Here’s a brief rundown of what every action flick that hopes to endure must have.
5) A genuine take-him-to-the-bank movie star. Preferably two.
Despite his shaky start, Mark Wahlberg did turn out to be a likeable, physical, often funny star, and Denzel Washington exudes star qualities. Both of these guys have the don’t-mess-with-me look. But sorry, Shia LaBeouf, your look is, “Please give me a wedgie and then stuff me in a locker.” Leonardo DiCaprio, your look is aging pretty boy. Jake Gyllenhaal, you can get as pumped up as you want but you still look more like a poet of Pasadena than the Prince of Persia. None of you looks like the guy I want standing behind me with his arms crossed calmly over his chest when I get into an argument with half a dozen Hell’s Angels in a roadhouse. An action-movie star has to have presence, like Bruce Willis, Arnold Schwarzenegger or Jason Statham.
4) A sense of humor, even if unintentional.
What else do Willis, Schwarzenegger and Statham have in common? They’re all funny. (Again unlike LaBeouf, DiCaprio or Gyllenhaal). Cracking jokes to relieve the tension (only to build it right back up) and prove that the hero can keep his wit sharp under fire is essential to the red-blooded actioner.
True, Sylvester Stallone never showed much of a sense of humor after the first three Rocky movies, and he was criminally unfunny in his comedies like Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot. The super-seriousness is one reason why people no longer talk about Rambo the way they talk about Die Hard. It lacks a light touch — though you could argue that it’s so over the top it is unintentionally funny, like the Steven Seagal and Chuck Norris movies so wrapped up in themselves that they get laughs in spite of their own stone faces. Who can forget Hard to Kill, in which Seagal jammed a broken pool cue into the bad guy’s neck while saying, “That’s for my wife. F— you and die!”? Or how about Marked for Death, when Seagal chops off the manhood of a drug dealer, then slices off the guy’s head, then holds the severed skull up for general inspection and derision? You could pretty much call any Seagal movie Over the Top and be right on.
3) Crazy, inventive visual spectaculars.
The problem with today’s spectacular is it’s tomorrow’s yawn. Nowadays you check your watch when the hero walks insouciantly away from the explosion he just unleashed, but it was pretty outstanding the first time you saw it. (Maybe the first ten times you saw it.) Also, since action movies are distinguished from superhero movies or sci-fi movies, both of which are working on a much broader canvas of possibility — in 2 Guns, Denzel Washington can’t fly and Mark Wahlberg can’t make lasers pop out of his eyes — there are some limits to what an action movie can depict, and that’s one reason why the genre has fallen behind the other two in wow factor and in box office.
Unless you count Fast & the Furious 6 (which is really a car-chase movie) or World War Z (zombie/sci-fi), the only action movies in the top 20 this year are G.I. Joe: Retaliation and Olympus Has Fallen. Neither can be rated fully as kick-ass, although the first had a breathtaking fight scene between ninjas bound to a mountain with rock-climbing equipment and the second had some cool footage of warplanes attacking the White House and the Mall.
2) A standout villain.
Without Alan Rickman, what is Die Hard? The villain has to be colorful, resourceful, smart, powerful and preferably equal to the hero in his dastardly anti-charms, otherwise the inevitable victory of the hero is far too predictable. A brilliant baddie makes you forget that it’s just a popcorn movie and puts you ill at ease: What if this guy is actually going to win? If the antagonist seems incompetent, the movie is a snore.
1) A rip-roaring pace.
There’s a reason they call these things meat-and-potatoes movies: There’s no artichoke to pick apart, no pineapple to strip down, no fancy dancing meant to earn critical praise. The action movie is made to go down in gulps. If it has any dull stretches, and you find yourself concentrating on the acting or the cinematography, your mind checks out and your emotional investment goes with it. Action movies have to adhere to the Elmore Leonard rule: Skip the boring parts.