I recently had a series of prolonged discussions that centered on pieces that many agree have altered the action film landscape, and have stumbled upon a rare thought. There have been a films as of late that have helped alter the way we digest certain genres, and in many ways it feels like a grand shift has stealthily made itself known more prominently than ever. While it was indeed the comic book adaptation that saw itself in deep need up upping the thematic ante in the wake of Christopher Nolan, the once thrill-centric action film has pretty much seen itself dragged along. It likely wasn't a completely cognizant choice, but in lieu of being able to be exhilarated in a darkened theater, it's very possible that our intellects have at last caught up with our lizard brains. Our lust for being wowed is at last running up against our need for emotional catharsis. Sure, there will always be your standard meat and potatoes piece of genre, but to have noticed that some of the strongest pieces of pure action to come of this recent generation come with dramatic and thoughtful weight that is unusual for the form. Sure can be a controversial one for those more versed in traditional action, but it's a most welcome element.
Take for instance both Garret Evans' stunning Raid films as a prime example. Where the first flies out the barrel a relentless gauntlet of extreme martial arts and unrivaled tension, soon becomes a single-setting opera where the heroes and villains find themselves in a skirmish that leaves by a mere blemish on a clearly corrupt society. It all simply starts in classic video game fashion as a team of tactical police officers find themselves overwhelmed by an army of footsoldiers working for an apartment complex's single crime kingpin. But come the finale, it is revealed that the initial siege was but a power play by a bent cop, and his wishes to rise among the underworld's ranks(using the young cops as unassuming culprits). Add this to the soapy subplot centering on good cop protagonist, Rama (Iko Uwais), and his estranged brother, Andi (Donny Alamsyah), who has become a high ranking leader in kingpin, Tama's criminal enterprise. This plot, while atypical for this type of martial arts epic, the film not only eschews the expected dramatic payoff, but it also conveys the attraction gang life has in a society where the moral and the powerful have seemingly gone utterly south. There's simply little in the landscape of Rama's world that feels remotely advantageous for the good. And by the blistering finale, it is pretty clear that any victory had here is but a minor black eye, and that greater machinations are at play. No matter what our protagonist has survived, and learned, it is in the shadow of a greater threat.
Enter Raid 2, and Rama's turn from noble cop to undercover crusader which opens the canvas to an even more troubled vision. While being pressured by a "trusted" leader of a secret anti-corruption task force, as well as the death of a loved one, Rama is not thrust deep into the upper echelons of the vast criminal network that seems to run his city from top to bottom. From getting himself into prison for assault, to playing friend to the son of the city's great gangland mastermind, his mettle is tested on all fronts from the physical to the spiritual. He is witness to not only the son's simmering passion to rise to his father's level, but of the temptation brought upon by a violent new player with a plot to set the town's two largest syndicates against one another. All while the young cop and family man finds himself missing out on the crucial early years of his child's life. The intertwining plotlines of the second film amp up the drama without ever feeling forced or hypersimplified like most martial arts films. It confidently allows us to take in the troubles of this underworld power struggle, while driving home themes of family and how easily loyalty can find itself confused with fear and pride. While in many ways slower, and more patient than Raid 1, every action scene carries with it a surprising amount of dramatic weight. Even side characters whom we don't expect to feel something for or against, make a mark once the ferocious silat fights and car chases take collective breaths away. It's jarringly aware of what a little complexity and surehanded direction can do for action, and it never lets us off the hook in regards to the costs of even our hero's actions.
Something that helps define the tattered heroes of George Miller's Mad Max Fury Road.
A film that pretty much summed up my blockbuster summer this year, wasn't so merely for it's incredible presentation & execution. But also due to its resolute goal to sell so much complexity by way of pure cinema. Something genre cinema has long forgotten. While most films of the season do their best to obfuscate and bloat their casts in the name of forced notions of ticket value, Fury Road, allows the visuals and performances to sell the greater, more challenging ideas. In tradition of the original Max features, Miller and company virtually pack the screen with imagery and design that allows the viewer to piece together the philosophical landscape of Furiosa, Immortan Joe, Nux, the Wives, and ultimately Rockatansky, as he finds himself sucked into a post-patricarchal vortex of conflict. A hellishly wild ride punctuated by moments that argue for why it is we often find ourselves unwilling to take on the world so bent on subjugation and exploitation. Like Rama, to look at the world straight in the iris, is at times fraught with pain, and psychic suffering beyond imagining.
Because it's much easier to keep running, avoiding the hard work that comes with community, Max has found himself untethered from others. He has gone nearly feral from years of self-isolation and failure to champion others he has run across in his travels. He has lost far too much, and can only see himself fail again should he help shoulder the cause of the hard driving turncoat, Furiosa. The Immortan's trusted War Rig driver, who has seen far too much pain to do nothing about it. As the film's very sparse dialogue conveys, it is redemption she seeks, while his quarry seek hope. Something Max has seemingly long left in oceans of dust. He is even reminded of his failures on this particular adventure when he injures someone in the process of trying to escape on his own. But what comes of the journey, is a carefully crafted tale of redemption on the part of both warriors, as their combined efforts with Joe's runaway wives creates an unlikely family. Especially when they are joined by the sickly, and overzealous Warboy, Nux, who becomes an unlikely compatriot.
The triumph of Fury Road, largely resides in an almost mathematical method of pure sensory input, what it means to rejoin an organic collective in the face of toxic individualism. Furiosa, while using her knowhow to take the women to a mythic "green place", finds a kinship in men who aren't beholden to humans as shields or breeding stock. And Nux, finds that his world had for too long been kept under a fragile dome of control most of his life, and sees another way of life. (Or at the very least, a cause worth giving himself wholeheartedly to.) As the group find themselves unable to journey to this mythic other place, it is in revolution that change is ultimately claimed. And this is while Joe's murderous armada of dogma-injected warriors and crazies scrape for what little remains of their world. In a very real sense, Joe's Citadel and people represent the nadir of selfish scavenging, death, and greed. The film as a whole centers on what new forms of masculinity can emerge while dominator beliefs cannibalize themselves into oblivion. Max is at odds with what he is, and finds himself a blood conduit for a new world that is raging to be born from the ashes of a long powerful, yet stagnant one.
It's not only my favorite film of the year because it is an incredible feat of action filmmaking. It is. But because it highlights what action can be when it cares about its people and its thoughts. Everything on camera matters, and it is presented with a passion that is simply rare for any genre today. In an era where we could show the masses just about anything, it warms the heart to know that passion still exists beyond the spectacle. That it has meaning to the maker. And like any art form, that meaning can move emotional and intellectual mountains. It's more than heart and muscle, it's a means to move the world itself into action. Perhaps in this time period, the status quo simply won't do, and these landmarks are but reminders of the importance of changing the flow by all and any means. It's movement with purpose, and that's especially exciting.