When Anthony Bourdain took issue with “Baby Driver” in a blunt tweet a few days after the movie’s release, the celebrity chef was advocating for another kind of action movie experience. He followed up his initial outburst by singling out “The Raid,” the bloody Indonesian martial arts film, as a superior movie. Whether or not the comparison is fair, Bourdain did hit on two crucial factors with respect to the action genre — it is big, and it is global. No discerning viewer can truly claim complete knowledge of the genre before at least getting familiar with the range of possibilities around the world.
Here are the four essential subgenres every diehard fan should know. If Bourdain traveled the world going to film festivals in search of authentic regional action films, instead of food, these are the sorts of kickass flavors likely to entice him.
When Bourdain curated a collection of films for the SundanceNow Doc Club, he picked a documentary that explores the Australian “Ozploitation” film movement (a term coined by Quentin Tarantino) of lurid and completely bonkers exploitation films that combined bucket loads of over the top sex, violence, horror and unstoppable (often car driven) action, which was at its controversial peak in the ’70s and ’80s, but we still feel hints of today in the open road films of by Australians directors like George Miller (“Mad Max: Fury Road”) and David Michôd (“The Rover”).
These daredevil films are so raw and so unrestrained – to say nothing of having scared the crap out of the government officials, who censored them – it’s easy to see why Bourdain would like them. More importantly, as the filmmaker of Bourdain’s favorite documentary “Not Quite Hollywood: The Wild, Untold Story of Ozploitation!” Mark Hartley described, they were also uniquely Australian.
“As a kid my parents and teachers insisted I see quality films like ‘Picnic at Hanging Rock.’ Then I saw this movie ‘Patrick,’ about a telekinetic coma victim, on commercial TV late one night and it thrilled, excited and downright scared me, just like the horror films made in the U.S. but with our voices, faces and places. I didn’t know we could do that.”
And that’s what’s interesting – the film is purely Australian, unique to the landscape and culture, but borrows from the horror and car chase films made popular by the United States. Of course, that’s hardly an anomaly; the entire French New Wave was born out of a generation of filmmakers watching Hollywood studio films and trying to breath fresh air into their national cinema by capturing the attitude of studio-produced genre films.
Martial Arts Films
One of the joys of martial arts films is how different countries feature particular schools of fighting that are rooted in national traditions. For example, in Thailand, the Muay Thai school of martial arts was brought to the screen in explosive fashion in 2003 with “Ong-Bak: Muay Thai Warrior,” which made a movie star of fight Tony Jaa and launched a whole new kickboxing based action film movement in the Asia.
One of the most exciting regional fighting styles, which we already know Bourdain loves, is the Indonesian martial art of Pencak Silat that was featured in the breakout “The Raid.” The full-body fight style, which can be adapted to incorporate use of objects and weapons, is perfect for the action film. The speed and density of the action is only matched by the athleticism and brutality, as “The Raid” has become one of the most groundbreaking and influential films of the 21st century.
The film’s star and co-choreographer Iko Uwais, who many believe is the next international action star, was a delivery man for a phone company when Welch director Gareth Evans was hired to go to Jakarta to make a documentary about Pencak Silat. Blown away by what he saw, Evans collaborated with Uwais to create something not only new by combining cinema and Pencak Silat, but using genre and cultural elements (like Uwais’s faith) that was authentic to the country.
South Korean Crime Films
The violent genre movies that have been coming out of the South Korea this century feature some of the most exciting filmmaking in the world. The voices of directors like Bong Joon Ho, Chan-wook Park and Kim Jee-woon are those of such singular artists, but they all combine engrossing dramatic stories with a cinematic playfulness (often in graphically violent scenes).
After a decade of being feted at Cannes, the top filmmakers have moved toward bigger canvases and international money on films like “Stoker,” “Okja,” and “The Last Stand.” As Bong Joon Ho has said, he’s a South Korean who makes movies, not a South Korean filmmaker.
Hong Kong Gun Play
Another exciting form of action filmmaking is the Hong Kong style of “gun fu,” which can be traced back to director John Woo’s 1986 film “A Better Tomorrow” and his subsequent influential work throughout the ’90s. Often featuring star Chow Yun-fat as a hero, who in his quest to save the day takes part in action set pieces that become a ballet of bullets – staged, choreographed and filmed as much as a musical dance performance as they are an action scene.
Much like his martial arts compatriot Jackie Chan, Woo was intensely influenced by the American musical tradition, conceiving of his set pieces as numbers that became an expression of his protagonist’s story.
Via Woo and Chan, Edgar Wright brought some of this approach to his musical action set pieces back to Hollywood with his car chase scenes; much earlier, the Wachowskis’ staging of the bullet-time action in “The Matrix” did the same thing.
Few directors have done more to usher in an appreciation for Asian film techniques than Quentin Tarantino, whose “Kill Bill” movies were ostensibly one long homage to a range of Eastern and Western traditions. Viewed as a single statement, the two volumes showcase the evolution of the modern action genre, while pushing it in exciting new directions. For some of us, “Baby Driver” does that, too — and whether or not it lands the Bourdain seal of approval, there’s no question that it has succeeded at stirring up conversations about a form of entertainment that shows no sign of letting up.