Friday, October 1, 2010

Violence Isn't Pretty

The following article first appeared in the September 2010 issue of Haberdashers Magazine. If you can find a copy, please buy it. If the magazine becomes successful enough to turn a profit, I can actually get paid to write. I have future articles coming out in future issues and hope you'll check 'em out. FYI: I did the illustration for this article as well. Enjoy.

The year 1967 was a good year for manly movies. Released that year were such classics as Hombre, The War Wagon, You Only Live Twice, The Dirty Dozen, Point Blank, Cool Hand Luke, and The Good The Bad & The Ugly. Interestingly enough, six of those seven films were based on novels. In virtually any book adaptation, lots of great stuff is typically omitted for the film version. This is usually due to time constraints, but is often also due to censorship. For instance, as gritty and as tough as those films were, in most cases, they were whitewashes of novels that inspired them. It was, after all, 1967, and the MPAA ratings system had yet to be implemented and the top-grossing film of that year was The Jungle Book.

The good news is that society has loosened up enough to allow a remake of any of these films to go unfettered from their source material. The bad news is that society has also softened up so much that it almost wouldn’t be worth it. Take The Dirty Dozen, for example. Today’s Hollywood simply could not re-create that level of testosterone.

The cast of the original had Lee Marvin, Ernest Borgnine, Charles Bronson, John Cassavetes, Telly Savalas, Donald Sutherland and many others who were not only real men, but ugly men. How could one match that cast for a movie about soldiers, criminals, rapists, and general nasties today when modern leads look more like underwear models than military prisoners? Even when Quentin Tarantino made Inglourious Basterds he cast B.J. Novak from The Office as one of the Basterds. Ryan the Temp. And as the leader of the Basterds, Tarantino cast Brad Pitt. Now, Brad Pitt’s good, but he’s also good looking. Having Lieutenant Aldo Raine (a southern redneck who survived a lynching) look as conventionally handsome as Brad Pitt lessens the character’s credibility. One can empathize with Tarantino’s choice, though. Where does one find an actor of Brad Pitt’s caliber who looks more like one of the original members of The Dirty Dozen nowadays?

Today, the meanest-looking action stars that aren’t over the hill, are Jason Statham and Vin Diesel. Statham seems incapable of making an action movie worth watching and Diesel has only made two action movies in the past seven years. But even Statham and Diesel can’t match the level of machismo set by John Wayne and Clint Eastwood and matched by Steve McQueen and Lee Marvin.

Of course, the problem with the modern action movie isn’t limited to the overabundance of metrosexuals on the casting call, but extends to the action itself. The turning point seemed to be around 1999/2000 when movies like The Matrix and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (as well as a newfound interest in Jackie Chan) brought martial arts to mainstream action films on an almost permanent basis. Sure, there were plenty of marital arts themed action movies before 2000, but they were usually manifested as Jean-Claude Van Damme or Chuck Norris kicking asses rather than artsy-fartsy floating mid-air slo-mo kicks with leaves and doves swirling around the actors. In Roger Ebert’s review of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon he said, “It’s more as if the fighters are joining in a celebration of their powers.” That’s probably why Chuck Norris is just punch line these days.

Now, martial arts are cool and fun to watch but c’mon, that’s not how real people fight. It seems like only Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez realize that real violence is sloppy and that it’s more exciting when it’s less predictable. They’re partial to shootouts, though, so it’s hard to find a good old-fashioned bare knuckle fist fight these days that doesn’t look like a fast-paced ballet. Compare the hand to hand combat seen in the Jason Bourne movies to the fist fight between police officer John McClane and terrorist gunman Karl in Die Hard. The audience is more invested in the fight in Die Hard because it’s one man’s desperation to stay alive in order to save his wife versus another man’s vengeful wrath for the his brother’s murder. When Jason Bourne fights somebody, it just feels like a competition to see who has the best moves. There’s a great deal of joy to be found in the scene in 2007’s Live Free or Die Hard when McClane, after getting his ass kicked by a martial arts expert, declares, “That’s enough of this Kung-Fu shit,” and comes back driving an SUV into the room and into his opponent. The viewer is uncertain whether that’s John McClane’s line or Bruce Willis’.

Another major handicap of the modern day action film is its lazy tendency to rely on special effects. Like martial arts, special effects are cool, but a lame stunt trumps an awesome CGI display of McClane versus an F-35. That’s why people go to action movies in the first place, they want to experience someone else’s danger without endangering themselves. If the filmmakers are creating stunts in the comfort of their computer studio, what’s the point?

That’s probably a big part of why the latest Indiana Jones movie was met with such a lukewarm reception. In the first three movies, whenever Indy would jump onto a moving truck or swing over a bottomless pit, it may not have been Harrison Ford performing the actual stunt, but it was somebody and that somebody was actually doing what the audience was actually seeing. In The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull there’s sword-fighting on the hoods of trucks plowing through the jungle. It’s an exciting scene, for sure, but no matter how good the special effects are, there’s no getting around the fact that the actors are standing in front of a green screen with wind machines blowing at them. That was the disappointing downfall of that movie. Well, that and it kind of felt like a desperate attempt between Spielberg, Lucas, and Ford to recreate the glory days of their youth. It’s a shame when even the old greats can’t rise above the latest trends.

What’s most disturbing about these devolving changes to the action genre is that they are occurring alongside another popular trend in Hollywood these days, the remake/reboot. If Hollywood wants to make all kinds of new big-budget action catastrophes, that’s one thing. But, it would be nice if they would leave longstanding treasured time capsules of macho case studies alone. True, they did a decent job with the recent rebirths of Batman, James Bond and, surprisingly, even Star Trek, but unfortunately, that sets a precedent that anything is fair game to be re-imagined and possibly butchered as a result.

A good example of the dangers of this scenario can be found by comparing 1974’s The Taking of Pelham One Two Three to its insipid 2009 remake. The no-nonsense toughness of the original (even amongst the hostages) is completely gone. The calm intensity of Robert Shaw is replaced by John Travolta regurgitating variations of the F-word over and over at various high pitches. Even Denzel Washington can’t measure up to the perfectly cynical performance of Walter Matthau. Yes, Walter Matthau. Furthermore, what’s most embarrassing is that, while the remake was directed by the usually reliable Tony Scott, the original was directed by Joseph Sargent. It’s a shame when the director of True Romance can’t improve upon a movie directed by the guy who made Jaws 4.

It’s probably only a matter of time before movies like Deliverance or The Wild Bunch are remade with people like Leonardo DiCaprio or Jake Gyllenhaal in the cast. A new version of Total Recall was just announced with no Arnold Schwarzenegger, no Ronny Cox, no Michael Ironside, and probably no midget hooker wielding a shotgun either. So what’s the point? Who can be placed in any of those roles that will even come close to plausibly ripping off somebody’s arms and then selling lines like “See you at the party, Richter.”

In the early 90’s, Denis Leary lamented about the declination of manliness in American society by pointing out how The Terminator ended with Schwarzenegger blowing up, twice, and then being crushed in a hydraulic press; while Terminator 2 ended with Schwarzenegger hugging a kid goodbye and saying “Don’t cry.” At the time Leary said that, he had no idea that Schwarzenegger had yet to do Junior, and Jingle All the Way. With all the beloved action heroes and directors getting too old or too lame to deliver, the genre desperately needs some kind of renaissance. Stallone’s latest movie The Expendables and its ample cast of action stars seems like a farewell speech to the old-school action movie. It seems Stallone agrees since, in a recent interview with the L.A. Times to promote the film, he says, “The action movies changed radically when it became possible to Velcro your muscles on. It was the beginning of a new era. The visual took over. The special effects became more important than the single person. That was the beginning of the end.” He’s right. These days, while guys like Topher Grace are being cast as the muscle-bound Spider-Man villain Venom, guys like The Rock are playing the Tooth Fairy. Hopefully, they got paid up front, because true connoisseurs of the action genre would rather spend their money on movies like Machete. And probably intend to.

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