Monday, January 6, 2014
Heavy Action: 2013 in Review
Action movies are in kind of a weird place right now. There's a renaissance of sorts taking place, but it's one that's stuck in the past. The resurgence of action movies in the last few years owes a lot to the popularity of The Expendables franchise, a series of films I love on paper but have yet to really enjoy in practice. So for as much as it has been great to see Schwarzenegger, Stallone and Bruce Willis all back on the big screen in 2013 doing their '80s best, the creeping nostalgia of it all ends up limiting where the genre can go. If it isn't a throwback, an action movie has to pass itself off inside of some other genre -- superhero movies, science fiction, whatever. Hollywood seems insistent that pure action movies are a relic of the past, and to prove it they'll only give us films starring 65-year old men.
Yes, this was the year that marked Arnold Schwarzenegger's comeback to action movies after eight years as Governor of California and two bad cameos in the Expendables movies (plus one great cameo in The Rundown). Not only was the very enjoyable The Last Stand Arnold's first starring vehicle since Collateral Damage, it was also the American directorial debut of the great Kim Jee-woon. The movie has plenty of problems, but it's a perfect vehicle for Schwarzenegger's comeback.
Stallone made his own old-school action movie with Bullet to the Head, the long-awaited directorial return of Walter Hill. As a fan of the kinds of movies to which this was paying tribute and of Walter Hill's throwback style, I wanted to like this one way more than I did. There are some good scenes, at least one good performance and nice touches courtesy of Hill, but the movie doesn't work.
Escape Plan (formerly The Tomb), a movie that on paper makes my #HeavyAction heart swell with excitement, failed to deliver on the 30+ years' worth of promise in a Schwarzenegger/Stallone buddy movie. The biggest problem is that there was very little action (#LittleAction), but also that the movie was boring and lifeless anytime Schwarzenegger wasn't on screen. Of all this year's theatrical action films, this one was the most disappointing.
And then there was Bruce Willis, rounding out the Holy Trinity of '80s action stars with A Good Day to Die Hard. Even if you weren't a fan of The Last Stand or Bullet to the Head, at least those movies were trying to do something sincere and affectionate towards classic action. A Good Day to Die Hard is a cynical exercise in smug, dickish destruction. John McClane is no longer a likable smartass, he's just an asshole. The dynamic with his kid sucks. The Russian setting adds nothing. The villain is the worst. The action is badly conceived, staged and photographed. The only way it could be further from Die Hard is if they recast Bruce Willis.
Jason Statham had three movies released in 2013, and none of them are classic Statham. His first, Parker, is another take on Donald Westlake's famous character (previously brought to screen in Point Blank and Payback, both of which are better movies) that, under the direction of Taylor Hackford, is a schizophrenic mess. His second movie, Redemption (aka Hummingbird), isn't really an action movie at all, but rather a crime drama. It's not bad and I like seeing Statham do different things, but don't be fooled that it's another Crank or Safe or Blitz or Schwing! or Barf. His third and final 2013 effort, Homefront, is probably the best of the three and is worth seeing as a Heavy Action fan if only because it was written by Sylvester Stallone. If they could have had Dolph Lundgren direct the damn thing it would have covered all the bases.
Steven Seagal only put out one movie this year: Force of Execution (the kind of meaningless and generic title that gives DTV action an even worse name. Seriously, most DTV action movie title seemed generated by Mad Libs). It's another entry in his Southern Accent Series (the one that follows his "Russian" period), and except for his goatee is totally unremarkable. It's frustrating that while many of his contemporaries are doing more interesting work or finding ways to age into their careers, Seagal and director Keoni Waxman continues to lazily repeat themselves. It's especially sad every time I see Pistol Whipped pop up on TV, because that one made it seem like Seagal was going in a better direction.
2014 is looking pretty thin for theatrical action (that isn't masquerading as something else). Besides Schwarzenegger in Sabotage (which can't come out soon enough), we're really only getting The Expendables 3. Maybe this will be the one they get right? And just how many passes am I supposed to give this franchise just because I admire the intent and have affection for the actors?
There is, of course, one more 2014 action movie worth mentioning. It's the one against which everything else will be measured. I'll get to that.
Let's take one more look at the highs and lows in #HeavyAction this year.
Best Action Movie, Blockbuster Division
Fast and Furious 6
Best Action Movie, Foreign Division
Ninja: Shadow of a Tear. No huge stunts. No CGI. Scott Adkins and Kane Kosugi are their own special effects. For pure hand-to-hand kickassery, there was no better movie in 2013.
Best Actor: Arnold Schwarzenegger in Escape Plan. Technically, it's a supporting performance, but Schwarzenegger is so good that he elevates the entire movie. He gets to be funny (one commenter, JK47, correctly nominated Schwarzenegger smiling for the camera as one of the best moments of the year), he gets kick ass (not enough, but ok) and he gets one scene in which he screams and pleads with his torturers totally in German that's the best acting he's ever done.
Best Action Sequence:
The tank chase in Fast and Furious 6
The siege on the town in The Last Stand
The bar fight in Ninja: Shadow of a Tear
The final shootout in Drug War
It's hard to beat Louis Koo in Drug War, but since that's technically more of a crime film I'll go with Jason Mamoa in Bullet to the Head. Like Schwarzenegger in Escape Plan, Mamoa is in a different, much better movie and his performance alone makes the movie worth seeing. Plus, you know, Ronan Dex. SGA represent.
A Good Day to Die Hard. Even if the character we once knew as John McClane hadn't been ruined, even if this wasn't the fifth sequel and a pale, pale imitation of the greatest action movie ever made, A Good Day to Die Hard would still be terrible. It's a bad movie, sequel or not. That it has the words Die Hard in the title make it unforgivable.
Worst New Action Star
Kellan Lutz, Java Heat. He's a less handsome, less charismatic Ryan Phillippe. How did this guy get a spot in the new Expendables movie? And while we're talking about Java Heat, how is Mickey Rourke already back to doing his bad guy act from Double Team? Wasn't he nominated for an Oscar just a few years ago?
White House Down
Worst Action Movie, DTV Division
Tough one. I might have to go with Blood of Redemption, if only for all freeze-frame character introductions, the Usual Suspects plot twists and Billy Zane's face.
2 Guns, Olympus Has Fallen, Dead Man Down
Action Movie I Can't Wait to Forget:
Action Movie I Still Haven't Seen:
Man of Tai Chi
Action Movie I Can't Wait to See in 2014
The Raid 2: Berandal. 2014 will go down as the year of The Raid 2.
Is it March yet?
What movies do you want to see covered in Heavy Action this year? Sound off in the comments below.