber. McClane shimmies through air vents, walks barefoot across glass and even throws a body out of a building all to save the woman that he loves while cold and tired Gruber has no trouble killing off hostages one by one. They are an action pair for the ages, the light and dark, hot and cold, sweet and sour of the fast-moving thriller! Who knows, without Willis and Rickman that “Die Hard formula” might not have worked. Willis was just the right amount of funny and Rickman was charismatic and they made Die Hard perfection.
What a wonderful treat Die Hard was for this month. If you haven’t seen it and you are over the age of eleven I highly recommend this classic action film for a hot August night. And looky there, I made it through the whole review without talking about it being a Christmas movie!
1991, 20th Century Fox, dir. Kathryn Bigelow
by Justin Mory
Mid-July of 1991, I joined what was in retrospect the most permissive youth church group in the Midwest one Sunday afternoon to see what turned out to be my first R-rated movie. James Cameron’s Terminator 2: Judgment Day instantly changed my entire mindset over what a movie theater experience could potentially be, and a fellow member’s post-viewing evaluation of “effin’ rad”, as I recall, heartily concurred with my own high-octane reaction. After 2-plus hours of relentless car carnage and mind-blowing liquid-morphing, I was pumped, to put it mildly, and if I would have happened to have seen a surf-pounding poster with a scraggly, scruffy Patrick Swayze and an over-the-back glancing Keanu Reeves a few theaters down the multiplex I would have probably been primed for that, too.
Reeves’ peerless screen blankness and Swayze’s wild-eye charisma play off each other like the potent clash of honor-bound duty and free-spirited larceny that leads inexorably towards the movie’s concluding death-surf across an Australian beach’s 50-year storm.
As it turned out, I would need another 26 years to adequately prepare myself for the surf, turf, and air-slaught of Presidential-masked bank robbery, undercover skullduggery, and Southern California thrill-seeking, but I can now say that the oft-heard line “You’re sayin’ the FBI’s gonna pay me to learn to surf?” finally makes full sense. Though Reeves as FBI agent Johnny Utah’s nominal love interest is Lori Petty’s muscly-though-vulnerable beach bunny Tyler Endicott, my first-time viewing suggests the film’s real love story is between the film’s two main male characters, heavily stressed by the film’s female director (Kathryn Bigelow; then wife of James Cameron, who executive produced) across two hours of eye-popping surf, sky-diving, and highway chase sequences. Johnny Utah (Reeves), infiltrating agent and novice surfer, and Bodhi (Swayze), anarchist outlaw and survival extremist, are on opposite sides of the law – but first in each others’ hearts – in what I’d further argue is essentially a story of tragic male camaraderie gone disastrously (and spectacularly) awry. Reeves’ peerless screen blankness and Swayze’s wild-eye charisma play off each other like the potent clash of honor-bound duty and free-spirited larceny that leads inexorably towards the movie’s concluding death-surf across an Australian beach’s 50-year storm.
With solid support from Gary Busey as Utah’s aging partner Angelo Pappas and a hilariously hard-ass turn from John C. McGinley as their hilariously hard-ass FBI boss, Ben Harp, Point Break manages to impart every ’80s action movie cliché – from the obligatory dress-down of the wayward ‘loose cannon’ agents to the reality-and-physics defying screen stunts that, say, allow the sky-diving bank robbers to hold a deep, philosophical conversation mid-air – with a fun and refreshing ’90s awareness of its own absurdity. As my first-recorded viewing reaction attests, “I was surprised by how much I enjoyed [Point Break]. It’s rather wonderfully ridiculous; and about as well done as [this] type of movie can be.” I’d only add that Point Break is also unexpectedly and emotionally resonant for all its over-the-top theatrics, with its male-centric merging of two identities – the movie’s yin-and-yang of Utah and Bodhi – near-approaching an ambitious arthouse level of filmmaking. When Utah throws his badge into the Australian surf, I frankly foresee him becoming a better and more enlightened Bodhi as the final credits roll. Without hyperbole, they complete each other in the film’s final analysis and together fuse Point Break‘s genre origins into an adrenaline-fueled whole.
1997, Paramount Pictures, dir. John Woo
by Sharon Autenrieth
There is a moment in the great sci-fi comedy Galaxy Quest when Engineer Fred Kwan (Tony Shalhoub) appears after a dizzying high speed trip through space. Swaying, dazed, smiling, Kwan utters a classic bit of understatement: “Well, that was a hell of a thing.”
And that’s my response to watching Face/Off. That was a hell of a thing. Like Kwan, I’m still a bit dazed. Face/Off is bizarre, implausible, loud, violent, and trashy – and I mean every bit of that as a compliment. Director John Woo, a master of Hong Kong action films, paired with two of the most distinctive (one might say odd) screen giants of the ’90s for a plot that stretched my credulity so far it may never snap back.
John Travolta is Sean Archer, an FBI agent who has spent six years obsessively hunting the terrorist who murdered his young son. Nicolas Cage is Castor Troy, self-same terrorist, plotting to set off a bomb in LA with his younger brother Pollux (Alessandro Nivola of Junebug). When Castor is injured and left in a vegatative state, Archer is stymied as to how to get the goods on the bomb. The obvious decision – obvious! – is for Archer to have his face cut off and replaced with Castor’s in a totally reversible operation. Then he can go undercover as Castor and persuade Pollux to spill the beans. Unfortunately, Castor awakes from his coma and casts his fleshless gaze upon Archer’s face, floating in a jar in the next room, awaiting it’s owner’s return. Well, under the circumstances, what can Castor do, but use the only face available to him?
Director John Woo, a master of Hong Kong action films, paired with two of the most distinctive screen giants of the ’90s for a plot that stretched my credulity so far it may never snap back.
Soon Archer (as Castor) is in a hellhole of a prison where inmates wear magnatized boots and the guards encourage them to beat each other half to death. Meanwhile, Castor (as Archer) is leering at Archer’s teenage daughter, bedding his wife, and enjoying his new gig at the FBI.
Let’s forget how unbelievable the surgery is. It would have been easier to accept if the move had been set in the future. And maybe it’s harder for me to accept now, 20 years after the release of the film, in a world where face transplants are actually happening. I assure you, they don’t look as flawless as they do in Face/Off, and the recovery time from such surgeries is considerably longer. But who cares? This is Woo’s universe in which men of courage walk resolutely into a hail of bullets, or leap sideways, arms outstretched, golden guns ablazing. And things blow up real good in Face/Off, a plus for any action film. At one point, a boat goes through another boat, in pursuit of a third boat. All three boats end up exploding.
Of the two leads, Cage gives the better performance. His Castor is deliriously evil, and his Archer downcast and desperate. And then there are the moments when the two characters truly collide, when Cage as Archer feigns Castor’s manic villainy, and it’s even more operatic, delerious, and fun. Face/Off was released just a few weeks after Con Air, another action movie with the inimatable Nic Cage in the lead. 1997 was Nic Cage’s peak season as an action hero, and both performances hold up well. Con Air required a more subdued performance. Here, in Face/Off, Nicolas Cage let out every stop and made a thoroughly ridiculous narrative irresistibly watchable.
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
2000, Sony Pictures Classics, dir. Ang Lee
by Erik Yates
Ang Lee’s year-2000 masterpiece Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, is one of those “must-see” action films that I must admit that I haven’t seen…until now. Not sure what I was doing in the year 2000 that would have kept me from seeing this, but the years have since piled on, and now 17 years later, I am finally seeing Master Li Mu Bai (Chow Yun-Fat) as he seeks to give away his legendary sword, Green Destiny, by having the woman he loves, Yu Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh) take it to a mutual friend. When the sword is stolen, and suspicion of where the thief is hiding points to the household of a powerful Peking politician during the 19th Century Qing Dynasty of China, Li Mu Bai and Yu Shu Lien seek to track it down, especially when Li Mu Bai discovers that this theft may involve the very person who had killed his master long ago: the Jade Fox (Cheng Pei-Pei).
Over the years, I’ve of course seen clips and read all about the high praise given to the film. While all of the actors speak Chinese, only one of the four main actors actually speaks fluent Mandarin. Chow Yun-Fat, who admittedly has a terrible Mandarin accent, took a lot of heat in China upon its initial release. That controversy aside, most Western audiences would be none the wiser, and instead found themselves drawn to much more.
Seventeen years after it was released, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon still looks beautiful and contains a story that continues to captivate audiences and that ended up opening the door for other similar films like Hero, and House of Flying Daggers.
The film’s appeal is driven more by the beautiful score, lush cinematography, and dreamlike fight sequences where actors glide through the air effortlessly, jump off the water, and descend down through the trees like snowflakes in the moonlight. Seventeen years after it was released, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon still looks beautiful and contains a story that continues to captivate audiences and that ended up opening the door for other similar films like Hero, and House of Flying Daggers. While this film clearly falls into the action category, it also transcends it, and it will continue to hold up a standard that all action-oriented foreign language films should seek to aspire to.