The 21st century marked the point at which action cinema took a mighty leap forward. Though it was revolutionized in the late 70s and its modern definition was cemented in the 80s, the 2000s saw directors, for the first time in awhile, willingly opening up film form to meet an audience overwhelmed by scale, but still hungry for spectacle. It's telling that the action movies on the biggest scale over the last ten years - Godzilla, The Day After Tomorrow, The Core, Transformers: ROTFL - movies where the entire PLANET was in jeopardy, failed on some level (financially, critically, or in terms of lasting appeal; sometimes all three). Even the Matrix sequels, spawned from the film that arguably made inventive use of the camera necessary for all action films from that point on, sunk from covering more ground than the original even hinted at.
Of course, pretending that all the films I've about to discuss were audience hits, much less critical darlings, would be a lie. But I'll fight for them any day; why not today?
And while there are many great films worth calling attention to, I believe there are four films that made the argument for action cinema as art better and more forcefully than any others - in chronological order, Bad Boys II (Michael Bay; 2003), Domino (Tony Scott; 2005), Crank (Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor; 2006), and Speed Racer (The Wachowski Brothers; 2008).
A few months back, Drew McWeeny of HitFix asked when ambition became a bad thing. Whenever I think about Domino, I think about that question. I think about when experimentation not just stopped being encouraged, but started being actively discouraged, even by the nation's film critics, who are (mostly) just like most of the audience they tend to disdain - they have a set criteria of the things film can be, and that's that. Domino is not at all like any other film; this alone is something worthy of praise. That, over one hundred years since the invention of motion pictures, Tony Scott still found a way to use the basics of film technology (that is, not much in the way of digital manipulation) to create what I've termed an ever-moving picture.
It would be impossible to come up with an average shot length for Domino, not only because the cuts happen so fast, but also because we're often unsure where those cuts are, exactly, as his use of hand-cranked cameras forever layer images on top of each other (I discussed this process here). The result of this is a new definition of the motion picture, not just people moving within a set frame, and not just that frame moving to keep up with those people, but the frame itself evolves, the people evolve, and at its finest moments of true invention, the cinema itself seems to be moving. When the film dives headfirst into surrealism - most obviously in the desert sequence that contains one of cinema's strongest arguments for artful depicitions of sex (and, in an unrelated moment, the continuation of Tom Waits' acting career) - it becomes extraordinary.
In the action sequences, our inability to make sense of what exactly is happening is not reflective of Scott's lack of craftsmanship (as if, by 2005, Tony Scott needed to prove he could coherently present an action scene), it's a surrealist reflection on the nature of battle. This is one of the few movies where it feels like, in a gunfight, a bullet could come from anywhere, and that your life is truly on the line.
Although I saw Domino first, I was unprepared for how to contextualize it. By the time Crank came out, I realized there was a real movement going on, of coercing art into the mainstream action film, or in the best of cases, making art disguised as a mainstream action film. As wildly, vividly expressive as Domino is, there are few things as absolutely unleashed as Crank. It's a common complaint to note that a character feels unmotivated in a film, and only takes certain actions because the screenplay needs him or her to do so. In Crank, that becomes the entire point. Chev Chelios' whole motivation is to keep alive by continuing to move, yes, but the lengths he goes to in order to achieve this are purely through the demands of the film. In an age of the cinema that follows, Neveldine and Taylor propel Chev (Jason Statham) towards each new action, their camera at once urging him onward and eager to explore every nook and cranny of his environment. Neveldine and Taylor's touch can only be made sense of by its exact opposite - Michael Bay.
If Neveldine and Taylor are doing all they can to push the action forward, Bay's cinema can be defined as wildly trying to keep up. When, in Bad Boys II, Martin Lawrence yells "sidewalk!" in order to get Will Smith to drive on the sidewalk, we're not even aware of that as an option until the car's already barreling along it. While many note this as Bay's failure, it is, at its best, what makes his movies so compelling - in the age of "you-are-there" cinema, his movies put you in the front seat of the action, riding just above a car, underneath it, beside it, flying next to a bullet as it moves through the air, running alongside a gunman, spiraling with a car as it flips over, shaking just as a machine gun starts up...it's all about keeping up. It's as though there are two Michael Bays - the one who orchestrates the action and the one who films it. Transformers: ROTFL fails because the action is too massive to keep up with, and the result is muddled. Bad Boys II is genuinely thrilling because every shot is designed to follow the most exciting thing happening at that moment, while still forming an overall clarity rarely topped in modern action films.
If all of that seems more craft than art, I'd argue otherwise, as Bay's soundtrack accompanying his car chases - informed, it would seem, by Two-Lane Blacktop - not only puts you in a car of your own, riding alongside the action, it helps enormously to heighten the pace of the set piece, shifting down to note transitions and revving back up when things inevitably escalate. And as conductor, Bay is rarely rivaled in how he calls upon his various instruments - people, cars, gunfire, and explosions - to play their parts at just the right moments. And as loud as possible. Add to that his eagerness to allow for mistakes and roll with them. Going frame-by-frame through the film's big car chase was fascinating, and often left me with images resembling a Bob Clampett cartoon - totally out of whack, but completely in motion. Eagle-eyed viewers will be able to spot this fascinating, fraction-of-a-second study in motion and, in many ways, cinema itself - it's the sort of inclusion in the film that reaffirms that Bay, whatever his transgressions, is a true believer:
The inclusion of these elements also illustrates Bay's willingness to get his hands dirty and his equipment damaged to keep up with the mayhem.
And yet, there was still a movie that brought all these elements together - Scott's experimentation, Neveldine/Taylor's design, and Bay's orchestration, into one big glourious number.
I've made little secret of my love for Speed Racer since first I saw it, and as I recently told my girlfriend, I don't think I'll ever go long not talking about it, because it meets at that rare intersection of truly great, wonderful movies that hardly anyone else seems to appreciate, making it the most valuable topic of conversation. There's so much I could say about the film as a whole, but it's telling that if I need my fix of the film and there's only so much time in the day, I go right to the climax - The Grand Prix race Speed finagles himself into, and aside from the climactic car chase at the end of Death Proof, the absolute best action scene of the decade.
Every beat is absolutely right, and it can proudly join the ranks of film that plays like music - it gets off to a fiery start, only to almost immediately fall off as the tempo quickly increases to fire us away as the movement builds and builds and builds...and then shuts down. Almost crashes, and as we tense up for the bridge to end and the final chorus to start, we wonder if the artist can finish as well as he started. We lean forward in anticipation until the final section explodes forward with every ounce of feeling in every member of the orchestra.
Speed's race towards the finish line in this final section is nothing short of miraculous, the true collaboration of every aspect of cinematic art, and every way the idea of "moving pictures" has been used - from montage to music to expressive faces to animation to surrealism to expressionism. That Dave Bowman's journey beyond the infinite can be praised in film classes across the country but this absolute masterful section remains overlooked by most of the nation's bloggers is staggering (not to take anything away from Kubrick, mind you, only to highlight the Wachowskis' achievement). It takes what should be the most rote, boring part of the sports film (the seconds before the inevitable victory) and, instead of adding unconvincing tension, uses the "motion picture" form to EXPRESS Speed's victory.
There are many other action films from the past ten years worth discussing - Paul Greengrass' Bourne films, 300, Mission: Impossible III, Public Enemies (a fairly boring film that comes to life in its shootouts), Kill Bill, Children of Men, and more I'm sure, but I'm more sure there are people more enthused about those films than I am. These four were the films that got my heart racing and set my soul ablaze.