Watch this 55-second clip from John Irvin‘s The Dogs of War (1981). Fast, savage, high-octane, rip-roarin’… right? As battle sequences went in the early Reagan era, this was a little fiercer than most. But by today’s standards, it doesn’t deliver enough. Not nearly. It might even be considered boring.
And yet Irvin uses all kinds of visual exaggeration. An actual assault on a Central American compound would be darker, less noisy, and generate very few fireballs.
But the hard fact is that a 2010 film using these same chops in an action sequence (one that, let’s say, is about a team of mercenaries attacking a Central American compound) would almost be laughed off the screen. It’s not cut fast enough, the pyrotechnics aren’t big or loud enough, there isn’t any hand-to-hand chop-socky, no limbs are severed, no windpipes are ripped out, nobody jumps out of a hovering chopper or is blown skyward, and the action choreography is too easy to follow.
This is because (and this is an even harder fact) action films are caught in a trap. They all have to top each other and the only way to do that is to go more cartoon X-treme, and credibility be damned. Because action fans don’t care that much about approximating reality. All they want are action sequences that are wilder, more CG-ish or acrobatic in a Cirque de Soleil or Pang brothers fashion, more crazy-ass.
Very few action thrillers have operated beyond these constrictions and delivered by their own style and criteria. The Matrix, the only honorable film in the Wachowski brothers‘ misbegotten trilogy, did this. So did Alfonso Cuaron‘s Children of Men. Ditto the Bourne films by Doug Liman and Paul Greengrass. Phillip Noyce‘s Salt, plot issues aside, traffics in first-rate chops. But for the most part the action genre has become a kind of entrapment — a minimum security prison patrolled by armed guards (i.e., studio executives) in which certain rules have to be followed…or else.
But who are the real jailers? Here’s a list of the forces that have caused action films to become caged beasts, prowling ’round and ’round, snapping at their own tails and never going anywhere.
1. Asian martial-arts films. An argument doesn’t have to be made that Hong Kong, Chinese and Southeast Asian fare (violent ballet, foot-fist, wire flying, two guns blam-blam) introduced a kind of fantasy cartoon virus into action films. This is an accepted fact. But much of the blame has to fall on the shoulders of Quentin Tarantino, Robert Rodriguez and (yes) the Wachowski brothers for Americanizing the influenza.
2. The Comic-Con Mentality, surely the most pernicious and ruthless present-day carrier of said virus.
3. The increasing rapidity of cyber communications. The pace and intensity of action fare today is a reflection of high-speed downloading, the option of high-grade CGI, the multitude of offerings on cable, and an increasing ADD syndrome among younger viewers. Action movies can’t hide inside a ’70s and ’80s time warp. They have to embrace and expand upon current CG vistas. The bar is the bar is the bar.
4. The increasing dominance of kneejerk, follow-the-leader tendencies among souless studio executives who believe that movies must never outsmart the Eloi. And who tend to make it tough for innovators, who always go for the easy dough, and who believe in always serving the lowest common denominator.
5. The failure of nerve among filmmakers and studios to follow the lead of Children of Men. Alfonso Cuaron’s 2006 film was a startling groundbreaker — a realistic, pulse-pounding action film with three long single-take sequences that felt so fresh and immediate that jaded action fans were left gasping in its wake. And then something weird happened. Nobody followed its example. Action films went right back to the same old cut-cut-cut, boom-boom-boom, orange-fireball crap. Why? Doing it the Cuaron way is too hard, too fraught with potential peril, too costly.