Why is modern cinema so insistent on drowning us in waves of tedious action films?
I remember when I was a lot younger (and cuter) I was always excited by the prospect of new action films. I was raised on The Matrix, Indiana Jones and various superhero films, all of which still stand as good films. But what seems to have happened to action films is that they are substituting substance for style. Well I say “style”, I mean more bulk, more explosions and set pieces, and it is incredibly annoying to see the genre being ruined. One of the main culprits in this movement is the increasingly tedious Fast & Furious franchise.
It’s strange to think about what has happened with this film series because it appears to have died and then been reanimated. You see the first Fast & Furious film came out, it wasn’t particularly important but everyone just seemed to accept it as something different, fine. Then the second film was released and we see the stupid dial being turned further towards eleven but we could still abide this. By the third film it was turned fully to eleventy-stupid and it was all going to Hell in a handcart, looking like the franchise was dead in the water. Then somehow they bounced back from that, making the action louder and more stupid, yet people still flocked to see them. It just makes you ask that all important question: what the fuck is happening to the human race?
The problem I have with the films is that they have very little substance. They have set piece after set piece of badly directed action, crashes and explosions left right and centre, and it just doesn’t mean anything. It is all just stuff. Not only that but badly directed stuff. It’s like CRASH, BOOM, WHACK, KABOOM, end credits. It’s not interesting in the slightest because the plot (and I use that word loosely) is so thin. They attempt to add substance in the screenplay by overusing the word “family”, by constantly saying “we’re family, he’s family, yeah family” but this doesn’t add to the film in any way. It doesn’t aid characterisation and it certainly doesn’t make me feel more engaged. It’s a futile attempt by the screenplay writers to make it seem like it all means something when it really doesn’t. It’s a series of films where the second unit director has more input than the first unit. It’s just silly nonsense for the easily pleased, for people who go “look! Look at the cars! They’re dropping out of a plane! Oh and there’s a tank too! Tanks go boom!” as they wait for their mother to finish warming their milk.
I think one of the bigger problems with the franchise can be attributed to two separate outcomes, but the general point is the scale.
Firstly, because the franchise has continued for so long the films have grown bigger and so consequently the stunts have grown bigger. So what you have is a franchise that has advanced from half decent street races to absolutely ludicrous set pieces featuring tanks, planes and God knows what else. This results in a cinematic experience that gets even more boring with each new film, and action sequences with countless civilian deaths that we’re not meant to care about. It’s just absurdity.
Secondly the scale of the franchise has changed the purpose of the films. They used to be made for entertainment purposes, but now it is purely financial. They know they can pump out any horse shit they can manage and people will still flock to see it. It is a franchise measuring success by how much money the films earn, as opposed to the quality of the films. By this point they’re just squatting down every two years and shitting out a bad film then waiting for the millions to roll in. What you have to consider is that Box Office figures don’t equate to quality of film. Think about it, in 2009/2010 Avatar took more money at the Box Office than Inception. Which is the better film? Inception. It’s the same with Fast & Furious. Earlier this year Furious 7 took more money than films like Whiplash and The Theory of Everything. Is it a better film than either of those? Not even close.
Fans of the franchise try to defend it by saying it’s not all about the money. But as the film critic Doctor Mark Kermode pointed out, the studio aren’t evening hiding the fact it’s all about the money.
Kermode attended a press screening of Fast & Furious 6 before it was released, and as per usual being a film critic he received the press notes. Now, normally the press notes are used to say what the filmmaker’s vision was, what the film means, why it was made etcetera. In the case of Fast & Furious 6 the press notes consisted of three paragraphs about money and one small paragraph at the end attempting to persuade the reader that the film means something. So their intentions were made clear. The press notes pontificated about how much money the film cost to make, how much money the previous films took at the Box Office and how successful they feel the franchise is based on how much money it takes, and so it was clear that money was their primary focus, thus explaining why the film was so rubbish. It’s a typical case of a franchise just pumping out sequel after sequel because they know that people will pay to see them regardless of how awful they are, like Pirates of the Caribbean. The studio is well aware that each sequel will take more money than the previous film which is why they will keep watering the money tree for as long as they can.
So as the ludicrous stunts are taking place and all the gunfire and explosions are happening on screen there is one thing that works in the franchise’s favour. The only feature that works to an extent, but still needs improving, is the gender equality. It is refreshing to see an action film with strong female characters who kick arse as well as any of the men do. I like that Michelle Rodriguez is still looking to play the female action character that is a challenge for any man on screen, much like her smaller roles in older films like Resident Evil and Avatar. However this is still not enough to make up for the ill-disciplined action sequences that account for a considerable amount of the screentime.
It’s not that I’m a film snob who doesn’t like action films at all. On the contrary I really like action as a genre. I’ve grown up with Marvel films which often make very good action films, such as the recent Guardians of the Galaxy. I’m also a big fan of Matthew Vaughn who directed Kick Ass, which still remains one of the best films of recent years. The problem is that action is a genre that slips into stupidity very easily, so with films like Transformers it’s incredibly boring seeing building after building get smashed for two and a half hours. Thankfully, it is a genre that is mastered brilliantly by certain people.
If you want to watch a really good action film then I cannot recommend highly enough the Indonesian hit The Raid, directed by Gareth Evans. It is the perfect example of an unabashedly bold action film that has a beating heart and an intelligent brain. It is a brutal film about a SWAT team attempting to clear out a tower block inhabited by criminals and gang members, and for such a simple premise they managed to make a fantastic film out of it and transcend everybody’s expectations. The action sequences are directed with such pinpoint precision, and it’s shot in such a fantastic manner whereby the camera moves like liquid from floor to floor and the action looks and feels real. You can feel the weight of every hit, every kick, and because the narrative takes its time to develop you genuinely feel scared for the main character and establish an emotional connection with him. Most importantly this means that the events of the film matter to you as the audience. It is genuinely a fantastic film and proves that action does not have to be stupid.
However it’s not just the smaller action films that impress me, the big blockbusters can often be good action films. Just recently I finally got around to watching the new Godzilla project, which I thought was very good. It was a relief to see the talents of Gareth Edwards growing after his success with Monsters. I also got around to watching Robert Schwentke’s RED which I was well informed was a good film by my friend Molly and indeed it was. And of course I have to mention how some franchises are still holding their dignity, most notably Star Trek which J.J.Abrams has done wonders for, and James Bond which Sam Mendes completely mastered with Skyfall and whom has everybody’s support with the follow up project Spectre.
Unfortunately not every director thinks like Abrams or Mendes. There’s a common rule among filmmakers, particularly action filmmakers, that the way to make a film a success is to be more stupid than the audience. Fast & Furious sticks to this rule, with every film being bigger and louder and more stupid than its predecessor, and they’re more than welcome to do this. However this will never stop filmmakers such as Christopher Nolan, making films like Inception and The Dark Knight, filmmakers who treat the audience as intelligent sentient beings, and most importantly who understand that small arthouse films and big blockbusters don’t have to be exclusive. The Fast & Furious team can keep churning out sequel after sequel, but there will always be filmmakers out there proving that action films do not have to be stupid.
Interestingly Vin Diesel has been promoting Furious 7 rather ruthlessly this year, paying various tributes to Paul Walker in the process, for which he has my utmost respect. During this period Diesel revealed that there is an eighth film in the works. Which wasn’t a surprise to anyone because we all live on planet Earth and know it will take even more money than this film.
He also was quoted as saying that Furious 7 could win an Oscar. That’s the same attitude adopted by the studio that brought us Transformers: Age of Extinction, the same studio that actually gave it to the Academy for consideration in the ‘Best Picture’ category.
Check the nominations, see how well that went.