After years of inconsistency in the genre, action movies have once again blossomed in recent times, with 2015 set to typify what looks to be an increased ascent toward the peak of a new golden age.
Following a stretch in the cinematic doldrums, the action film is officially in the midst of a new golden era. Following the last great masterpiece of the 90s, The Matrix (1999), the opening decade of the new millennium decade was a baron spell of inconsistency for quality action, particularly in Hollywood. Asian cinema held its own for the first few years, and indeed things looked promising when the martial arts market produced the likes of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), Hero (2002), and Ong-Bak (2003), each of which was not only groundbreaking, but received global acclaim. Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy (2001-03) got the ball rolling stateside, with Quentin Tarantino chipping in with his own classic in the form of Kill Bill: Vol 1 (2003) to go alongside some decent period material such as The Last Samurai, released the same year.
The ball then seemed to stop rolling however, as filmmakers struggled with the transitional period of special effects, failing to get to grips with the practical use of CGI (you know, making stuff look real) and the notion that bigger, does not always mean better (epitomised by Michael Bay). The anomaly in both cases was 300 (2006), which featured a rare use of unique, original style during those dark times. With virtually every 80s/90s action star reaching old man status by the early 00s, a lack of true action superstars was also a problem. Jason Statham and The Rock were shoehorned into pretty much everything, Shia LeBeouf, amongst others, received a push, but nothing seemed to work.
Think back to the years following 2003…how many decent action flicks can you name, or even vaguely remember between 2004-09? The few exceptions include the aforementioned 300, Nolan’s Batman reboot – with Batman Begins (2005) and The Dark Knight (2008) the only highlights during years of shit superhero movies – as well James Bond’s facelift, Casino Royale (2006). Tom Yum Goong (2005) flew the flag for Asia, but struggles were apparent there also, especially in Hong Kong/China. Only five films of genuine note. In six years. (I’ve no doubt forgotten one or two, but you get the idea).
But then something happened. Everything began falling into place. Action producers, directors, writers, special effects teams – all moving in the right direction, fresh blood and veterans alike. Off the top of my head, the following are just some of the absolute bangers released during the past five years:
Fast Five (2011)
The Raid (2011)
Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)
Edge of Tomorrow (2014)
Suddenly, it seems, ideas aren’t limited based on technology, and the function of technology is no longer limited to crap, overblown ideas. Originality has begun to exist once again, both in brand new productions and across the revived spectrum of sequels and franchises, in Hollywood, Asia, and the indie trail to boot. That list alone is proof, with blockbusters, superheroes, martial arts, vehicular action – you name it – all receiving their select days in the sun multiple times over across a wide range of sub-genres. And that’s just the first ten I came up with for the sake of chronology, as well as to prove a minimum overall average of two releases per year – over the same period there have been plenty more flicks of a similar ilk.
Of course it’s not all sunshine and lollipops in Actionville. For a start, money still talks, meaning that indie and big budget filmmakers, responsible for films such as Dredd and Edge of Tomorrow respectively, will likely have to either sacrifice a ton of creative control to the studio or remain in limbo sequel-wise until someone with a shitload of cash is willing to take a punt, denying fans continuation despite the numerous merits of both productions. Some sequels do indeed suck rather hard, leaving us to bemoan the tarnished state of the original upon viewing and beg for what we’ve just seen to be erased from our memories, but dammit let us be the judges! The other issue is that there’s still plenty of flicks being released across the board ranging from meh to complete shite, whether it be overhyped fanboy nonsense (Expendables), blockbuster fails (Godzilla) and/or pointless reboots (Teenage Mutant what-the-fuck), as well as a plethora of extremely average superhero films either leading up to or dancing around the ones that are actually good.
For the most part however, despite the shit forever somehow managing to stick to many people’s hard earned cash, fortunately we’re no longer drowning in it. Consistent quality is the name of the game, but the key to unlocking it is dense quantity over short periods of time in order to get the ratio right, and for the most part (i.e. enough to keep us satisfied) the action genre is starting to deliver once again. In a big way.
Indeed, with the majority of current productions having long since escaped the desolate 00s problem of simply getting the action itself right, to the extent where these days far more stuff looks good/smart/original, enabling engaging, well written/helmed/acted movies to all of a sudden have the appropriate level of action to back them up. Nothing’s really a gimmick anymore special effects-wise – it’s all just a by-product of the action itself, something we expect.
2015 looks set to continue this more-than-welcome ascent back to the peak of action movie greatness. The breaking of box office records has long been associated with action films of various sub-genres, and already this year Furious 7 and Avengers: Age of Ultron are pushing the boundaries. But with good reason it seems, as the concentrated emphasis on well-done action is back where it belongs within the realm of watchable films. A simple, yet winning combination. Sure, examples of unwatchable films still, and always will exist. So far this year Neill Blomkamp’s Chappie springs to mind as the primary culprit. Like his previous piece however, Elysium (2013), although the narrative was a complete mess littered with plot holes and some truly atrocious acting, from purely an action perspective Chappie looked great, with the effects and set pieces handled well.
Stay tuned for sure, as still to come this year there’s the ridiculously good looking Mad Max: Fury Road, which sees George Miller finally returning to what he does best after all those kids movies: mental, chaotic vehicular violence. Whilst MM looks like being the best example of all out pure action since The Raid, joining it is the welcome return of a fair few long-term franchises. Now while Terminator Genisys and Jurassic World are firmly on the hit-or-miss pile (the latter, from the promo material released so far, looks bloody awful), they’re already causing fanboy mayhem and will only increase interest (and therefore ticket sales). They may crash and burn critically, but if they persuade even a small percentage of audience members to go back and check out the originals, then that’s a victory for the longevity of the genre. Latest Bond epic Spectre looks far more promising, and then to round things off there’s a new goddamn STAR WARS film, which this time actually probably won’t stink out the joint come Christmas time (fanboy ‘keep expectations low’ speak for: it looks fucking amazing).
In terms of popularity, 2015 alone has already proven that the general mainstream movie-going public has never been more up for a bit of action (pun intended). This means many more action films are likely to be given the green light, which, with those helming such productions now apparently harnessing the genre to its full potential consistently for the first time in years, is truly great news. As long as the high number of quality pictures remains constant, long may such practices continue.
For us action fanboys, Jasper from The Simpsons said it best: what a time to be alive.