After spending much of the last week writing an essay on wanky academic theories and their relation to the aesthetics and ideology of a short, digital Malaysian documentary, I was definitely in need of a chance of place. So I turned to the action film. They flood cinemas every year bringing a tide of teenage boys and generally a lack of favourable critical opinion. But a well made action film can be filmmaking at its most exhilarating. So here I check out three which feature in the 1001, suggesting they rise above the average masses.
Beverly Hills Cop (1984) is brought to you by Jerry Bruckheimer, the producing purveyor of seemingly endless piles of crap such as Black Hawk Down (2001), Pearl Harbour (2001), Prince of Persia (2010) and much more. It also stars Eddie Murphy who, if you’ve only been into movies the last 5 or 10 years, is generally not the bearer of good tidings. To round out the seemingly all bad tidings, this is an ‘action-comedy’. When was the last time you saw one of those that you enjoyed. Recent ‘stellar’ examples of the subgenre include Rush Hour (1998) and Cop Out (2010), the latter not even managing to secure a cinema release at least in Australia.
But there is a reason this film is so iconic. That reason is Eddie Murphy’s lead performance as fish out of water Detroit cop Axel Foley, who travels to Beverly Hills to try and find out the truth about his best mates death. He brings a motormouth energy to his performance, that delivered by any other actor would have been downright annoying. But he is in top form in this film, basically carrying the entire picture. The enigmatic Axel obviously clashes with the police establishment in straight laced Beverly Hills, and it is these clashes that deliver many of the film’s comedic highlights. Murphy is ably assisted by basically every other aspect of the production. The dialogue is snappy throughout, there is one fantastic chase sequence involving a truck, the supporting cast headed by Judge Reinhold is engaging and the pop stylings of the soundtrack are well judged. The film does occasionally show its age, such as in some of they poorly staged close-up fight scenes, but generally you will be too busy enjoying Murphy’s dynamite performance to particularly care about any of the shortcomings.
According to the 1001 book, Sylvester Stallone was initially considered for the role Murphy ended up playing. We can all be thankful for the change in casting. If the comedy aspects of the film were attempted by Sly, this would have been cringeworthy while stripping those comedic elements away would have left a pretty stock standard police film. Luckily though, Murphy got the gig, and audiences got an 80s classic.
Verdict: Pint of Kilkenny
If any film is the archetype of the mainstream American action flick, it is surely the Bruce Willis vehicle Die Hard (1988). Just like Beverly Hills Cop, this film features at its centre a tyro of a lead performance. As out of town cop John McClane, Willis is a ball of unrestrained masculinity, a one man wrecking machine who singlehandedly takes on hordes of foreign terrorists when they take over the skyscraper containing his ex-wife on Christmas Eve. The winning back of the ex adds a nice little extra layer to a decidedly thin storyline. But hell, when you have Bruce Willis, who needs a proper narrative. Without Willis, the film would not work anywhere near as well. He is that rare breed of actor who looks good in a singlet, and also doesn’t look utterly stupid when muttering the multitude of pithy one-liners this film calls for.
One of the other things this film has got going for it is the setting. A skyscraper is the kind of ‘closed-room’ setting that Agatha Christie would have had a field day with. The sense of claustrophobia and lack of options for escape is really well conveyed and this enhances the sense that the only option for Willis is to be a one man army. Willis’ laidback magnetism is assisted by a number of good performances in supporting roles. He builds a really nice relationship with Reginald Veljohnson who is the cop assisting him on the ground. Despite never meeting in person in the film the two of them manage to create a believable and engaging rapport that the audience can buy into. As the sneering villain, Alan Rickman is clearly enjoying himself commanding a crew of criminals who all look strangely like Fabio. He pushes the character right to the edge of believability, but by managing to rein himself in just enough he makes the character delightfully menacing. And it is so nice to see a villain being a heinous bastard solely for the money – the scene where Rickman scoffs at the suggestion that he is promoting some sort of cause is an excellent one.
Despite eventually turning into a succession of meaningless (but visually impressive) explosions toward the end, as far as stock standard action films go, this is a very good one. Like the first film in this piece, so much of the appeal here is down to the lead actor. It is easy to fathom the that had the same script, director etc. been put to work with a different actor, this film could have been straight to video fare, rather than the classic it is now considered. This film won’t make you think much, nor will it change the way you feel about cinema. But you will probably get sucked in and enjoy yourself despite the stupidity.
Verdict: Stubby of Reschs
For my final film for this action piece, I headed east so to speak and checked out Five Deadly Venoms (1978). The Shaw Brothers are behind this film. They are generally considered founding fathers of the Hong Kong film scene, especially trading in this kind of film. This is exactly the sort of film you would expect to run into late on a Friday night on SBS. While it starts a little too kitsch it does really gets going and the second half is utterly killer. The story is a cool, simple ‘quest’ arc. A martial arts student has to track down five of his master’s former students, and essentially separate the goodies from the baddies. Later on, the film turns into a wonderfully warped whodunit which adds a different element to the Kung-Fu flick standards unfolding. But as with all good action films, the narrative is essentially besides the point anyway.
The whole thing is beautifully rendered, especially through some snappy editing with stylish fades abounding. There are training montages, but in a good way. The best of these is one used to introduce the main characters and their fighting style. The film has a cool, somewhat schlocky aesthetic which is used to good effect. The blood that frequently spills is the most insanely brilliant red. In addition to this, the sound effects are gleefully over the top, with the distinct ‘boings’ and the like seemingly coming straight from the pages of a 50s comic book or your favourite Super NES fighting game.
What really makes this film is the fight scenes. I think this film has the most interesting fight scenes I have seen in any movie. Strangely, it takes an age for the first one to actually go down. The lead in to the first is seemingly interminable. But it is worth the wait. The main characters each have a different fighting style, or venom. And these are not just tokenistic, throwaway notions. The different styles actually manifest themselves in the fight scenes. It is wonderful to watch, beautifully and cerebrally constructed. The Furious Five of Kung Fu Panda (2008) and its sequel are based on this film, and specifically the varying styles of the fighters. In this film, there are no fights involving the same old punches, until one for some miraculous reason knocks the other guy out. These fight scenes are quite extended, and feature each man attempting to uncover the weakness in the other’s preferred fighting technique.
Whilst featuring next to no guns, girls or explosions this is a fantastic and extremely innovative action film. If you find yourself a little bored early on, be sure to hang with it until at least the first fight scene. If you like seeing joyful fight scenes on film, this is the movie for you. And if I still haven’t convinced you to take a look, the film features something called “The Red Stomacher”. Surely you want to find out what that is.
Verdict: Pint of Kilkenny