Thursday, 30 June 2011

The Action 00's

The Best Action Films of the 2000s - Part 12 in our ongoing series.

Rambo (c) 2008 Lionsgate
It has been a big challenge for me to write about the best action films of the last decade. There are two main reasons. One, most of my favorites actually fall into the Superhero category, which I've already covered. Two, the action film as I know and love it, is dead. Yes, they did try to revive its corpse a couple of times this decade, but as The Expendables proves, you really can't go home again. It's a different time now. And what formed this time more than one certain event nearly 10 years ago, in September.

After 9/11, action film fans were anxious whether it would ever be passable to blow shit up on the screen since. Well, as the entire career of Michael Bay proves, you can, and it really didn't take more than two years for the explosions to be as big as before. But 9/11 also changed our perception of the explosions. Hand-held camera footage by bystanders of terrorist acts became more common in the news, and thus the films in turn turned more hectic in editing, and utilizing a strong feeling of "being there".

Another thing that had already began to change in the 90's was the action heroes. Arnie and Sly were getting old, and their careers almost dead by the turning point. JCVD and Seagal resorted (and still do) to tons of straight-to-DVD dreck shot in Romania. The 90's belonged to actors more common to everymen in their physique, such as Bruce Willis, Nicolas Cage or Keanu Reeves. In fact the latter's role in The Matrix (1999), turning from a pencil-necked nerd into a superhuman, was the most influental action film character for the upcoming decade. Spider-Man (2002) of course took it to an even more extreme position, making a feeble nerd an action hero. And it went hand-to-hand with the events of that fateful day. After all, what more were the passengers of United 93 than a group of ordinary people, who seemed superhuman in their sacrifice in deciding to fight the ultimate evil.

But this was not supposed to be an essay why action films suck nowadays. There are some good ones, but one must look for them harder. These are my favorites:

Bad Boys II (2003)
Director: Michael Bay

I'll never, ever get tired of this facial expression.
This is only one of the films that needed considering, whether they belong in the upcoming "guilty pleasures" list, that ended up in the real one. For even though it is as stupid as they come, BBII does deliver. Heck, ask Edgar Wright if you don't believe me.

The detectives Mike Lowry (Will Smith) and Marcus Barnett (Martin Lawrence) begin the film by inflirtating the Ku Klux Klan. They end the film by blowing up a drug lord's mansion in Cuba, and trashing a shanty town to boot. Afterwards, they relax laughing at the pool. There's supposed to be some sort of a plot in between all this, but I don't care and neither does Michael Bay. He's too busy bringing us an outrageous set-piece after another. Some, like the climatic blow-up, are stolen from old films (like Police Story, for example), but Bay's big budget and ridiculously colonialistic attitude and infant sense of humour make it all the more endearing. His trademark scenes of military types looking at a radar in a carrier and gearing up to go to battle are also intact.

As for Bay's sense of humour, it starts to go absurdly off the rails in this one. Thus, we get to witness rats humping in the missionary position and of course one character consumes drugs by accident. It's so bad it's pretty funny here, but later turned tragic with Transformers. Considering that, Peter Stormare gets off relatively easy, even though he plays a crook here. I'll never understand why Bay likes to humiliate Coen movie regulars so. Yes, the film is quite long at 2,5 hours, but unlike with Bay's subsequent work, the pace of the film keeps it interesting. Haters should get a body dumped in the hood of their car mid-drive. One of the last great action films to watch while drinking beer with friends, and the brightest moment in Bay's ADD-riddled decade.

The Bourne Trilogy:
The Bourne Identity (2002)
Director: Doug Liman

The Bourne Supremacy (2004)
The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)
Director: Paul Greengrass

The Bourne saga is the second-best trilogy of the 21st century, so I'll handle all the films at once here. It was a true underdog of a film series, with each part managing to surprise the audiences with its innovativeness, smoothness, approach on actual issues and of course, kick-ass action. The first film begins with a former US agent (Matt Damon) found near death floating in an ocean. He can't remember anything, but sets out to find out about his past when he gets a lead or few. The government had wished to keep Bourne's existence wiped out, so they set to kill him. In every part while finding out about his past, Bourne finds out secret government operatives bordering on a conspiracy. He is determined to bring down the organizations that are responsible for the wiping out of his life.

The first Bourne movie proved to be more than just your basic summer action fest. Instead of copying James Bond, it actually inspired the Bond producers to take a true new, more realistic and natural direction for their long-running series. Identity is my favorite of the Bourne trilogy, with its smooth, easy-to-figure action. The Mini car chase is a favorite set-piece of mine. Liman also creates a strong European feel in its European-set scenes, and the adventure moves along with a true-seeming on-the-run feel to it. But it is also the most conventional of the films, with Bourne gaining a love interest (Franka Potente) along the way. Supremacy, the second one, is a lot darker. New director Paul greengrass also brought in his unique action-shooting style, which utilizes a lot of hand-held cameras. The plot is a bit muddier here, but it gets resolved a bit further by the last part. Ultimatum is a worthy ending to the trilogy, giving Bourne a chance to blow the government's plots wide open in the press. But what is it he really wants?

So the Bournes are not merely action films, but they are also some of the most exciting political thrillers of the last few years. When one remembers that journalists are still assasinated, private telephone conversations listened to and goverments are involved in straight-out murdering, they becomes even more chilling. A little less shaky, flashy editing in the latter parts couldn't hurt, though.

Casino Royale (2006)
Director: Martin Campbell

Casino Royale (c) 2006 Eon Productions/United Artists
I didn’t have much hopes for before I saw this film. I the more childish and cartoonish Bond movies were, the more I loved them.  I thought Connery’s "serious" Bonds were boring, and I preferred evil geniuses bent on world domination, comically monsterrific henchmen and silly gadgets to anything realistic. Going to a "dark and brooding" Bond reboot with copying the best ideas from Bourne didn't seem like would work. But I, as well as the whole rest of the world, was proven wrong with this.
The film sees MI6's new 00 Agent, James Bond (Daniel Craig), on a mission to Montenegro to enter a high stakes poker tournament. A banker who is funding terrorist organizations, known as Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen) is also entering the tournament to win back the money he's lost previously. MI6's leader M also sends a female agent called Vesper Lynd (Eva Green) to keep an eye on Bond, and to pose as his wife. Bond also gains a few other allies along the way, but learns that in the spy business, one must not trust too much on anyone. After a long while, Bond finally got a real sense of danger, balls and actually multi-dimensional vunerable characters from Bond to the Bond Girl Lynd to Le Chiffre himself. Even the action is cool and not as preposterous as we've used to see.

It is perhaps a tad overrated movie, seeing as the positive surprise got the best response from people. The film is overlong and in the end doesn't walk that far from the path of the conventional Bond film. We were waiting for the sequel to improve, but it turned out to be a really bad Bourne-clone. While most of the time everything does work and well, here, it should be savoured as the decade's definitive Bond film. (Before you ask: 60's: Goldfinger, 70's: The Spy Who Loved Me, 80's: The Living Daylights, 90's: Goldeneye)

Crank (2006)
Directors: Mark Neveldine, Brian Taylor

Crank is another one of those hyperactive action films that might cause a headache to some, but personally I dig a lot out of. You'll see that some of others on the subsequent Guilty Pleasure list are about as or even less ridiculous as this, but I genuinely feel that the film plays its premise well, is creative with it, and never, ever slows down. That's what good action flicks are made of, people.

The high-concept plot can be summarized pretty shortly: The assassin Chev Chelios (Jason Statham) has been poisoned, so if his heart beat drops, he will die. It's Speed in a person's body! So, the film is basically Statham running around, looking for his would-be murderers to get revenge. To keep his adrenaline high, he has to do various stunts. Most memorable of these is of course his run-in with his girlfriend Eve (Amy Smart).

It's a very brief film, that almost leaves the viewer himself out of breath. It is also very un-PC and more than a little chauvinistic. But when it's all for a lark, who cares, right lads? The best thing about Crank is that in all its ridiculousness, it is played laughably straight. It is clear that the directors have their tongue firmly in cheek, but there's no need to over-emphasize it. The sequel, while containing several great ideas, forgot this important rule.

The Elite Squad (Tropa de Elite, 2007)
Director: José Padilha

As you might know, the slums in Rio de Janeiro are some of the most dangerous places on Earth. They are widely ruled by various criminal gangs, and shootings and violent crimes are an everyday occurence. The police don't like to go to the slums, but there are times when this must be done. For such a case, there exists an Elite Squad to do the dirty work. José Padilha's film, which won the Main Prize at the Berlin Film Festival, takes on such events and looks at different moralities of armed police activity at the same time.

The year is 1997 and Captain Nascamento (Wagner Moura) is leading a Special Police Operations Unit BOPA to uphold the law in a part of the slum on the hill where the Pope will come to visit. Nascamento is also scouting for a possible replacement for himself, as he's thinking of quitting his dangerous job as his wife is currently pregnant. He wants to find an incorruptible heir, and eventually narrows the choice to two candidates, both young cadets fed up with the corruption in the police: Neto Gouveia (Caio Junquiera) and André Matias (André Ramiro). While André is an idealistic and smart young man hoping for peace, Neto is hotheaded, a little thicker and prone to violence.

The film does promote violence to solve the horrid crime rates in the favelas. However, what makes it such a powerful piece, is that it does not accomplish this as straight-forward as in your basic right-wing Hollywood gun fantasy. The power of the Elite Squad is that it shows the entire system as complicated and difficult as it is in real life. And to get to the powerful position in the BOPA, you must suffer through brainwashing and endless misery in the boot camp. There's a strong underlying theme about how long are we to be human when upholding the law.

Fulltime Killer (Chuen jik sat sau, 2001)
Director: Johnnie To

Johnnie To has almost single-handedly produced all the worthy films from Hong Kong from the last decade. If you don't know your To, as good a place as any to start is Fulltime Killer. Here he takes a pretty basic hongkongese action film idea - two rival assassins competing and an overworked policeman out to stop them from murdering any more people. But To can manage to give his own unique twist to it all.

So competing from the title of no. 1 Assassin are the flamboyant Tok (Andy Lau) and the quiet Japanese O (Takashi Sorimachi). O has been the top man of his game for years and years with careful planning and without leaving any trace of his precence. He's become a legend, which the hotheaded young Tok wishes to challenge. Rather than from the silent dignity of the work, Tok gets his inspiration from various movies. So O has to fend off his hotheaded rival, try to save the life of his trusted cleaning lady and avoid being spotted by the police. He is also an epileptic, who will get a seizure from flashing lights and such.

The film is a true postmodern piece as it owes a lot to John Woo, Luc Besson and even to the Wachowski brothers. Tarantino-like, these debts are reflected in the lines and acts of film fanatic Tok. This becomes tiring after a while, but To compensates by having a knack for shooting action and a superb visual style to boot. There are plenty of good set pieces all around this film. The characters have plenty of dimensions to them, and the story goes to an unexpected route in the third act. I'm still not quite sure what to make of this change, but I must admit that it is a bold move and serves to bring the film into a satisfying conclusion.

Mission: Impossible III (2006)
Director: J.J. Abrams

One of the most underrated blockbusters of the decade has got to be this (and of course Ang Lee's Hulk). For as M:I:II was abonimable, I think people are turned off by its sequel more easily. That, and it came out at a time when Tom Cruise was really starting to lose his marbles. But unlike its predecessors, this isn't solely a Tom Cruise vehicle, but is in fact, about a team of spies on a mission. To put a rising talent as director and take a darker grip on the story both do wonders.

Special Agent Ethan Hunt (Cruise) has left field operations to get married to beautiful doctor named Julia (Michelle Monaghan). However, when Hunt's friend and former student gets caught during a mission, Hunt must return to the spying business. And then something goes terribly wrong, etc. The film starts like a standard spy film, but it has some real surprises later on up its sleeve. The story twists don't get too big to be a distraction like in the series' first movie.

M:i:III is is actually exciting. A couple of scenes in the beginning really make you believe that these characters are in mortal peril. You relate to the characters just enough to care what will happen to them. Even Ethan Hunt is a human being with emotions this time around. The action is, of course great and the familiar M:i-clichés, such as self-destructing tapes, real-like rubber masks and drops on a wire, make appearences. The best thing in the movie is Philip Seymour Hoffman as the main villain. His weapons dealer character is cool as ice, ruthless and totally merciless. He would give even Le Chiffre a run for his money.

M:I:III does the same for its franchise as Batman Begins did for Batman. It is far from perfect, but it is a very satisfying action movie and a positive surprise. I'm secretly a little exited about Brad Bird's part IV.

Rambo (2008)
Director: Sylvester Stallone

Initially I didn't think much of Stallone's magnum opus for this decade. It is very violent, very brutal, and very cynical. People literally get blown to pieces in a graphic way. No one is saved from the raw violence, not even women, children and animals. So it's not at all like the kind of fun action film one wishes to see, right? But this time around, Stallone has a point. It is a film about how war is hell, how one man can make a difference and how you should face your demons. The movie of course also encourages to use violence to do so.  

Vietnam veteran John Rambo (Sylvester Stallone) has settled in Thailand. He's developed his killing into an art, but is recluctant to use it. But when a group of Christian missionaries ask him nice enough, he agrees to ship them to the war-ridden Burma, ruled by the ruthless Militia. The humanitarian mission to a rural village is interrupted when the soldiers of Major Tint attack the village, sadistically murdering, torturing, raping an pillaging everything in their sight. So, Rambo must return for the missionaries and put his skill set into use.

Stallone is often equalled to Rambo, and there is a tragedy to the character for the first time since his first appearance in First Blood. There were rumours of increasingly ridiculous sequels (Rambo vs. a werewolf, anyone?), but it would undermine the rather fine ending that allows Rambo to finally move on from warring.

Shoot 'Em Up (2007)
Director: Michael Davis

I'm prepared to take on most of the hate for this post for adding this film, but no matter. Whatever else I might've tried, I just couldn't do the list without this. It is a guilty pleasure, but such a pleasure that i wish to share it here and now. It is a film about shooting. Lots and lots of shooting. Pew pew!

A man named Smith (Clive Owen) becomes involved when he sees a thug mistreating a pregnant lady. This leads to a shootout while the woman gives birth to a baby. When the woman dies in the battle, Smith takes the baby and tries to keep it safe from a surprising number of criminals out to kill it. Leading the crooks is the sinister Mr. Hertz (Paul Giamatti), who's told his wife he's out on a business trip.

As the film is nothing but silly ideas on where a shootout might break out, one's enjoyment relies solely on how amusing one finds various shooting-based jokes. There's shooting while falling from an aeroplane, shooting without a gun and of course, shooting while having sex and saying double entendres. There is also, ridiculously, an gun restriction message shoehorned into a 90-minute glorification of carnage. I might be really stupid, but I dig this. There's no intellectual reasons, I just like to see guns go bang.

Sin City (2005)
Directors: Robert Rodriguez, Frank Miller

When it was first released, Sin City was something never seen before. It was a film set in a computer-generated environment that really felt like a real one, how ever twisted and ditorted it might be. Computer tricks and whanot were brilliantly used to bring Frank Miller's graphic novel on screen more faithfully than any comic book movie before (or since).

The film tells three different stories of hard-boiled men caught between a powerful criminal element and a beautiful woman. First up is Hartigan (Bruce Willis), the only unbribed cop in town, who decides to get rid of a pedophile son of the senator once and for all. He develops a protective relationship to a little girl called Nancy. Then a tough-as-nails thug Marv (Mickey Rourke) falls in love with a beautiful girl called Goldie (Jaime King), who comes to him to ask for protection. When Goldie is killed, Marv goes to a quest to avenge her death. In the third story, Dwight (Clive Owen) kills a man harrassing a prostitute, and the guy turns out to be a corrupt cop. He must hide the evidence before a war breaks out with the prostitute ring and the criminals. The movie concludes with a return to the first story. Hartigan gets out from jail to see that Nancy (now played by Jessica Alba) is once again in trouble from the resurrected pedophile, now a real Yellow Bastard (Nick Stahl).

What really makes the film work is finding real hard-boiled Film Noir acting from some of Hollywood's finest. Especially Mickey Rourke and Bruce Willis do fantastic work. There is maybe a little too much of runtime and similar themes in the stories. Never mind that most of the men speak in similar gravelly Bat-voice. But it's an innovative film, and subsequent films have proved that both directors Rodriguez and Miller have had trouble trying to top. We are certainly due a sequel by now, and one that should focus on one or two bigger stories!

Bubbling under:

12 Rounds - the only good Renny Harlin film of the decade. It is simply dumb, loud fun.
Man On Fire - Tony Scott should also learn to keep his editing at bay, but this is a worthy revenge flick with a great cast
Vantage Point - A quite fun 24 knockoff, that sees the US President's assassination from different characters point of view.

To Be Seen:
Death Sentence
The Punisher: War Zone

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