Lights, Camera, Action!

Avengers UltronYou know that great action movie where the bad guys suddenly storm in and take over the place where all the people are, and the bad guys’ evil (but well-planned) operation goes off without a hitch… except they didn’t count on that on that one guy, that unexpected hero who saves the day against terrible odds?

Or how about that awesome disaster movie where that really bad thing happened to that place where all the people are, and only a handful of plucky (or purely lucky) people survive against terrible odds?

Remember those? I sure do. And that may be a problem.

I remember them over and over again, and that’s the source of the problem. Which is that action movies, as of quite a few years ago, bore me unless they bring a dash something special to the table.

You see, I was there for Commando (1985) and Die Hard (1988) and Under Siege (1992). Not to mention Star Wars (1977) or The Terminator (1984). In a sense, these all channel Rocky (1976), but the idea goes back at least as far as Jason (the Argonaut, not the hockey mask guy).

The Towering InfernoBefore the lone hero against terrible odds movies, there were disaster movies. I was there for The Towering Inferno (1974) and Earthquake (1974) and before that for The Poseidon Adventure (1972).

More recently we’ve had 2012 (2009) and San Andreas (2015).

The lone hero-agent (cop or spy) has been around even longer than the lone hero against terrible odds. I was also there for Bullitt (1968), The French Connection (1971) and Lethal Weapon (1987). And for Dr. No (1962) and all the Sean Connery Bond films (and, God help me, the Roger Moore ones).

All those Bond movies raises another point: sequels! Many of the movies mentioned so far spawned sequels or even franchises. Some have even been rebooted or remade.

I haven’t even mentioned superhero movies (let alone those based on toys), which go back at least to Superman (1978). The point is that I’ve seen more than half a century of action films.

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert

The only film critic I ever really liked was Roger Ebert (who taught me loads about film analysis). I remember him, quite some time ago, writing about how bored he’d become with action movies.

I didn’t share his sentiment at the time, although even then I saw his point. In the last five years or so, I’ve realized I now do share that view.

Recently I set out to watch the latest Mad Max movie. I got 40 minutes into it and realized I was actually bored. Most of that first third of the film is a long chase sequence. When the scantily clad beauties showed up, I decided I’d had enough and turned it off. I haven’t had any urge to give it another go.

A big part of the problem, at least for me, was how grim, brutal, and ugly the movie was (as a deliberate production design choice, but not one I enjoy — I’m tired of dystopia). The whole movie was style over substance. Strapping a valuable living blood bag to a derrick extending out in front of your crazy vehicle is just plain dumb.


Which, in a very round-about way, brings me to the latest Marvel Comics movie, Avengers: Age of  Ultron. (One more entry on that list: Movies With a Colon in the Title.)

While Marvel usually manages to make their movies watchable and entertaining, they’ve had a few acknowledged stinkers (e.g. the Fantastic Four movies) and a few that, although successful, I thought were stinkers (e.g. the rebooted Spiderman movies, the new guy has zero personality).

On the other hand, their track record is way better than DC’s.

Due to the Ebert Effect, I’ve been increasingly disappointed by recent action films, so I wasn’t expecting a great deal. I almost turned it off at the 40-minute mark after a visually exhausting battle that resulted in massive urban destruction, countless civilian injuries, and (no doubt) some number of innocent deaths.

IronmanBut Marvel has always understood the value of whimsy, humor, even joy, in their films. That’s what makes their films generally watchable and entertaining — the interplay among the characters.

The Ironman movies have a lot of charm because of that sensibility.

In this particular case (in addition to many others), I think what makes Age of Ultron work so well is summed in two words: Joss Whedon.

Just take a gander at his filmography (in particular, notice some of his uncredited co-writing). And of course, many of us science fiction fans revere the man for Firefly. Or Buffy. Or Dollhouse.

The movie works for another reason, and this reason alone is worth the price of admission. It also can be summed in two words: James Spader.

I did not know James Spader was in this movie!

I’m not a big fan of movie previews. I don’t share the demonstrated public preference to know most of the plot of a movie before I see it. I would rather have the movie unfold. I tend to read movie reviews after seeing the film, not before.

[Conversely, perhaps oddly, definitely ironically, with certain crucial exceptions (e.g. The Sixth Sense, Wild Things), I don’t care much about spoilers.]


Ray Robottington!

So I didn’t know James Spader was in the movie. As I’m watching the Ultron character, it starts to occur to me that the way he phrases words, even the way he moves, kinda reminds me (a lot) of James Spader.

It starts to feel as if Ultron is channeling Raymond Reddington!

The longer I watch, the more Ultron sounds like James Spader, so I finally go to the computer and look it up. Seems and sounds like Spader because, yep, it is Spader. Cool!

Turns out Whedon had Spader in mind from the beginning as his “first and only” choice for the role. A most excellent choice!

So combine Marvel whimsy and character with Joss Whedon, stir in James Spader as the insane robot villain, and you end up with a movie that’s pretty fun to watch.

All in all, I give it a very high Eh! or maybe a very low Ah! because I did exclaim “Ah!” when I realized it was, in fact, Spader. (The only action film that’s gotten a Wow! rating from me recently was Guardians of the Galaxy.)

Resident Evil

Kick-ass gals with guns!

Something that stands out about the more engaging action movies is that they’re written and directed by the same person (e.g. true of both the Resident Evil and Pitch Black movies).

Because a movie comes primarily from the writer and director, a single person sitting in both chairs makes for a more clear artistic vision.

Something else that stands out about action movies in general is how many of them speak to our childhood.

There are movies based on toys (Transformers, G.I. Joe, LEGO, Real Steel, and — of course — Toy Story) and movies based on video games (Mario Bros, Lara Croft, Doom, even Resident Evil). Even the beloved Star Wars franchise is a fairy tale adored by little kids.

I do give the Mad Max movies props for not being for kids! Truth is, going back to Bruce Lee, some of the better truly adult action films come from Asia. There have been some truly jaw-dropping action films from Thailand (where stunt people operate under the philosophy that broken bones heal but film is forever).

Here’s a few that blow the doors off most American action movies:

All highly recommended! In particular, pay attention to the use of color in the stunningly beautiful Hero. And there is a 20-minute single-take martial arts battle in The Protector that is just mind-blowing!

Hero (film)

Visually stunning!

One thing I especially like about Asian martial arts movies is that the actors really are trained martial artists who know what they’re doing. The camera stands back and allows you to just watch the show (and what a show it can be).

Contrast that with most American movie fight scenes that use a lot of very quick close-ups to disguise the fact that the actors have no fighting skills whatsoever.

It’s all trickery. (Except in some cases. Keanu Reeves trained like crazy for the Matrix movies, and his genuine fighting skills show.)

So, bottom line, Age of Ultron was okay. Kind of how like the better frozen pizzas are… acceptably edible, although they’re a far cry from what pizza can be.

The movie was definitely one of the better brands of frozen pizza. The sausage of Whedon and the pepperoni of Spader actually made it fairly tasty, and I enjoyed it.

About Wyrd Smythe

The canonical fool on the hill watching the sunset and the rotation of the planet and thinking what he imagines are large thoughts. View all posts by Wyrd Smythe

6 responses to “Lights, Camera, Action!

  • dianasschwenk

    Interesting post Smitty. Whatever the genre of a movie, I need to get a sense of the characters and how they interact with each other. I get dizzy watching action films with fast scenes where the camera doesn’t seem to stay focused in one direction for more than a second and where there doesn’t seem to be a story line or I can’t understand the characters or they have long, dragged out monologues, like this comment seems to be turning into… ❤
    Diana xo

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Not anywhere near the monologues some of those characters get into! 🙂

      Sounds like we’re on the same page with regard to movies! That annoying technique goes at least as far back as making an aging Roger (“The Saint”) Moore look like a fit and fighting James Bond. (Kind of a low point in the Bond franchise, especially as the Moore Bond era wore on. A View to a Kill (Moore’s last) is so bad it’s hard to watch. Truly cringe-worthy. And, oddly, having Christopher Walken as the main villain didn’t help. A misuse of a great actor as bad as Kevin Spacey playing Lex Luther.)

  • rung2diotimasladder

    I tend to HATE action films. Car chase scenes are probably number one on my Do Not Watch list. Even the films with genuine martial arts skill involved…I dunno. There had better be a lot more to it than just the action. Same goes for a lot of war movies. Battle scenes just bore me, even when they’re supposedly well done. Or maybe they aren’t well done? I don’t know how to judge such things. I consider “well done” to be integrated into the plot, necessarily, and understandable…not just gratuitous fighting. And there’d better be perspective on the scene, otherwise it’s just a mess of fighting and the only reason I’m not asleep is because it’s too noisy.

    That said, I watched Full Metal Jacket for the first time last night and couldn’t believe how sucked in I was. I was prepared to hate it, but I didn’t. The psychic distance of the main character (The Joker) was totally intriguing and made perfect sense for the film’s overall anti-war message. The final scene could’ve been a typical boring action scene, but it wasn’t. And even though I knew the sniper would end up being a beautiful young woman, all alone, I still felt gripped by it. The tension was not in knowing who would be hiding in the building, but what the Americans would do when they found out.

    On Reddington…we watched quite a few episodes of The Blacklist, but it’s starting to peter out for me. I never liked what’s-her-name’s character and the whole issue about Reddington’s relationship to her should’ve paid off by now. Reddington carries the story along with his funny quips, but he’s all alone. (I love his character. It’s a shame that the others are so dull and cliché.)

    • Wyrd Smythe

      “Car chase scenes are probably number one on my Do Not Watch list.”

      Well, and once you’ve seen Bullitt and The French Connection (and several insane car chases done by Jackie Chan) there isn’t a whole lot more to see.

      The thing that was so thoroughly boring with the first 40 minutes of Mad Max was that it was mostly a car chase (been there, done that, bought many videos) and it was one filled with CGI and special stunts to tart it up beyond the laws of physics or even common sense. Little more than a cartoon, really, and one I’ve seen too many times.

      “Battle scenes just bore me, even when they’re supposedly well done.”

      The opening scenes of Saving Private Ryan are said to be very realistic and “engaging” (if being in the middle of a beach landing is engaging). It was okay, I thought, but I dislike Spielberg so much my opinion was likely colored. I didn’t care much for the movie.

      The recent Fury was, to me, a little bit more fun to watch. Certainly, when it comes to war movies, all the fighting is usually pretty organic to the plot and situation.

      Likewise a lot of martial arts movies, where revenge is a key driver. Fighting evil, or standing up for the powerless and downtrodden, are big themes in many martial arts movies. As such, the fighting is part of the story. And, in all honestly, they really are often movies about fighting.

      “That said, I watched Full Metal Jacket for the first time last night and couldn’t believe how sucked in I was.”

      Ah, well, Stanley Kubrick knows how to make movies! You might quite like Saving Private Ryan (assuming you haven’t seen it already). Fury has a story behind it, but it really is more about tank battles on some level. Saving Private Ryan is a story set in the war.

      “On Reddington…we watched quite a few episodes of The Blacklist, but it’s starting to peter out for me.”

      I’m still watching, although I can appreciate what you say there. She’s not my most favorite character, either, and you’re right about the cliche nature of the other characters. It’s a show that trades heavily on conspiracy thinking (bad guys in supposedly good guy positions, some very high up the ladder).

      It really is Spader that keeps me watching. And to see some of the series-long arcs resolved. Given all that’s happened, it sometimes surprises me we’re only in season three, not four. The plot does keep moving along, and — so far — it hasn’t gotten to the level were I ask myself why I’m bothering to watch anymore.

      I am starting to wonder why I watch Grimm anymore, though. That show seems to have somewhat jumped the shark for me. Really liked it at first.

      • rung2diotimasladder

        I have seen Saving Private Ryan, but honestly, I don’t remember it. I don’t even remember what I thought of it.

        On The Blacklist, my husband keeps wanting to watch, but neither of us can follow the plot anymore. Could be that we’re both too sleepy at that point, or we’re both just dumb.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Probably sleepy; the plot’s not all that complicated (there aren’t any double-double-crosses, let alone double-double-double crosses 🙂 ). I do wonder if it’s a show that doesn’t lend to binge watching. It’s pretty lurid, and often pretty violent, so it could have a desensitizing effect. Even the plot twists it does have could get a bit much upon multiple episodes in a short time.

        Maybe that’s what makes you sleepy! 🙂

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