Why So Serious? How this Year's Action Movies Are Proving that Fun is the Future

Antoine Fuqua’s "Olympus Has Fallen" hit theaters last Friday, and its arrival announces a possible new chapter in its director’s now twenty-year career. Fuqua has carved out something of a niche with his brand of gritty action drama, from the mud-colored theatrics of “King Arthur” to the crooked-cop morality play of “Training Day,” still his most successful film to date, but “Olympus” represents a surprising turn toward honest-to-goodness levity. A duly patriotic riff on the shopworn “Die Hard” template, “Olympus” seems from the outset like just another blast of urban grit and uncomfortable conservatism from a director known to specialize in both, but it quickly becomes clear that its intentions are markedly lighter.

Acutely aware of its own ridiculousness, Creighton Rothenberger and Katrin Benedikt’s screenplay gently mocks the genre to which it so obviously belongs, exaggerating the extreme silliness of the proceedings without veering too far into parody. It’s a good look for a film otherwise defined by noxious hyper-nationalism and a simplistic moral framework, ultimately ridiculing its own agenda instead of positing it problematically. And it’s a savvy career move for Fuqua, who proves that he does in fact have a sense of humor.

What “Olympus Has Fallen” doesn’t do is go far enough. Though it abounds in humorous one-liners and slightly mocking plays on genre convention, the film is nevertheless a bastion of formal mediocrity, proceeding with such nondescript simplicity that it may as well have been shot and edited using a computational algorithm. Fuqua, however “gritty” his aesthetic sensibility, still approaches filmmaking as though it were a job to simply be completed on time and under budget, and the most generous praise one could offer him is that he is a perfectly competent craftsman. This approach makes for consistent and – in this case – surprisingly successful films, but it also makes for films that are hard to get especially excited about one way or another.

This is in part because filmmaking as a practice is rigidly, almost suffocatingly ritualized, the formula for setting up a Hollywood project and seeing it through to fruition a matter of literally going through the motions required. And when so much money is on the table in each case—the budget for “Olympus” was $130 million—it’s not hard to understand why studios would discourage the risk of even minor innovations. And so what we get is another film like the others.

What we need, far more than workmanship, is genuine artistry, and if artistry is too much to ask of action cinema, at least a more innovative craft. When it comes to movies, it's always better to have an unpredictable failure than a predictable success, which is why we need films whose purpose is to entertain without limitations, to mock themselves in form and content, and to essentially approach the genre anew. The best action films of the past several years aren’t the ones concerned with monochromatic urban grit or an air of dour self-seriousness; they’re the ones that seem vital and vibrant, liberated from their own pretenses to be pure and simply fun.

Our best action filmmakers think about the genre in a different way: for Paul W.S. Anderson, whose recent "Three Musketeers" set a new high-water mark for the 3D adventure spectacle, that means deferring to a sense of space and visual orientation, retaining a light touch and formal elegance through the chaos of its action; for James Mather and Stephen St. Leger, whose wildly underrated “Lockout” (aka “Space Jail”) transformed Guy Pearce into a sci-fi Philip Marlowe (replete with a host of amusing zingers), it means adopting full-blown cartoon physics, using CGI not to augment natural reality but to stretch and expand it. And for Neveldine/Taylor, the directorial duo behind “Crank” and “Gamer” and two of the most inventive action filmmakers currently working, it means rejecting convention and making a movie however it pleases them.

Neveldine/Taylor’s sensibility has a crassness and vulgarity that can make their films difficult to stomach, but in terms of film production the two have more in common with the jazzy on-set improvisation of Jean-Luc Godard than with any of their contemporaries. Shooting on inexpensive, lightweight consumer cameras that enable them to cover their action with striking proximity (and precariousness), the pair also somewhat notoriously serve as camera operators on their own productions; they’re known to follow their actors on rollerblades in lieu of any sort of dolly, stringing themselves up on bungee cords and harnesses for daring mid-air takes, fashioning their cameras to bikes and car bumpers and generally just tossing them around with a carelessness they couldn’t afford were they relying on a more traditional setup.

The results, especially in both “Crank” and its sequel, “Crank: High Voltage,” proceed with a remarkable briskness of pace, the camerawork frenzied and breathless; in a given scene, many of which featuring broken anti-hero Chev Chelios (Jason Statham) running for his life, the camera might track his feet at ground-level, cut to a shot inches from his sweating face, spin around him rapidly, and be interrupted by a non sequitur title card or strange sight gag. The style is certainly abrasive, but it’s uniquely their own.

“Crank” is the sort of film series in which a character speaking in another language is given unhelpful phonetic subtitles, a flashback dream sequence turns into an imagined daytime talk show, and two characters inexplicably transform into giant Kaiju versions of themselves to have a Godzilla-style battle—all of which occurs without need or explanation and none of which seems even slightly predictable or boring. (“Crank 2,” in particular, is veritably an avant-garde work.) What’s astonishing is how Neveldine/Taylor are able to achieve such formal radicalism under the aegis of a Hollywood studio, but the reason they’re afforded such creative freedom is because, much to their credit, their films are made quickly and under-budget, which means a small investment on a relatively impressive return. It’s proof that innovation can not only be accomplished within the mainstream, but actually thrive there. It’s also proof that our continuing acceptance of the monotony of bland action films is patently unnecessary, because genuinely visionary genre filmmakers are among us. This weekend’s big release – Jon Chu’s “G.I. Joe: Retaliation” – features a wordless nine-minute sequence in which rival clans of ninjas zipline around a Himalayan mountainpeak while playing a deadly game of keepaway with a bodybag, and that’s reason enough to hold out hope for the future.