You 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 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.
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.
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.
But 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.
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.
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.)
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:
- Hero (2002) with Jet Li and others
- House of the Flying Daggers (2004) with Andy Lau
- The Protector (2005) with Tony Jaa
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!
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.