The biggest movie news of last weekend was The Expendables (2010) proving that Julia Roberts and Mike Ceratops were...expendable. Hey oh!
But anyway, it got me thinking about the Modern Action Film. You don't see a lot of them anymore. Original Tentpole Films were absent for the majority of the past decade. There wasn't really any good True Action Film to latch on to. There wasn't a Die Hard (1988) or a True Lies (1994) or an Armageddon (1998). Hell, I'd even take The Last Boy Scout (1991). While we've had Comic Book Movies dating back to Superman (1978), I'll place 2002 as the year when Hollywood first realised that these Superheroes would be the future of Action Films.
"I'm Sick of Being in the Van:"
There is a certain distinction between pre-programmed Superhero Films and Real Action Films. Action Movies feature a Cop, a Marine, even a Biochemist placed into outrageous situations and fighting their way out. The late 90s had an awesome score of these kinds of films which I covered last summer. These were (for the most part) original ideas, many Hard-R Types with big action names like Schwarzenegger, Stallone, even the Cage. I mean, Stallone even turned Arm Wrestling into heart-stopping action. Yeah, what the hell...?
Anyway, these films followed a certain beat. They were hard, exploding films with little illusion of safety. Comic Book Films are propagated in part due to advancements in CGI which make it easier for ordinary men to do the impossible (compare and contrast the limitations despite age of John McClane in the original Die Hard vs. Live Free or Die Hard ). This is simply to say the two naturally go hand-in-hand. As technology allows filmmakers' imaginations to expand it allows for more Super-Powered Individuals to strut across the screen. The 90s are known as this really explosive decade. We had these huge overblown budgets but really only practice effects to work with. Thus there's this great period of insane explosions everywhere. CGI though, combined with the rapidisation of Franchise Features and Built-In Trilogies around the Turn of the Century easily allowed Cookie-Cutter Comic Book Films to overtake True Action Films.
This article published a few months ago on IFC also points out the lack of popular acceptance for cartoonish villains and plots in a serious, politically correct minded post-9/11 world. A film like The Expendables belongs in the 80s in many ways - the big muscular dudes, excessive violence, inconsequential plot and filmic interpretations. More on that later.
"We Need an Old-Fashioned Cop:"
One huge disparity between Comic Book Films and Action Films is the relationship between actors and their characters. Schwarzenegger is Quaid, Stallone is Gabe Walker , Willis is Korben Dallas (I had to look up these names). They incorporate these characters into their own personas. This is some of the reason why it's so hard to duplicate a Terminator film that doesn't feature some incarnation of Arnie. The Pop Culture Memory of what the Terminator is started with Arnold. All of these Action Heroes really just played folds of their Popular Personas, it's more like "Cage is kicking ass" or "Jean Claude doesn't take shit" than "Oooh, look at Spider-Man swing!"
My point is that actors starring in Comic Book Films are typically smaller than the comic. The Comic Book Film is sold on its print property, a True Action Film is sold on a combination of Star Power and Ridiculous Premise. Most successful Comic Book Adaptations however, star unknowns in the lead who can take upon the mantle of the character rather than the other way around. Tobery Maguire, Hugh Jackman and Brandon Routh come to mind as actors who built their careers around playing already firmly established characters rather than providing a foothold of their own. There's not a whole lot of room to place distinguished personas in these roles.
There are a few exceptions, of course, though mainly these are for Chameleons rather than Typecast Actors, as highlighted in an article featured on IMDB today. Robert Downey, Jr puts a lot of himself into Tony Stark (and if his Sherlock Holmes is any indication that is all he feels like playing these days), but he's certainly a more versatile actor with a wider range than some of the old Action Staples. Other notable actors playing Superheros has a variety of effects. I actually don't mind Ben Affleck's Daredevil that much and Patrick Stewart and Sir Ian McKellen certainly shine in X-Men (2000). This doesn't belay the simple fact however, that Superhero films simply cannot replace Action Films, which was de facto for a huge amount of Summers between 2002 and 2008.
"I'm Gettin' Too Old for This Shit:"
This is all of course not to say that there weren't any True Action Films in the 2000s. There's definitely discrepancies between Vin Diesel/Dwayne Johnson-type movies and the old Arnie/Sly flicks. There is even a great "passing of the torch" moment in The Rundown (2003) where Arnie wishes The Rock good luck. Who would have ever guessed this would happen to that Budding Action Star just a few years past.
Prior to Spider-Man (2002), the true moment when Comic Book Films took over, we had this assortment of Action-Driven pieces. After that though, we basically had a handful of Jason Statham Movies, Smokin' Aces (2006) and...what? Paycheck (2003)? I, Robot (2004)? Babylon A.D. (2008)? Holy Shit. These are dark times.
2008 was the Banner Year for Comic Book Movies. A healthy combo of Iron Man, The Dark Knight and The Incredible Hulk all proved that Superhero films could be damned good, even Academy-Award Winning. All three of these also made ridiculous bank in addition to widespread critical acclaim. Finally melding True Action Films with Comic Properties, all three starred established, critically adored actors, as if it finally wasn't beneath critics to praise Superhero acting. The films were sold on this combination of Actor's Clout and pre-established property.
Since then, however, we have actually moved away from Comic Book Films a bit. There are a surprising amount of Original Ideas this Summer (How they've fared is not as optimistic). More importantly, across the past two years we've had many successful Action Films that, while not in the true 90s mold at all, are moving away from the Stale Superhero Format. These include Taken (2009), District 9 (2009), Inglourious Basterds (2009), AVABAR (2009), Inception (2010) and The Expendables. Taken and The Expendables tend to actually fit the mold pretty well (except of course for the fact that all our Action Heroes are now in their 60s).
Even films based on prior properties like The A-Team (2010), The Losers (2010) and MacGruber (2010) have that distinct Fun Action feel rather than that brooding, whiny emotional Comic Feel that had pervased Cinema since Spider-Man 2 (2004). I mean, this was one of the most awesome fucking moments in movies in years. Either way, newer ideas doing well bodes well for the return of True Action Films.
"Relationships that Start Under Intense Circumstances, They Never Last:"
2011 is going to Atom-Bomb any hope we have. Among releases include Thor, Captain America: The First Avenger, X-Men: First Class and Green Lantern. The Summer after that should be even more huge with The Avengers and Batman 3: Pajama Party. Marvel vs. DC truly pitting their giants against each other. Wowsers. Will we ever get our True Action Film back again?
Sure, if Sly and The Expendables 2: The Reckoning (2012) have anything to say about it.