The Reason We Love Action Movies — Even When They’re Bad…

Playfull Michael Bay filming Tranformers: Age of Extinction

I remember as a boy, having all different toy figures from all of my favorite heroes. Batman, Spider-man, Max Steel… I had them all! And the time I spent playing with them was unending. Each time I got my little crew together, there was a different story, time, scenario, and, most importantly, action scenes.

This childhood might relate to anyone who grew up watching Dragon Ball and Rambo, but one question really irked me in those days: Why was it somehow annoying for my parents and grandparents to play with me and my little action figures? Probably, they never had G.I. Joes with fully loaded Apache helicopters. But one day, I realized they couldn’t relate to my heroes for a specific reason: their heroes were not the same as mine. I realized how many hours they spent watching the Turner Classic Movies channel, with films featuring John Wayne and Sean Connery. It wasn’t simple nostalgia that kept them on TCM. It wasn’t because they didn’t like new movies, either. It was just because those were their action heroes and that’s how they liked these stories. A lot has changed with technology and delivery since their time.

John Wayne
John Wayne doesn’t care about your feelings

If we were to find out the origin of action movies, we would have to go back to the dawn of cinema, and to our beloved George Méliès. Films of that time already had fight scenes, high-speed chases and also featured explosions– only in smaller proportions, and with much less frequency. With this in mind, one can assume that any film can have action scenes without running away from its genre and proposal. Violence can indeed be represented in science fiction, comedy, horror, drama and so on. Within these genres, screenwriters and directors can sometimes escalate the physicality, maintaining character conflict and, most importantly, keep the spectators watching

Action, as a genre, started to grow about half a century ago and it gained a new look with each passing decade. From the fifties through the sixties, old westerns films featuring John Wayne and Clint Eastwood made audiences (including my aforementioned ancestors) go crazy with the eye-to-eye Stand-offs. At the same time, Japanese cinema, with  the help of director Akira Kurasawa introduced Samurai battles, defined by close-range combat with the traditional blades. Here, we see two different concepts of action made (primarily) for two different audiences. Both caused public anxiety for the underlying tension of each battle, and for the different shots that build towards that battle. We observe this, in how the director stresses the close-up on the Sheriff’s eyes before the first shot, or carries the focus, after the katana swipe, on the bleeding severed arm.

Step by step, these (older) heroes grew in the public’s appreciation, but these fast and strong protagonists could not feed people’s adrenaline for ever. But even the cliché lure of the Mexican stand-offs and saloon brawls couldn’t last forever. The next generation didn’t idolize cowboys with revolvers. It needed another kind of hero: one that could not always be the fastest or the strongest one, but rather the smartest. And for these movie-goers a character was born, and yes, his name was Bond.

I would say that Bond films are the best example of how action films have, along the years, evolved and bounced in quality. Espionage, we know, happened quite  a bit during the Cold War. Probably not as seen on-screen, but it certainly inspired the gadgets, takedowns and affairs that 007 underwent. If someone, having only seen the recent films with Daniel Craig*, were to watch the earlier ones with Sean Connery (or even Roger Moore), they would probably find all the older clichés boring. Now, if that person were to see all of the twenty-five films in order, they’d witness the evolutionary and aesthetical changes that, movie after movie, meets and surpasses the audience’s thirst for action. Bond inspired many other action-espionage films, like Mission Impossible, True Lies and, specifically, the Bourne trilogy.

*In the last four Bond movies, the agent (Craig) wasn’t only a gallant man in tuxedo with martini; he was a parkour runner, Jiu-Jitsu black belt, and would kick ass like his pistol was broken and did as much for revenge, not unlike Jason Bourne.
JB just chasing someone on a crane
JB, casually chasing someone on a crane

Given the recent feedback on Spectre, Daniel Craig has declined the opportunity to live Bond again even though he was offered a lot more money than what his contract established. The stress (and blame) for Spectre‘s flopafter Skyfall‘s unmitigated box office success , turned his mind from the role. After four films with Craig, it felt almost like we were seeing a pattern here: a good film and then a bad one. Casino Royale created a signature for the new era of Bond films with ambient suspense, limited action scenes, and teasing, often unresolved character development that promised to spill into a new title (see Quantum of Solace, his next in the series).

Following, we were surprised by an incredible opening sequence in Quantum of Solace, only to see, shortly after, a declining storyline with an air of lets-make-sure-we-spend-every-dollar-of-this-budget. Indeed, the action scenes were much better than Casino Royale’s. But all praise ends there as the plot fell flat and the villains were more bad than evil.

Quantum of Solace and Spectre were just Hot Wheels tracks: you place your shiny car at the beginning and let the toy do the rest. Were these films bad? Yes! Is it possible to enjoy them, even if they’re bad? Absolutely!

Because sitting on a train sometimes requires you to stretch
Because sitting on a train sometimes requires you to stretch

Another example….
It might just seem stupid to pair Godzilla with another giant monster (on the same continent, mind you) and ask them to fight — but come on! Who on earth would miss that? Can you imagine that showdown? In action films, as with others, it’s hard for filmmakers to tell a good story while the producer(s), financiers and senior cast is screaming at them to “do this!(…) not like that!”. It doesn’t take the responsibility out of the director’s hands, but it can, of course, lead one of the most exciting film premises of the year to become the winner of the Golden Raspberry Awards.

Now, there are films that are just harder to swallow– like Transformers: Age of Extinction. It’s the fourth in a franchise that had an outstanding first movie (considering that it was an adaptation of a line of toys). Sadly, the franchise  was weakened, sequel after sequel, and only got a fifth film confirmed because of the revenue it pulled in China and for the ridiculously shameless/effective merchandising campaign. It’s almost like if Michael Bay was granted an ice cream for every explosion and GM car he could fit on-screen. This doesn’t matter too much as, for most action films, there is no merchandising problem to speak of– and this article, need I remind you, began with action figures. What’s more, Michael Bay is definitely not a bad director. He is one of the greatest artists to bring life to the big screen and if he could make a good film with Nicholas Cage as the lead, this guy deserves respect. His only problem is sometimes trying to feed people what they like, and causing them an overdose. It is very nice to see Optimus Prime riding a gigantic robotic T-Rex in Hong Kong, but where is the meaning there? What does it add to the story? After surviving two acts of ‘scientist’ Mark Wahlberg and comically ambitious CEO Stanley Tucci, you were probably left bored, sitting, probably  also having burnt through your lives on Candy Crush, and still you had nothing to look forward to but dealing with sudden introduction of extinct metal dinosaurs? And if that wasn’t discouraging enough, leaving the cinema you hear some kid fire “what a fantastic movie!” to another spectator. And now, you have to deal with the truth: the movie was a waste of time, but the action scenes were actually good.

Let’s take a moment to think about Mad Max: Fury Road. The film has a very poor storyline, which although easily understandable, could at times be better developed. That said, the film had unstoppable action scenes, and for that reason, it was also one of the best films of the year. When the movie finished and the credits started to roll, there was nothing in mind but one sound: “vrom, vrooooommmmmmm”.The Mad Max: Fury Road experience works exactly because the director focused on making spectacular action scenes. The story might have suffered since the universe of the story was too big. This left most of the plot for the spectators to fill-out. George Miller, the director,  proved how good an action film can be with such little plot development. It’s actually my contention that, not only did he knew what points of the film he needed to develop more, but he replaced that with what the audience of such films scream for: Action, Explosions and Gasoline!

Witness Me!

The adrenaline gained from these films is what makes us spend money on a ticket, popcorn, beverage, parking, and so on. Cinema, just like live theater or an orchestra, is a spectacle, and charged action scenes are often the main attraction. Do you think filmgoers stand in line for Die Hard tickets  because  of a plotline (ex:John McClane needs to save his beloved daughter), or because he flings a f***ing police car into a flying helicopter!? It’s not about the question of whether the hero is going to save the world or not. We already know he will… It’s about how he’s going to do it, be it with Kung-Fu or a giant robotic Jaeger. Sometimes these films surprise us with equally incredible stories, just as sometimes they don’t. In one way or another, filmmakers’ can’t dismiss their only objective: to entertain the crowd. And while action movies might not be the most successful ones to get an Oscar, they are usually widely acclaimed by the public. For this reason, Action movies have a long history of cleaning up at the box office. Furthermore, we want action movies, and we want them to have sequels, prequels, remakes and spinoffs. If one of them ends up disappointing, we still want the studio to take another shot. Even if Batman vs Superman didn’t feed the public as expectations predicted, the public wants to see Justice League. We watch action films for the sake of it, and even if they disappoint us at some point. They’re just too fun!

-André Neder