I’m not a moralist when it comes to simulated violence—it doesn’t bother me. Also, the action doesn’t need to be “realistic” for me to enjoy it. It really depends on the context. There’s bad “realistic” action (Gangs of New York) and there’s good “stylized” violence (countless Kung Fu movies).
That being said, the action in movies these days leaves me either numb or cold. Maybe it’s just my old age. Or maybe the cucks in the entertainment business have lost their edge. I’m leaning towards the latter.
I mean no offense to the craftsmen and artisans who work in the entertainment fields: The stuntmen, stunt-car drivers, weapons specialists, physical effects artists (pyrotechnics and prosthetics), horse wranglers, set-builders, military advisors, et cetera. They do a great job, putting in tireless hours, some even risking their lives, for our entertainment. Problem is, they are being used less and less.
These men are slowly being supplemented and replaced by computer technicians who spend tireless hours at their work stations in a sterilized office environment to create sterilized action, a majority of the time being directed by a man who probably prides himself on being called a feminist (Joss Whedon). The result is action that might appear to be on a grand scale, definitely flashy, sometimes confusing, but also barren and lifeless. A lot of this is due to economics of the business and bad storytelling but it is also due to the character of the boys leading the productions.
Boys Doing A Man’s Job
Before computer technology started supplanting physical craft, the director, whether he be an alpha or beta, had the craftsmen to assist and help construct the action. But if the majority of people (director/writer/computer jockey’s etc.) working on a movie have no real world, hands on experience, if they’ve never been in a fist fight, shot a gun, driven a car at high speeds, done a full contact kickboxing match—and don’t have people surrounding them that at least have this experience—the result is a product without life, without grit; in short, a product that is grossly out of touch on almost every level (like most movies today).
This can be summarized in an exchange on Joe Rogan’s podcast between the host and writer/director Kevin Smith. While talking about bow hunting, Smith noted he once tried to shoot a bow and arrow but had trouble nocking the arrow due to lack of strength. Problem is, at the time, Smith was doing a writing stint on the Green Arrow comic series. He was writing stories for a character, whose main weapon he had zero real world familiarity with. Multiply this problem and you have the current state of escapist entertainment.
Guys like Smith raved about Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, but when I saw it, there were a couple of scenes that I found almost morally irresponsible: 1) An ambush/gunfight in an urbanized desert town, evoking recent memories of the Iraq War and 2) When the Death Star destroys said town, it forms an explosive cloud resembling an atomic bomb blast. As someone who has had family that served in Iraq, and a wife that is from Hiroshima, this was a shit sandwich of imagery that took me out of the movie. Only people with a detached and privileged worldview could produce scenes like this. As stated above, I’m not here to moralize, and I don’t know the production details but if the director and writer’s had actual combat experience—instead of just a depersonalized view through computer, phone and television screens—I’m confident there would have been more thoughtfulness in the construction of the action (and everything else).
Compare Rogue One, or any recent Hollywood blockbuster, to any film made by someone like Michael Mann (Thief, Manhunter, Last of the Mohicans, Heat etc.). The director, on the surface fits the typical mold of a Hollywood director: Jewish, liberal and admirer of modern art. But Mann is also a gun enthusiast and the one person I know who worked with him respected the hell out of him. The conflicts in Mann’s films are truly masculine in nature and dealt with a masculine way. I would argue his embrace of digital cameras has made his action scenes flatter (compare the gunfights in Heat with that of the 2006 Miami Vice) but his writing and personal character is strong enough to balance it out.
Creativity And Market Forces
Now, compare Mann to another auteur like Quentin Tarantino. As I’ve written in the past, Tarantino does respect the craft (he isn’t a fan of digital anything) but, unlike Mann, his storytelling capabilities are underwhelming. He just likes violence for violence’s sake. Story, characters, theme, take a backseat to forms (just mayhem and long dialogue exchanges without context). Like Rogue One or the Marvel movies, it’s a fanboy aesthetic, and it dominates Hollywood today.
Due to market and social forces, Hollywood feels they need to give the fans what they “want”. And they want action dammit! But it’s supplied without any storytelling fundamentals—except on the most puerile of levels. Ayn Rand wrote of modern art and literature being “dominated by the attempt to disintegrate man’s consciousness and reduce it to mere sensations, to the ‘enjoyment’ of meaningless colors, noises and moods.” One could say the same about today’s popular entertainment.
Really, the details and kinetics of action don’t really matter. We may be amazed by the physical feats achieved by the performers and the risks they take (how many bones has Jackie Chan broken?) but if there isn’t really a context for it all, then it is all for naught. For those who like Kung Fu movies (like me), it is good to keep in mind that all the celebrated films—directed by skilled auteurs such as Chan, Chang Cheh, and others—while having great action, were complemented by at least a competent structured story. There was a method to the madness. Keep in mind, directors like Chang (and his protégé John Woo) felt the most important characteristic of their movies was the brotherhood and heroism among men (an important value to Chinese). Kung Fu was really just a culturally specific expression of resolving whatever conflict the respective story presented. (Woo modernized it by turning the swordplay in to gunplay).
But Hollywood and fanboys just saw the impressive gunfights when they watched Woo’s The Killer and only cared about the chaotic shopping mall melee when they watched Chan’s Police Story. They idolized the action, neglecting the context in which it took place. And then some fanboys went to Hollywood, resulting in a movie like the Matrix: Reloaded, directed by the then Wachowski Brothers (now Wachowski Sisters), where a computerized version of Keanu Reeves, fights hundreds of Hugo Weaving’s without any blood, any risks or any stakes, leaving the audience sensory deprived (and in my case, bored).
But these type of sugar-coated action movies still have tons of fans…
Fanboys And Their Toys
An educational experience for me was the outrage in certain quarters towards The Dark Knight Rises compared to the adulation of The Avengers (directed by feminist Whedon), released a couple of months prior. I thought the latter was a waste of time. Just a bunch of flat action scenes with New York getting destroyed but ironically with no sense of suspense that the world might be ending. The Batman movie, while being far from perfect, kept my attention, had a serviceable story, some visual flair and at least attempted to have a theme, some moral heft. As I told a relative: “Christopher Nolan is an artist; Joss Whedon needs to go back to TV.” But all the fanboys would talk about is how horrible The Dark Knight Rises was, how Batman “acted out of character”, how it was “too serious” and how the fight scenes were “shit”.
Now for some moralizing: People who criticize The Dark Knight Rises or any movie for that matter over its action, editing or any minor technicalities don’t care about art, don’t care about story—they probably just care about empty thrills because outside of video games and movies, they probably aren’t experiencing any “action” in their own lives. I’m suspicious anytime I hear fanBOYS rail against anything. There’s a very good chance the object of their scorn has or at least attempted higher aims than just providing an action fix (witness the outrage of Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice).
Instead it seems, they just want movies and TV shows that have conflicts that are completely contrived just to get the action started (Captain America: Civil War), that take place in some strange alternate universe where the punches don’t cause bruises, sword cuts don’t cause bleeding, and buildings collapse without any collateral human damage.
Comics, and movies based on them, have their place. Like a modern version of fairy tales, superheroes are important for kids to process conflict in a simple idealized way. But that’s for KIDS not MEN.
But even for adults, comics, and movies based on them, can be valid forms of story-telling. No genre or production method is off limits—if done competently. For example, 300, originally a comic by Frank Miller and brought to the screen by Zack Snyder, was shot completely in front of chroma key walls, with the details filled in later by computer. I’m not a fan of that type of production method but I do admit that Miller and Snyder’s combined vision resulted in a great action flick.
The quality of a work depends on the men producing it and an audience mature enough to process it. Unfortunately, the maturity in product and audience seems to be spiraling downwards these days. But with the popularity of sports like UFC, websites like Return of Kings and men figuring out there’s more to life than the latest Star Wars movie, hopefully things will turnaround. If I can wake up, I’m confident others can too.