For the past couple weeks, I've been slowly collecting notes on a thinkpiece. It was going to be called something along the lines of "The Rise of the Foreign Action Film," and it would have celebrated the wave of superb action movies, like the recently released and excellent "The Raid: Redemption" and the upcoming and even better "Sleepless Night," that have begun making their way to — and immediately kicking the crap out of — our shores. In a piece for The New York Times Magazine, Adam Sternbergh looks at this budding trend from another angle and reads it as a sign of the death of the American action film:
"The action film — like automobiles, televisions and team-oriented basketball — is an American invention that is now produced much better elsewhere in the world… American action films now are merciless spectacles splashed on a green-screen canvas — Shia LaBeouf flying around on wires like Peter Pan in front of spasmodic robots who aren’t really there, while entire cities, also not really there, collapse in on themselves. Ultimately, the American action film, like a fish that can’t stop eating, wound up choking on its one reliable virtue: excess."
Certainly, if there ever was a golden age of American action films, the 2010s ain't it. As Sternbergh astutely observes, a genre once owned by muscles and camouflage now belongs to spandex and latex. Most comic book movies are great spectacles but they make lousy action films. They seem to miss the fundamental point of action movies; it's not about impressive visuals, it's about impressive physical feats. As much as I love Spider-Man, a CGI Tobey Maguire swinging through CGI skyscrapers has nothing on the pure visceral majesty of the real Jackie Chan taking a real leap to a potentially real death in something like, say, "Rumble in the Bronx."
The action genre of the 1980s essentially fell victim to the same thing that killed Roger Corman and the drive-in-meisters of the 1960s and '70s: Hollywood saw people making money doing things on the cheap, and sensed an opportunity. They turned B-level action pictures into A-level blockbusters and co-opted or muscled out the competition (not an easy thing, mind you, when the competition is as muscly as Jean-Claude Van Damme).
Still, those who follow the action genre as closely as I do know that if American action cinema is down, it is not entirely out. In fact, it might just be one good training montage away from a full-out revival. Sternbergh, for example, doesn't discuss the success of "Drive," last fall's poetically bloody actioner with a style that harkened back to the lean-'n'-mean days of Walter Hill and John McTiernan. Granted Ryan Gosling's anonymous driver doesn't quip "Nailed him!" after he bludgeons a man to death with a hammer. But the film was nevertheless a welcome sign of life for the genre.
Sternbergh also never mentions the man who has almost single-handedly been keeping the B-level American action picture alive for the past decade: Jason Statham. Statham, who churns out one or two dependably solid action pictures a year, represents the clearest descendant of the action golden age: he has Arnold Schwarzenegger's physique, Sylvester Stallone's brooding machismo, and Bruce Willis' sly wit (not to mention his hairless pate). One of Statham's recent efforts, the satisfying cop thriller "Blitz," went straight to video and VOD, which is quickly becoming a fertile training ground for tomorrow's big action stars. I'm particularly fond of the work of martial artist and stuntman-turned-actor Scott Adkins, whose "Undisputed III: Redemption" nearly out-hustles "The Raid" in the action choreography (and subtitle) department.
We may yet see more quality large scale American action films, too. In the next few months, Schwarzenegger will team up with Stallone and Willis for "The Expendables 2" (Statham appears as well, along with Adkins and a veritable Dirty Dozen of action legends and upcoming stars). Granted, Arnold, Sly, and Bruce are all middle-aged men at this point. Granted, calling them middle-aged at this point is being entirely too generous. But the success of "The Expendables" — and Schwarzenegger's retirement from public service — seems to have sparked a full-out 80s action revival. Stallone will also star in Hill's "Bullet to the Head" and Willis appears in the next "G.I. Joe" with The Rock. After he appears in "Expendables 2," the Schwarzenegger comeback tour rolls into its first headlining gig, "The Last Stand," an action Western about a sheriff's fight against drug cartel. Best of all, the film is directed by Kim Ji-woon, a talented Korean filmmaker whose arthouse hits, "The Good, The Bad, The Weird" and "I Saw the Devil," helped pave the way for "The Raid" and "Sleepless Night."
Kim and other new foreign action masters like "Drive"'s Nicolas Winding Rehn seem to be honing their craft overseas then making their way to Hollywood. So who knows? Perhaps the architects of the Rise of the Foreign Action Film will actually usher in a new Golden Age of American Action as well. Cue the training montage.