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Escalation in the American Action Film

Escalation in the American Action Film

The action film, a genre that should be a celebration of vitality and physical perfection, doesn’t seem all that vital or perfect these days. Last month, The New York Times Magazine mourned the loss of the great American action film; last week, Den of Geek’s Simon Brew wrote his own assessment of this fallen artform.  If The Times‘ piece was a kind of death announcement, Den of Geek’s is a kind of autopsy; it cracks open the corpse corpus of modern American action cinema to find out what killed it.  His coroner’s report reads something like this: “Asphyxiation caused by acute acromegaly.”  American action films got too big for their own good and choked on their own gigantism.  Modern action is all about spectacle, but enlarging the scope of these movies doesn’t enlarge their entertainment value in equal measure:

“Look at the action movies we remember and cherish the most. Part and parcel of them was a mission that we could get behind, understand, and root for. In the ‘Bourne’ series, everything that Jason Bourne did was motivated by finding out who he was. In the best Indiana Jones films, there was a quest for an object of sorts. ‘Speed?’ Well, the bus is going to blow up, with the characters on it, unless something is done about it… In the scheme of the world, these aren’t big objectives. It’s not the only contributory factor to the individual films’ successes (you can have a great story and crappy action sequences, and that rarely makes for a great action movie), but it’s important… Ramping up the worldwide stakes isn’t always a bad idea, but it is an increasingly lazy one. That’s because, instead of finding a smaller, more interesting story, it follows the tired mantra of make another one, and make it bigger.”

This is a smart observation, and one that dovetails nicely with the problems in modern action that Adam Sternbergh identified in that Times Magazine article.  He bemoaned American action films’ move away from determined everymen (with admittedly un-everymanish muscles) to super-heroes with magical powers.  When you ratchet up your hero’s abilities — when he goes from a guy who’s strong to a guy who can casually pick up an airplane and toss it a couple million miles on a whim — you also have to ratchet up the stakes.  In “Die Hard,” it took John McClane the entire movie to save the hostages in Nakatomi Plaza; in a Superman movie, that would barely qualify as a threat worthy of a pre-credits sequence.  Lately the increasing stakes of superhero movies have started reflecting back on non-superhero action movies.  In the last “Die Hard,” McClane went from saving one office building to saving the entire United States.  After the upcoming fifth film in the franchise, Brew quips, “you couldn’t convincingly rule out sending John McClane into space to take out a freshly discovered Death Star.”

One super-hero movie does address this subject directly.  At the end of 2005’s “Batman Begins,” the Dark Knight and Lieutenant Gordon have a conversation about the ordeal they’ve just endured.  When Gordon reminds Batman that there’s still work to be done, the Caped Crusader assures him that they’ll finish the job they started.  “What about escalation?” Gordon asks.  “Escalation?” Batman replies.  Gordon continues:

“We start carrying semi automatics, they buy automatics, we start wearing Kevlar, they buy armor piercing rounds, and *you’re* wearing a mask and jumping off rooftops.”

Gordon’s words anticipate and just about every American action movie of the last couple years.  Because everything is a sequel or a remake or a reboot, filmmakers need to do something, anything, to differentiate their new product from the old.  The only thing Hollywood has in ample supply is money, hence every new movie becomes bigger than the last.  “Batman Begins” begets “The Dark Knight,” “Pirates of the Caribbean” begets “At World’s End” (the whole world‘s end!) and a $19.95 board game begets a hundred million dollar production about alien spaceship battles on the high seas.  In other words, Hollywood has a major escalation problem.

Meanwhile, the superb foreign action films both Sternbergh and Brew mention like “The Raid: Redemption” have far more modest goals and far more pleasurable outcomes.  In movies, as in life, it’s about quality, not quantity.  

Read more of Simon Brew’s “Why the Goals of Action Movies Need to Be More Contained.”

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